Books Fiction The Staff of Moses

9 – Coffee

Oliver’s plan was simple: He would tell the concierge he was waiting for a friend, go into the coffee shop, and get a seat near the window. Diana would also sit near the window so she could overhear, or at least watch, whatever went on at Oliver’s table. If possible, Diana would use her phone to record the meeting. Afterwards they would compare notes and, hopefully, be on their way to see the scroll. 

“Why don’t we just sit together?” Diana asked as the elevator dinged to a stop at the ground floor.

“Because I want someone else’s perspective on what’s happening. Does Karim look nervous? Is he alone? Has he just made a hand signal I couldn’t see and now a dozen armed guards are about to storm into the room?”

“Got it,” Diana said. She strode out of the elevator and across the lobby towards the coffee bar at the far end. 

Oliver followed more slowly, pleased with how quickly Diana had slipped into the subterfuge. He stopped at the front desk and waited for the concierge to finish telling a couple dressed in Hawaiian shirts how to sign up for a pyramid tour. When he finished, Oliver told him his name and explained that he was expecting a colleague to meet him in the coffee bar. The concierge promised to direct any visitor who arrived looking for him. 

As he turned away from the desk, Oliver surveyed the room and saw nobody who appeared to be watching him, so he hurried into the coffee bar and selected a comfortable chair by the large glass windows. A waiter arrived and offered Oliver the lunch menu, but he declined it and asked for a simple cup of whatever coffee the waiter recommended, as well as an appetizer of his choosing. Oliver wasn’t particular about his coffee. He liked it for the bitter taste, which he had always found bracing when facing a long day or stressful situation, and its efficient means of delivering caffeine to his system. The waiter returned a moment later with a small cup of coffee so strong and thick that Oliver could feel the weight of it as it slid down his throat, as well as a tray of pita bread cut into squares and topped with hummus and assorted leafy and meaty garnishes. Oliver thanked the waiter and settled in to admire the view out the window.

The bright waters of the Nile curved past only a few hundred feet from the base of the hotel. Beyond the river, the busy streets and skyline of Cairo stretched off into the distance on the far bank. Oliver had never been to Cairo before and had, for some reason he now found ridiculous, half expected to see the pyramids or desert dunes from the windows of the hotel, but he couldn’t see anything of the desert from the coffee bar windows. The Cairo he could see was a large modern city and the hotel was situated right in the heart of it. 

Still, there was something disconcerting about the cityscape. After pondering it for about five minutes, sipping his coffee and munching on pita bread the while, Oliver thought he had put his finger on it. 

Cairo was a modern city in an ancient land. The feeling that had risen up in Oliver when he looked out upon the city was the same feeling he got in London, or Paris, or any other modernized city that had grown up in the shell of a much older place. It was a feeling he rarely got in American cities. For all the grandeur and excitement of the big cities in America, there was always the subtle sense that nothing you looked at was older than a couple centuries. Here though, in the lands that had been occupied by city-building civilizations for a thousand years or more, the roots of human habitation twisted deep into the landscape. 

A voice broke into his reverie. “Deep thoughts for a sunny afternoon, Mr. Lucas?”

Oliver looked away from the window to see Rais Karim lowering himself into a chair across the table from him. He was a man of middle age with wisps of thinning white hair combed across his brown scalp, wrinkles creasing his face, and a large belly straining the buttons of his pale blue shirt under a khaki blazer. Oliver had heard rumors of Rais Karim for several years, vague whispers about a man who lead Egypt’s secret relic agency with an indomitable will and a strong aim towards retrieving every mystical relic that had ever been stolen from his homeland, but he had never so much as seen a photo of the man. 

Oliver inclined his head towards the city beyond the windows. “I was just contemplating the history of your nation, Mr. Karim. My homeland has nothing so glorious or long-lived.”

“I’m sure you don’t completely believe that. A man in your line of work cannot be ignorant of the cultural achievements of the Native Americans.”

When Karim spoke it was with an accent that Oliver found odd and difficult to place. He suspected it to be some combination of his native Egyptian with a soft inflection of British, but he could not be sure. 

He considered Karim’s words briefly before replying. “Sure, but we have no remnants of their society so vast, or thoroughly integrated into modern life, as that city out there.” He gestured with his coffee cup towards the expanse out the window.

