Diana led Oliver around the imposing circular walls of the medieval Louvre, still preserved here in the basement level of the museum, and up a set of stairs to the ground floor of the museum. Glancing out through the old glass panes, Oliver saw the distorted image of a group of tourists wandering through the enclosed space of the central courtyard. Continuing up the worn marble stairs for two flights, Diana stopped their ascent at the first floor and gestured for Oliver to take in the collection of Greek bronzes marching into the distance of the hall before them.
“It’s through here. You know, most people come to the Louvre and head straight for the Mona Lisa, maybe run past the Greek and Egyptian collections, then just head out to visit the Eiffel Tower. They don’t take the time to really explore this place and appreciate its beauty.”
Oliver nodded in agreement, then shrugged and replied, “True, but you’ve got to admit that this place is huge. It probably intimidates your average tourist.”
“Oh, I get that, believe me. When I arrived, I spent almost three weeks of evenings exploring the public galleries. Even after a year and a half I haven’t done everything justice. Eventually I had to just surrender myself to the enormity of this place and say, ‘Diana, you’re in Paris. Get out and see the rest of the city now and then.’”
She gestured up at the ceiling of the round room in which they stood. “Part of what makes this place so overwhelming,” Diana continued, “is that the Louvre itself is a work of art. Look here.”
Overhead, the naked form of a muscular Icarus plunged to his death amidst a cloud of singed feathers. Daedalus reached towards him piteously, helpless to save his prideful son from plummeting into the sea. The painting was as richly detailed and vibrantly colored as any that Oliver had ever seen, but it was not a framed canvas hanging on the wall. This work of art was painted directly onto the ceiling of the room in which they stood.
“That’s The Fall of Icarus, painted in 1819 by Merry-Joseph Blondel,” Diana explained. “A lovely bit of Greco-Roman mythology, as imagined by a Frenchman more than two thousand years after the story was told.”
“I know the myth,” Oliver acknowledged.
“My point isn’t to refresh your understanding of childhood stories, but to point out the beauty of this building. Many museums hold classic art. Some museums, the Pyramids of Giza or the childhood homes of Civil War generals come to mind, are actually the object on display themselves, even if they aren’t all that pretty to look at. But this building melds the two so completely that the structure itself is a work of art.”
Oliver placed a hand on Diana’s shoulder and nodded, understanding her passion.
“But this isn’t what I need to show you.”
Diana grabbed Oliver’s hand again and pulled him out of the round room and through several long galleries filled with Egyptian artifacts. They stopped in a room lined with ornately carved and painted wooden sarcophagi and Diana gestured for Oliver to look up at the ceiling.
Above them was a scene out of a horror movie. At the far right stood a man in red robes and a striped headdress gazing sternly into the distance as he supported a dazed woman, her bare breasts pressed against him. In his other hand he held a golden staff, with which he fended off a hoard of gaunt fiends and fire-breathing hellhounds. The monsters crowded forward, clutching at the heels of the helpless woman and gazing malevolently at the man in red as clouds of foul smoke billowed up at their backs, but they were repelled from her as if by an invisible wall.
“That’s Egypt Saved by Joseph,” Diana explained. “Painted by Abel de Pujol in 1827.”
“Looks pretty terrifying,” Oliver commented, walking around the room with his neck craned upward to inspect the work from different angles.
“Of course. If you believe the official story about the painting, Pujol was hired to paint this room with a biblical scene to accent the Egyptian artifacts that King Charles X intended to display in here. The plan was to focus on the story of Joseph saving the Pharaoh and his people from starvation, rather than the more popular Exodus account, since the king felt that a painting of Moses would not have been entirely appropriate to a room dedicated to honoring the might of Egypt.”
“That makes sense, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he was also uncomfortable with the idea of a painting of slaves overthrowing their ruler with the support of a wrathful god.”
“True enough. Think about the story of Joseph. How did he save Egypt?”
Oliver paused for a moment to ensure he had the facts in order. He was certainly familiar with the story, but for the last few months he had been immersed in Icelandic folklore and he wanted to be sure he didn’t mix up the details.
“As I recall, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers because they were jealous of his father’s favor. The slavers brought him to Egypt, where he quickly rose to a trusted position in his master’s house, only to be thrown into prison when he pissed off his master’s wife by rejecting her advances.”
