Books Fiction The Staff of Moses

8 – Contact

Oliver sprang from the chair by the window and went to squint through the peep-hole. A uniformed hotel employee stood in the hall, one hand resting on the handle of a hard-shelled black rolling suitcase. A small  briefcase rested at his feet. 

“Delivery for Mr. Lucas,” the man said.

“That’s me,” Oliver replied, opening the door.

The man lifted the briefcase in one hand and handed it to Oliver, then rolled the suitcase into Oliver’s room and asked where he would like it. Oliver told him to toss it on the bed, then fished a few crumpled bills out of his pocket for a tip and hurried the man back out into the hall. 

“Is your door locked?” he asked Diana.

She nodded.

“Alright, now we can get started.”

Oliver stepped over to the table and set down the briefcase. He didn’t recognize it, but considering its arrival alongside his bag of toys he had a good idea who the briefcase was from. 

It was a fairly generic business unit with a small paper and plastic name plate set under the handle, Oliver’s name scrawled across it, and a simple three-dial combination lock set into the left latch. He slipped the paper tag out of the name plate and examined it.

“From our friend in Washington,” he said. 

The back of the paper bore a simple message: The date of our meeting.

 Oliver slipped the paper tag back into place and spun the dials of the combination to the day and month of his meeting with the Senator. The lock clicked open and Oliver opened the case to find several stacks of Egyptian currency and a manilla envelope. Oliver unwound the string on the envelope and dumped its contents out on the table: A simple flip shell cell phone, three poorly lit photographs of what appeared to be an ancient manuscript, a printout from an internet forum, and a hand-written note. 

The note was written in blocky capital letters that could have been penned by the senator, one of his aids, or a dexterous kindergartener. It said, “CALL RAIS. HE WILL WANT TO MEET IN PUBLIC. GOOD LUCK. CONTACT ME AT NUMBER BELOW WHEN DONE.” Under the words were the ten digits of an American phone number.  

Oliver slid the photographs over to Diana and glanced over the printout. It appeared to be a message from a private internet forum Oliver was familiar with from his years of relic hunting. It had been posted during his time in Iceland, otherwise he would probably have seen it himself before the Senator and his lackeys noticed. The post described a scroll from the private archives of the Egyptian state museum, now for sale for an unspecified sum to persons capable of meeting in Cairo to collect it. Three images, printouts of which Diana was now examining, were attached to the post. 

If the Senator hadn’t brought this job to him, Oliver would have thought the entire posting a scam. He and the other regulars on the forum might operate in a shadow world where myths and conspiracy theories were treated as truth, but a posting like this reeked of either rank amateurism or falsehood. A small string of text along the top of the printout informed Oliver that the comment thread on this post had been locked by one of the forum moderators only days after going up, in order to contain the war that had erupted between the regular board members, most of whom believed the post to be a hoax, and the increasingly hostile original poster.

Oliver shook his head and suppressed an urge to laugh at the situation. “Well, at least we’ll get a couple nights in a nice hotel and I’ll go home with a few thousand dollars in my pocket.”

Diana looked up from the photo she had been examining. “Maybe. This is definitely hieratic, but so far I’m not seeing anything especially noteworthy.”

“So it’s at least a real scroll?”

“I can’t tell from these, but if it is a complete hoax, then someone went to the effort of sending photos of a genuine Egyptian artifact.”

Oliver nodded and slid the printout across the table. 

He flipped the phone open. It was powered off, so he held the chunky red power button and waited while it cycled through a slow boot-up accompanied by brightly colored Arabic script dancing across the screen. When the menus finally loaded he was relieved to see that the phone interface was set to English. Oliver could read and speak enough Arabic to get by in street conversations, but his vocabulary was decidedly limited. He thumbed his way through several menu options until he found the address book. It contained only one entry: RAIS. Apparently Senator Wheeler’s contacts in Egypt had managed to track down the man’s phone number. 

“Anything I should know about those photos before I make this call?”

Diana shook her head. She put down the photograph and retreated into her hotel room without saying anything. Oliver could tell from her expression that she was slipping into her studious mode and would soon be content to ignore him for hours unless he was contributing something useful to her work. He watched her walk away, then turned to the window and pressed the call button on the phone. 

The screen changed to indicate that his call was being connected and Oliver held the phone to his ear.

“Hello?” said a man speaking in Arabic. 

Oliver slipped his mind into that language and replied, “Hello. My name is Oliver. A mutual friend suggested you might like to meet for coffee and discuss the intersection of biblical archaeology with modern politics.”

Rais, if that’s who Oliver was speaking with, paused for a moment before responding. Finally he spoke, “Such topics are of interest to me.”