Karim chuckled and waved a waiter over to take his order. Once the waiter had departed he continued, “A valid point. My ancestors forged an impressive testament to their engineering and civic prowess that has stood the test of time. However, I am under the impression that you did not travel to Cairo to discuss the relative merits of our national histories.”

“That’s right. Congratulations, by the way, at guessing my last name correctly. Did you pry it out of the concierge?”

“Certainly not. There are only so many Americans named Oliver who are involved in your particular brand of, shall we say, unlicensed archaeology. It is my business to know of your kind.”

“Was your business.”

“Yes, there is the matter of the current government. I trust that I will be restored to my former position, eventually.”

“Perhaps,” Oliver said, sipping his coffee.

“You wished to discuss your business, Mr. Lucas?”

Oliver set his coffee cup on the table and nodded. “As I mentioned on the phone, I have an interest in Biblical archaeology. Specifically, I am looking for information regarding an object from the story of the Hebrew Exodus. Certain parties, mutual acquaintances of ours, have asked me to look into the matter.”

“Those parties wouldn’t happen to be connected to the American embassy here in Cairo, would they?”

“No specifics, but I’m not going to deny what you just said.”

Rais Karim sighed deeply and turned to gaze out the window. Oliver waited in silence for him to decide he was ready to speak. A waiter arrived, left a cup of thick black coffee and a small plate of cookies beside Rais’s elbow, and departed without speaking. Eventually, Rais sighed deeply and looked away from the window. He lifted his coffee cup and took a quiet sip as he looked Oliver over. 

“How did you come to hear my name?” Rais asked.

“My client has contacts in the American embassy. Word reached those contacts that you had lost your post in the government and were making, shall we say, more noise than is usually advisable about a scroll that was misplaced during the recent revolution. My client is interested in the contents of that scroll but not eager for a public outcry, so he hired me to come here and track down that scroll. He provided me with your name and phone number.”

“I presume he also wished you to retrieve whatever relics might be mentioned in this elusive scroll?”

“Perhaps, if they exist.”

“And what leads your client to believe that I will aid him in this effort? I don’t know you, Mr. Lucas, but I know your sort. I imagine that you have also heard of me…” Rais paused and let his statement hang in the air as a question.

Oliver took the bait. “Of course. I’m especially aware of your hatred towards the British for looting so many of Egypt’s treasures over the past two hundred years, and your efforts to punish native grave robbers. That’s why I’ve often counted myself fortunate that I had little interest in Egyptology, but then this little job came up and…”

“So what makes you think that I will help you?” He leaned forward and fixed Oliver with a gaze that could have set ancient scrolls ablaze. “What makes you think I won’t shoot you in the knees, drag you into a little room, and work you over with hot pliers until you beg for the privilege of never setting foot in Egypt again?”

Oliver didn’t blink or glance away. He raised a corner of his mouth in a crooked smile, chuckled, and replied, “I think you’ll help me because you were once a man entrusted with the protection of objects that your government might just prefer not exist in this modern age. Then, after decades of service, you were tossed out into the cold when the government was overthrown. For all I know you didn’t even get your pension. My guess is that you are still so dedicated to protecting relics that you’re even willing to let foreigners get involved, so long as they are the right type.”

“Very perceptive, Mr. Lucas, but not entirely correct.”

Oliver raised his eyebrows and took a sip of his coffee, waiting for Rais to continue.

The deposed Egyptian agent slammed his coffee cup down on the table between them. He appeared about to stand and storm away from the table, but then reconsidered it and leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table and pressing his palms together with his fingertips pointed at Oliver. “I am looking for something that went missing, but it is not the scroll itself for which I am concerned. The scroll points the way to several unspoiled tombs which, if one is inclined to believe in such things, contain relics of incredible power. Specifically, the staff used by Moses to call down plagues and perform miracles in the story of the Hebrew Exodus, as well as magical weapons that the Pharaoh used to raise the Hittite dead to fight against their own comrades.”

“I assumed as much.”

“If I were still in my position within the ministry of defense, I would have been able to recover the scroll weeks ago without a word of the operation reaching curious ears, but now that I am on the outside things are more… difficult.”

“How did the scroll get out of whatever archive you were keeping it locked up in?”

“Did you hear about the staff of the National Museum banding together to protect it from looters when my country’s government collapsed last summer?”

Oliver nodded.