Oliver looked at Diana to ensure he was keeping the story straight. Diana nodded and waited for him to continue.
“In prison he correctly foretold the fates of two other prisoners. One was executed, just as he predicted, while the other was restored to his position in the Pharaoh’s court. A while later the Pharaoh started having bad dreams and the freed prisoner suggested that he call on Joseph to tell him what they meant. Joseph interpreted the dreams correctly, saving Egypt and winning himself a place as the Pharaoh’s chief aid.”
“Decent summary, but there are two important things you left out.”
Oliver gazed up at the painted ceiling and pondered the scene for a moment. Diana was right, something was missing from his story, and from the painting above their heads. “I don’t remember there being anything about hellhounds or zombies in the biblical account, Apocrypha, or what little I’ve read of contemporary Egyptian accounts.”
“The Egyptian evidence is sketchy at best for the entire period, but nothing that can be linked to the likely biblical Pharaohs mentions such creatures. The only place you’re likely to find them is in folk tales of the period.”
“As I recall, Joseph is said to have saved Egypt from a famine by predicting a time of plenty that would precede the famine, during which he proposed that the Pharaoh should stockpile grain to be distributed when the famine struck.”
Diana nodded and gestured at the ceiling. “You’re exactly right. Those monsters are completely out of place. The title and artistic style of the painting indicates that it is supposed to depict Joseph literally defending Egypt from the threats that Pharaoh dreamed about, but if that were the case he should be pushing back a few withered husks of grain and a herd of starving cows. You could almost argue that the human figures are gaunt enough to represent the famine, but that theory is ruined by the hellhound over there on the left edge of the mural.”
Oliver strode over to a wooden bench set under one of the room’s wide windows and sat, crossing his legs and leaning back to further examine the painting.
“So what’s your theory on this?” he asked.
“Pujol was an artist who spent much of his life working here in Paris. When I saw this painting a little over a year ago the differences between the title and the content were just too deep to be ignored, so I started digging for more information about his life and the story of this work. It turns out that Abel de Pujol had a younger brother named Gabriel. Gabriel didn’t become an artist. Being the younger brother, and unable to depend on an inheritance, he needed to find a career that would provide a steady income, so he borrowed money from his brother to purchase a commission into the French army.”
Diana gestured up at the painting and continued, “Reading what I could find of Abel’s letters and journals, I discovered references to creatures like what you see up there. Those all trace back to stories that Gabriel told Abel after returning from Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign.”
“What does that have to do with hellhounds and… whatever you call those hungry fiends up there?” Oliver inquired.
“Napoleon spent about four years in Egypt. That time was marked equally by fantastic discoveries and bloody battles against both the British and native Egyptian forces. We all know about the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, but there were countless other artifacts recovered during that time. Napoleon is also rumored to have sent several ill-fated expeditions up the Nile and out into the desert seeking relics of the Pharaohs. According to one letter that I found, Gabriel de Pujol was the sole survivor of one of those expeditions. The letter is very circumspect, but it had to be, given the amount of censorship that military mail was subject to, but in it he announced his return to France and alludes to seeing his comrades ‘taken by fiends of the desert’ and quotes heavily from the book of Exodus.”
“Couldn’t that just be a battle-worn Frenchman getting colorful in his descriptions of native rebels? European soldiers weren’t exactly known for their fair portrayals of people they viewed as savages.”
“True, but there’s one thing I haven’t told you yet.”
“And that is?”
Diana gestured up at the painted ceiling. “What do you see in Joseph’s hand?
Oliver examined the mural for a moment, then replied, “It looks like some sort of staff.”
“And your point is?”
“Even if we accept that Pujol has set this mural at least seven years into Joseph’s rule, when he might have actually held a staff of office and dressed in the fashions of the Egyptian nobility, that staff is all wrong. Egyptian rulers are usually depicted holding straight metal rods topped with the head of a jackal. Joseph’s staff in this painting is clearly wood and the head is shaped more like a shepherd’s crook. ”
Oliver had a feeling that he knew where Diana was going with this. “Are you suggesting that Abel de Pujol intentionally altered the depiction of Joseph in this painting to match his vision of what Gabriel described to him?”
