Five days later, Oliver arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport, fifteen kilometers north-east of Paris, France. While his ultimate destination was an expensive hotel in the center of Cairo, paid for with his advance from the Senator, Oliver needed to make a brief stopover in France first.
Oliver had an insatiable appetite for adventure and an unshakable belief that he was right in his personal quest, but he knew that he had a definite weak spot in his understanding of ancient Egyptian languages and writing systems. He could read nearly a dozen ancient languages of Europe, South America, and Asia fluently, and could at least stagger his way through taxi instructions and hotel conversations in most major cities across the globe, but his studies had never taken him in the direction of learning to read the dead languages of ancient Egypt. He had, in fact, intentionally avoided studying Egypt any more than was necessary on the theory that the entire region had been picked clean by grave robbers and amateur archaeologists in the first half of the twentieth century and was therefore unlikely to hide any fragments of the mechanism he had dedicated himself to finding.
That was why he had taken this detour to the City of Light. His cousin Amber was not the only person fully versed in his theories who still believed that Oliver wasn’t completely insane. There was also a certain art historian named Diana Jordan.
Diana and Oliver had dated for a few months during his graduate studies, but their relationship imploded after Oliver took off to South America with Amber and didn’t return for two months. She also believed that arcane truths lay hidden behind the myths of the ancient world, though she was more diplomatic than Oliver in how she expressed her theories, so they had kept up a lively correspondence over the years.
Unlike Oliver, Diana had been willing to keep her more exotic theories to herself and focus her official research on comparatively mundane aspects of ancient art, albeit with a distinctly punk twist. Her graduate thesis had been on the relationship between ancient depictions of gods and heroes and the modern view of them in underground pop art. She had graduated and taken a string of research and installation development positions at museums across the country until a year ago, when she had secured a two-year grant to study the Egyptian artifacts stored at the Louvre in Paris.
The plane landed early in the morning and Oliver made his way through French immigration without incident. He had brought nothing but a shoulder bag with a change of clothes and a few essentials, so there was no need for him to wait for baggage to unload from the plane. He skipped the taxi line and went directly to the train terminal, where he boarded the RER train to Paris.
The train carried him as far as Gare du Nord, where Oliver purchased a stack of metro slips from a vending machine and hopped line five to Gare de l’Est. There he switched to line seven and joined the press of commuters traveling into central Paris. Oliver had visited Paris twice before and came to love the speed and efficiency of the city’s metro system. He especially loved the conjunctions between the modern metro stations, with their gleaming steel and glass, and the networks of old metro tunnels, both terrifying and beautiful in their profusion of shattered tiles and walls that dripped with seepage from the river above. He left the final train and made his way to the surface at the Palais Royal station, which was built under a wide plaza directly across the street from the north wing of the Louvre.
Most tourists approached the Louvre from the west, walking across the crowded pavement to admire the statuary and fountains of the grand courtyard. There they joined a lengthy queue to enter the museum through the twisting lines of escalators under the enormous glass pyramid in the center of the courtyard. That path was fine to take once, for the grandeur of the experience, but Oliver had quickly determined that he preferred actually being in the Louvre to baking in the hot sun of the courtyard.
If Diana had been with him, Oliver would have used one of the employee entrances, but he hadn’t told her that he was coming, so he would have to make his own way into the museum. Fortunately, he knew a path nearly as direct as the employee entrance. The plaza Palais Royal was directly across from a side entrance that, while far less photogenic, was almost never blockaded by crowds of tourists because all the maps marked it as nothing more than the entrance to an underground mall filled with high-end retail shops.
Oliver pushed through the heavy glass doors and rode the escalator down to the food court. His body insisted that it was time for breakfast, since Oliver had intentionally fasted and forced himself to sleep onboard the airplane in an effort to get himself synched to Parisian time as quickly as possible. He paused briefly at a vending machine to purchase a two-day Louvre museum pass, then strode to the food court and secured a sandwich and miniature cup of strong coffee from one of the vendors.
He settled in a booth and enjoyed his breakfast, watching people stroll past with shopping bags in hand. The crowds at this entrance to the Museum primarily consisted of shoppers passing through on their way to an expensive underground shopping mall built under the plaza of the Louvre. Most of the people Oliver saw were here to shop, and the fact that a left turn at the Apple store and a step through a security checkpoint would bring them into the central atrium of the Louvre museum probably didn’t even cross their minds.
His meal finished, Oliver strode the short distance to the checkpoint, waited for his bag to come through the X-ray machine, and continued into the museum proper.
He went straight through the reception area, up the central set of steps and past a booth where his ticket was stamped by a suited museum employee. He continued through the moodily lit Sully access corridor, climbed a narrow set of stairs, turned left past a miniature sphinx, and stepped into an alcove.
Oliver glanced around. Assured that nobody was watching him, he pulled out his phone and checked a note he had made on his last visit, then pressed a button set discreetly into the wall. A panel slid up, revealing a number pad. He punched in a number he had seen Diana use several months before when she took him on a tour of her new office in the bowels of the Louvre.
The number still worked. The wood panelling beside the number pad split and slid apart to reveal an elevator. Oliver stepped into the car and pressed the button marked 2, then leaned back against the wall and ordered his phone to call Diana.
Diana answered on the fourth ring, “Oliver, this is unexpected.”
“Hey Diana, you at the office today?”
“You know I am. This fellowship is up in six months and I don’t want to waste a minute.”
The elevator door slid open and Oliver stepped out into a small sitting area with halls leading off in three directions. He turned right and began walking down a hallway lined with cramped offices. The carpet here had once been pale blue, but had worn thin and acquired a beige track down the middle. The walls were a faded eggshell tone, blending to a darker tan near the ceiling from decades of nicotine stains before smoking had been banned in the building.