“I am unfamiliar with Cairo. Perhaps you could suggest someplace near my hotel? I am staying at the Sofitel, on the riverbank.”

“There is a coffee bar there on the grounds of your hotel. I will be there within the hour. Tell the concierge that you are expecting a guest so that I can find you.”

“Excellent. I’ll be waiting.”

Oliver snapped the phone shut and flipped it over in his palm. He removed the battery and set the phone and its battery on the table. He had spent years avoiding Egypt so as to never enter Rais Karim’s crosshairs and now, in the course of less than a minute’s conversation, he had not only spoken to the legendary hunter of tomb raiders, but arranged to have a drink with him.

Diana returned with a large glass document magnifier and a notepad. She settled into her seat again and eyed the disassembled phone. “I take it your conversation went well?”

“We’re meeting downstairs in an hour.”

Diana nodded and turned back to the photographs. She placed one under the document magnifier and began scribbling on her notepad. 

Oliver decided that it would be best to leave Diana to her work. He pulled his smartphone from his pocket and set it on the table beside a stack of Egyptian currency. He then turned to the large suitcase on the bed and dialed in the combination, which was the same as the briefcase. The suitcase popped open and Oliver removed a black zippered case, a small handgun, and two magazines of ammunition. He set these on the bed and relocked the suitcase, taking care to flip the tumblers of the locks several times before lifting the case and setting it against the wall beside the bed. He stepped over to the closet and pulled a dark grey field vest off a hanger, then returned to the bed to gather up the items he had drawn from the suitcase and deposit them on the table.

Diana glanced up from the photographs. She looked from the gun to Oliver, then back again for an instant before returning her gaze to the photos. 

“Expecting trouble?” She asked.

“Not today, but I’m not taking any chances on this job.” 

Oliver lifted the gun and checked that the chamber was empty. It was a small Glock, rigged for concealed carry with a thin, but rugged, belt clip grafted onto the side of the slide. He checked the magazines and slipped one into place in the gun, racking the slide back and letting it snap forward to chamber a round. The other magazine he slipped into the inner pocket of his vest, alongside a case holding several blank memory cards. He reached an arm around and slipped the gun inside his pants, clipping it to the waistband at the small of his back.

He opened the black zipper case and extracted a sliver of metal, which he used to pop out the SIM tray of his cell phone, then swapped the SIM for one of the half dozen SIMs in the case. These were a collection of active chips from local carriers, as well as international carriers that had good coverage in Egypt. It could get expensive, purchasing prepaid data from all around the world, but Oliver preferred to use local cellular accounts when he was out on a job. It didn’t guarantee security or connectivity, especially since voice calls would certainly  be intercepted by the local government, but it cut the risks of being tracked by rivals. Even if another relic hunter managed to identify one of his travel accounts, which he never used while at home and had purchased with cash, they would be unlikely to get a full picture of his movements by tracking the phone because he switched cards so often. As for the inevitable government snooping, Oliver insisted on using fully encrypted data services for all communication while on the job.

Of course, most of these means of communication could be intercepted by a seriously motivated hacker or a strongly worded court order, but Oliver wasn’t concerned about that. The services he used had worked hard in recent years to close security holes and when hacks did occur they were generally traceable to a celebrity or politician using a weak password. As for federal orders to crack a Dropbox or open the feed of a Twitter account, there was nothing Oliver could do to protect himself that wouldn’t be painfully restrictive and scare away his clients, who tended to not be the most tech savvy people. It was easy to give an artifact collector the login details of a temporary account, then block them after the job was over. It was a lot harder to persuade them to run a full-disk encryption package and communicate exclusively through encrypted communication protocols. 

Oliver inserted the SIM and waited for his phone to authenticate to the network. Once the connection had been established he launched his Twitter client and posted a brief update to his private feed:

Made it to Egypt. About to meet local contact.

Posting his movements on the internet, even to a private Twitter feed, was a calculated risk. Oliver had long since weighed the danger of someone hacking into his account against the value of keeping Amber, Hank, and, when she wasn’t traveling with him, Diana tuned in to his actions. Back in the United States, Amber would be checking his feed at least once a day to track his progress. If he failed to post at least once in twenty-four hours she would attempt to contact him. If he didn’t reply or post again within another twenty-four hours she would assume he was in trouble and contact someone to look for him. All of Oliver’s posts were tagged with GPS coordinates, which could give any rescue party a useful starting point. Hardly a failsafe emergency plan, but better than freezing to death on a remote glacier.

Oliver slipped his phone into a pocket and moved to look over Diana’s shoulder.

“Figure out what these are yet?” he asked.

Diana nodded and passed him her notepad without looking away from the document magnifier. 