“It fits the timeline. Gabriel was sent back to Paris to serve in a non-combat position soon after surviving that ill-fated mission. There are no more letters between the brothers, but in subsequent years Abel’s journal contains notes of meetings between the brothers, alongside sketches that appear to be rough drafts for parts of this painting.”
Diana paused and gazed up at the painting for a moment, then turned to Oliver and crossed her arms. She stared until he lowered his head and looked her in the eye.
“Oliver, normally I’d be a bit annoyed at you for suggesting that I drop everything and follow you to Egypt without notice, but this is exactly the chance I have been waiting for. If your employer’s scroll turns out to be genuine, then this might be an opportunity to follow Gabriel’s trail and learn exactly what he found out there in the desert.”
“So you’ll come along?”
Two days later they arrived at the Hotel Sofitel in Cairo. Pulling up under the carport of the gold-topped pink tower located in the nook of a curve in the Nile, Diana expressed surprise at the choice of lodging.
Oliver finished paying the driver and stepped up beside her, saying, “I got a large advance on this job. Besides, we might as well be comfortable for the next few nights. Soon enough, we might be camping in the desert for a week or more.”
Diana nodded in agreement and together they pushed through the revolving door into the cool air of the hotel lobby.
The clerk at the desk greeted them in flawless English, checked them into two adjoining rooms on the nineteenth floor, and informed Oliver that two packages had arrived ahead of him. Oliver requested that they be delivered to his room and gestured for Diana to lead the way to the elevator. Once upstairs, he insisted on checking her room before entering his own.
“I’m not helpless, Oliver,” Diana complained as he pushed past her into the room.
“Obviously, but when were you last in a fist fight?”
“Well, that puts me in the more experienced category when it comes to dealing with any covert agents or bastard relic dealers hidden in your closet. We’re in-country now, Diana. Things might get dangerous.”
That seemed to upset Diana, so Oliver didn’t make any further comments as he pulled an electronic bug sniffer, disguised as a light meter for his camera, out of his carry-on bag. Once he was certain that the room was clear of both electronic surveillance and hidden attackers, Oliver informed Diana that he was going to get a shower and lay down for a few minutes. She expressed similar plans and they agreed to meet again in an hour.
Oliver locked his door behind him and leaned against it for a moment, taking in the view of the room. It was a perfect mirror of Diana’s room next door. Both rooms were decorated in shades of amber and beige, with thick green carpeting on the floor and a single wide window looking out over the curving banks of the Nile. A heavy door set into the adjoining wall opened to reveal the flat face of a matching door in Diana’s room, allowing easy access between the rooms when both doors were opened. Oliver made a quick check of his room and, convinced he was alone and not under any obvious surveillance, stripped and climbed into a cold shower.
It was probably a mistake bringing Diana along, he thought as the chill water pounded against his skin. Sure, he needed a translator and he was certain that she was the most competent Egyptian linguist he could trust. For that matter, she was perhaps the only one he could trust if the story about the staff turned out to be true. He was also reasonably sure that she could hold her own if things got rough, which was important. Three years ago, he had allowed a girlfriend to travel with him on a simple photo expedition, assuming that anyone who fell for an outdoorsman and expressed interest in traveling to exotic places would be at least as competent as Diana or Amber. That had been a disaster. The relationship had come to an abrupt end when, two days into the jungles of India, the woman had announced that she was taking one of their guides and returning to the city with or without Oliver.
No, it wasn’t concern for Diana’s linguistic skills or survival skills that gave Oliver a niggling sense of unease, which had grown into a raging headache in the last hour. It was a growing worry that he had gotten in over his head on this job and was now involving someone he cared about. Senator Wheeler hadn’t even been vague in his threat to interfere with Oliver’s livelihood should he suspect that Oliver had betrayed him. That was disturbing, but Oliver had ways of getting around the no-fly list if matters became desperate. But if the Senator decided to interfere with Diana’s ability to travel and work internationally, Oliver would feel terribly guilty and have no ready means of remedying her situation.
Oliver stepped out of the shower, toweled his hair dry, and wrapped the towel around his waist. He shaved in the foggy bathroom mirror, then stepped out into the main room. He stood for a moment, gazing out the window at the lazy waters of the Nile far below. Boats darted past, splitting the sun-specked surface of the water with their wakes. After a few moments of contemplation, he tossed his towel over a chair and pulled on underwear and a pair of khakis from his bag.