“Funny you should put it that way,” he replied. “I need you to waste about a week, maybe two.”
Thirty feet down the hall, a door opened and a man stepped out, a stack of files crammed under one arm.
Oliver switched to French and kept walking, nodding perfunctorily at the man as they squeezed past one another. “I’m going to Egypt on a job, and I need someone who can handle hieratic and demotic scripts. You know I’m lousy at anything Egyptian beyond simple hieroglyphs.”
“That’s what you get for calling Egyptology ‘over-done’ and ‘so twentieth century colonialist.’ Incidentally, why the French?”
“Didn’t want to draw too much attention to myself. Frankly, I’m surprised I got this far.”
“Attention? Oliver, what are you up to?” Diana’s voice slipped into a whisper and Oliver knew he had her hooked. If only he hadn’t disappeared for two months without warning, all those years ago, they probably would have been perfect for one another.
“Just this,” he replied, then ended the call and knocked on Diana’s office door.
He heard a muffled string of expletives from beyond the door and smiled, slipping his phone into a pocket and leaning casually against the doorframe. The door opened and Diana faced him, eyes bright with anger and laughter at once.
“How did you get in here?” she demanded. Diana pulled Oliver into her cramped office, stuck her head out the door to ensure the hallway was clear, then slammed the door shut and leaned against it.
Oliver took in the cluttered space that Diana had been assigned in the warren of offices underneath the Louvre. Her desk was piled high with books and printed photographs, intermingled with scraps of paper covered in Diana’s precise, but minuscule, scrawl. The walls were plastered with prints of paintings and relief carvings, except for the wall behind her desk, which was dominated by a whiteboard covered in the colorful circles and lines of an extensive idea map. Oliver spotted the phrases “reborn hero”, “overthrown deity”, and “zombies”, scrawled along several lines drawn between the titles of several popular comic books and strings of letters and numbers that he took to be entries from the museum collection catalog.
Diana stepped away from the door and plopped down on the edge of her desk. She crossed her arms and glared at Oliver. “Seriously, how?”
“I used the elevator. This place really should change security codes more often.”
“I’m impressed you still remembered.”
Oliver shrugged. “You know me, Diana. I caught it when you brought me through last year and saved the code to my phone before I forgot. No special memory tricks here.”
Diana smiled a bit, then stepped forward and wrapped Oliver in an enthusiastic hug.
Oliver responded in kind, enjoying the moment before releasing Diana to once again perch herself on the edge of her cluttered desk. He would always remember the summer abroad they had spent together in England. Her hair had been short back then, trimmed almost boyishly tight and dyed pitch black. They had spent nearly two weeks backpacking through the countryside to remote historical sites where they passed hours debating which elements of local legends might have been based on true events.
Now her hair was longer, down to her collar, and the black had been accented with twin streaks of fluorescent blue. She was dressed simply in charcoal wool pants and a white men’s dress shirt, open a couple of buttons at the collar to show off a patch of olive skin below her throat.
“I always liked how you could find your way into places, Oliver,” Diana said, looking up at him from her perch at the end of her desk. “You said something about needing a translator for an Egyptian job.”
“That’s right. I’ve got a client who swears that he’s got contacts in Egypt who have stumbled on a genuine relic. He wants it for himself. Thinks that it will give him some sort of advantage in his campaign for President.”
“Wish I was. Old contact of my father, a Senator Wheeler. He’s one of the few candidates whose campaign hasn’t imploded in the last few weeks, but there are some questions about his old buddies in military contracting business, so even his campaign is on shaky legs.”
“How can you help him? Your specialty is relics, ancient religions, and magic, with a dash of global conspiracy theory now and then.”
Oliver shrugged and pushed his hands into his pockets, then leaned one shoulder against the flimsy office door. “Seems the honorable Senator has a strong hunch that the genuine staff of Moses is within his grasp, and that it might still bestow a dose of magical charisma upon the owner.”
“He’s a true believer. Though I suspect what he truly believes in is his own importance.”
Diana laughed. “Alright, I see where you fit in, but what’s this got to do with me?”
“Like I said, this is Moses’s staff and my contact is in Egypt. I’m familiar enough with the bible and Egyptian mythology, but you know I’m lousy at interpreting scripts.”
“You’re right about that.”
“You know it. I need someone to come with me who knows the local languages, isn’t afraid of a little dirt, and won’t tie me up and call the loony bin for going after a relic from biblical times. As I recall, you fit all of those requirements.”
Diana pondered Oliver’s invitation for a moment. He hoped that she would say yes, not only because he enjoyed traveling with Diana, but because if she didn’t, he would be forced to find a local translator. That wouldn’t be difficult, even in the chaos of post-revolution Egypt, but finding a translator who would stick with him in tight places could prove more difficult.
Diana launched herself from the desk with a giddy shout and leapt into Oliver’s arms. He just managed to catch her as she wrapped her legs around his waist and planted an enthusiastic kiss on his cheek.
“Do you really think the staff is real?” she asked, clasping his head between her hands and gazing directly into his eyes.
“And you’re not just here in some ill-conceived attempt to win me back?”
Oliver shook his head. “We had a good time together, Diana, but I know as well as you that it’d never last. We work a lot better as friends.”
Diana unclasped her legs and swung back to her feet, already pulling Oliver towards the door. He followed without protest and allowed her to spin him out into the hall as if they were dancing and she had the lead.
Diana locked her office and took Oliver’s hand again. “Come on, I want to show you something.”
“Something that will explain why I’m willing to come with you on this crazy quest.”
The Staff of Moses © 2022, Andrew Linke