The notepad was covered in scrawled translation notes, some crossed out and re-written as Diana revised her translation based on context clues found further along in the document.  Some words were surrounded with question marks to indicate that Diana was uncertain of the translation. In the worst of these cases, the words were simply replaced by boxed-in comments like, “verb related to worship” and “reference to unnamed person or group.” Oliver made similar notes himself when studying scrolls and inscriptions, and the sight of Diana working hard to translate the scrolls in the photos filled him with relief that he had brought her along. If she was struggling with some of these references, Oliver knew he would have been utterly lost in the nuances of the ancient Egyptian script.

The portions of the script that Diana had already translated told the story of a band of Hittite raiders attacking an Egyptian village. The narrator was obviously Egyptian, his story punctuated with appeals to the gods for intervention and colorful descriptions of the Hittites as barbaric half-men who deserved to be eviscerated by the just wrath of a vengeful Pharaoh. The narrator waxed poetic, praising the Pharaoh for building vast cities and providing copious support to the priests of Ra. So mighty was the Pharaoh that he had fought back scourges that afflicted his predecessors, who were mighty in themselves but had fallen to the wrath of a foreign god. The Hittite raiders appeared to be overcoming the villages with the aid of that same god that the Pharaoh had previously confounded, so he called upon all of his priests to ascertain the source of the enemy’s power.

“This actually sounds promising,” Oliver said, laying the notepad on the desk beside Diana, who immediately began scribbling on it again. 

After a moment Diana paused and leaned back from the document magnifier. She stretched and cracked her fingers, then picked up the pad and read from it, “And so, in the twenty-seventh year of his reign, on the advice of his most trusted and glorious priest of Ra, Amneth, the Pharaoh sent his most worthy general and a contingent of three thousand men to drive back the Hittites and capture the source of their unholy power.”

“I think we’re on to something here,” Diana said. “The references to a foreign god are not specific and I haven’t been able to find the name of the Pharaoh, but I’ve heard of Amneth before and the timeline fits.”

“How so?”

“Egyptologists haven’t been able to precisely match the biblical story of the Hebrew Exodus with any particular pharaoh. Guesses range from Dudimose, which would put the Exodus at around 1695 BCE, to Ramesses II, which would put the date closer to 1212, so anything in that range would make the story in this scroll believable.”

Oliver whistled. “That’s a pretty wide range of possible times for such a major event.”

“You’re a mythological historian, Oliver. This shouldn’t come as a surprise.”

“You know that I didn’t focus on Egypt. That’s why I brought you along.”

“The popular perception is that Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt from under the thumb of Ramesses II, since that’s the name used in most movies about the Exodus, but there are lots of issues with the order of events in Canaan if you move the time that late. Some rabbinic interpretations of history point more towards Horemheb as the Pharaoh of the Exodus, which would place it around 1313 BCE. That’s 34 years before the rise of Ramesses II. That date also fixes some of the Canaanite timeline issues. Additionally, this passage I’ve just translated mentions the Pharaoh overcoming struggles faced by his predecessors which were caused by a foreign god, which sounds like a good match to the stories of Moses and the plagues. Finally, we have this name: Amneth. That really helps narrow down the date of this particular scroll. Amneth was a priest of Ra during the reign of Ramesses II, which would match the story suggested in this passage with both the rabbinical timeline and the likely window of historic possibility.”

Oliver nodded his head and began to speculate aloud. “So if we assume that Moses carried the staff out of Egypt with them in 1313, then spent about forty years wandering around the desert before settling in Canaan, then add a few years for the staff to be captured or lost or otherwise passed around and end up in the hands of the Hittites, that brings us to around 1265 BCE. Does that date line up with anything in the timeline of Ramesses II?”

“It actually does. A few years later, around 1258 BCE, Ramesses II made a treaty with King Hattusili III of the Hittites to end all wars between their empires. After that treaty, Ramesses stopped engaging in wars north of Egypt and turned his attention west and south.”

“So maybe the Pharaoh’s troops were successful in capturing the staff from the Hittites, which led to them giving up any efforts to fight Egypt.”

“It’s a possibility. I’ll need to see more of the scroll to know.”

Oliver checked his watch and stood. “Let’s get down to the coffee bar. Karim  should be arriving in a little while and I want you in place to overhear our conversation. If all goes well he will be able to get us access to the actual scrolls and you’ll be able to get the rest of this story. Hopefully we’ll find a clue that will lead us to the staff.”

Diana pushed her chair back from the table and strode wordlessly to her room, returning a moment later with a messenger bag and a wide brimmed hat. Oliver double checked that his gun was concealed and shrugged on his vest, then grabbed a camera from the bag on his bed and slung it around his neck before stepping out of the room. 

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The Staff of Moses © 2022, Andrew Linke