He settled into a chair by the window and focused on breathing slowly and contemplating the ramifications of his decision to take this job.
“Alright, enough of that,” he muttered, eventually.
Oliver stood and began unpacking his suitcase. He wanted the room to appear as normal as possible, just in case it was checked by Egyptian or American security. Fortunately, many of the trappings of his legitimate role as an adventure photographer aligned nicely with the needs of a relic hunter.
He was interrupted by a knock on the door separating his room from Diana’s. Oliver strode to the door, turned the bolt to unlock it, and stepped back over to continue arranging camera lenses on the broad oak table in front of the window. Diana stepped into the room, glanced briefly at Oliver’s bare chest, and then shook her head and fell into a chair at the opposite end of the table.
She regarded him critically through half closed eyes. “I get the feeling that you don’t thoroughly trust your employer.”
Oliver shrugged, finished checking a telephoto lens, then stepped to the closet to pull out a lightweight button-up shirt. “I trust him to act in his best interests, which might not always line up with ours.”
“I don’t like people treating relics as if they are some sort of cosmic vending machine. Just because something channeled divine power four thousand years ago, or was the focus of belief for an entire nation, that doesn’t mean that it is still going to be effective in the present day. And if a relic does still possess power, why should that power be used for personal gain?”
“Understandable. So why did you take this job?”
Oliver studied Diana for a moment, trying to figure out how he could explain his concerns without appearing weak. Finally he strode over to the window and stood gazing out at the glistening waters of the Nile flowing past, and beyond to the sand dunes stretching into the distance beyond the city.
“What’s the most intimidating position you’ve ever found yourself in?” he asked her.
She pondered the question for a moment, then responded, “My thesis board. They were pretty brutal in questioning some of the connections I drew between modern comics and ancient mythology.”
“I know that feeling. You might recall that a similar event cost me my career. Now imagine that times about ten and you might have half an idea what it’s like to be standing face to face with a man who has a serious chance of becoming the President of the United States and he’s threatening to ruin you. If I fail here and Wheeler decides it was my fault…” Oliver paused for a moment, chewing at his lower lip, then shook his head and continued, “If that happens, we both might be in a world of trouble.”
“You don’t really think he’d exploit his position for a personal vendetta?”
“What do you think this whole job is? Wheeler is a powerful man using his influence to get what he wants, damn the rules.”
“You’re not a big fan of rules yourself, as I recall.”
Oliver had to smile at that. “True, but as hypocritical as I might sound right now, I’ve got this notion that people who are in powerful places have a responsibility to not abuse their power.”
“So why are you helping him?”
“I don’t know that I had much of a choice. Senator Wheeler is a powerful man. I couldn’t risk him going after me. All it would take is one call to the TSA and I’d be unable to fly for months, maybe years. I couldn’t even prove it was him. Just a mistake. A simple mixup of names on the no-fly list, happens all the time.”
Oliver moved to stand behind Diana’s chair and rested his hands on her shoulders as he spoke intently, leaning down to almost whisper into her ear. “Diana, I’m this close. Just a few more pieces and I might be able to finish assembling the mechanism, then I’ll understand why so many ancient cultures seem to be linked to it. Why inexplicable technologies cropped up across the globe. I need to know, Diana. I can’t afford to be trapped in the United States indefinitely. And if he targets you too…”
She turned her head and looked at him closely, studying Oliver’s expression with an intensity normally reserved for faded paintings and eroded glyphs. Finally she said, “Don’t worry about me, Oliver. If things go bad there’s plenty of work for me in the States.” She studied him a moment longer, then put her hand on his cheek. “You might be afraid Oliver, but I see in your eyes that you’re hungry for this. You want to find that staff, don’t you.”
Oliver released her shoulders and fell back into the chair opposite her. He studied her across the arrayed camera lenses and grinned. “You know me too well, Diana. I don’t know if I can give it to the Senator in the end, but I absolutely want to find it.”
“Then stop fretting. We’ll find it if we can, then we’ll deal with the Senator.”
There was a knock at the door.
The Staff of Moses © 2022, Andrew Linke