“Well, those stories weren’t completely true. Oh, the National Museum was protected from looters, and the staff are to be commended for their efforts, but all the news reports got the motivation wrong. It wasn’t a couple bricks thrown through windows by angry youth or greedy treasure dealers. My agency had a vault in the basement of the National Museum. A room specially dedicated to protecting items that needed to be kept secret, but also preserved. When the government lost control of the Egyptian army, the guards at that vault were among those who abandoned their posts. I’ve since managed to track down those men and… speak with several of them. They had no idea what was in the vault, only that they had been assigned guard duty by a government official, that would be me, who had been publicly disavowed by their commanding officers, so they walked away from their posts and went home.”

Rais settled back into his chair and let his hands fall to his lap as he warmed to his story. “I’ve spoken to all of the museum staff, and everyone who was working in the museum that night tells the same tale: Late in the night a museum security guard was found dead by one of the cleaning staff. The other guards investigated and found that the man’s neck had been broken and his body left in a dark nook near the secure vault, which had been cut open with a plasma torch and emptied. He must have stumbled across whoever broke into the vault as they were carrying the relics from the vault to their vehicles. The police were unable to respond, being rather tied up trying to keep the protesters contained, and of course the soldiers had abandoned their posts, so the head of security called in the museum director and staff to arrange the now legendary defense of the museum.”

“And you don’t know who these looters were?” Oliver inquired.

“Mr. Lucas, you need to remember that at the time I was practically under house arrest. The military had just switched sides in the conflict and I was among the supposedly corrupt officials who were to be deposed.”

“Of course. I mean now. Do you now know who raided the relic vault?”

“I initially suspected a foreign power. Nothing else was taken from the museum and, were it not for the dead guard, I doubt that anyone would have noticed the theft until the revolution wound down a few weeks later. That vault was used exclusively for top secret relics. Nobody from the museum was able to see so much as the outer door without passing through military security, so the staff was in the habit of avoiding that hall. Who else but another nation would have the intelligence resources to know that we stored relics in that particular vault?”

“Organized crime?”

“Also a possibility that I investigated, but no. My investigation suggested that the raid was conducted by a private military contractor based in the United States, one Leonidas Security. Someone within this company must have learned of the vault. They raided it, carried off the relics, and are now selling them off on the black market.”

Oliver thought about that for a moment. If the vault had been cracked by a gang of organized criminals or relic hunters he wouldn’t have been surprised, but to learn that a private military contractor was involved brought in new concerns. You could generally count on criminal gangs to be brutal, but not do anything terribly overt. The occasional mutilated body might surface and once in a while a politician would admit to taking bribes, which would throw a wrench in the criminal workings for a few weeks, but in the long run organized crime was a slow burning fuse that only rarely burst into highly visible actions. 

Oliver’s experience had taught him that the relic hunting game, like organized crime, was occasionally brutal and highly visible, but for the most part the players did their best to stay below the radar. If you made too much noise about a find, collectors would be scared away from purchasing your goods and even a hint of impropriety lingering around an object would drive away the museums. 

But private military contractors were a different animal all together, one which Oliver had always been cautious to avoid. You never knew where you stood with a PMC. They were made up of private citizens, so overt crimes were rare, but there were few actions that couldn’t be covered up under the excuse of “defending a client’s assets.” Toss in the fact that just about every government in the world had ties to private military contractors and the possibility of dangerous complications grew a hundredfold.

Rais cleared his throat and Oliver realized that he had been quiet for a long while. He smiled nervously and took a sip from his cup. The coffee had grown cool and he grimaced as he choked it down. 

“I sense you are uncomfortable with what I have just told you,” Rais said.

“I’m just not a fan of private security agencies.”

“Do you have some experience with these companies?”

“Not personally, but I’ve known people who crossed them in the past. The stories aren’t pleasant.”

“No worse than what you may have heard about me, I imagine.”

Oliver chuckled darkly and waved the waiter over to order a second cup of coffee. He waited until the waiter had gone before saying, “Can you arrange a meeting with the individuals selling the scroll?”

Rais inclined his head in agreement. “Of course. I had not yet done so myself because my funds have become somewhat limited since returning to private life last year. My contacts in the market tell me that they are asking the exorbitant price of five hundred thousand American dollars for the scroll.”

“Give me a day to check with my employer. I’m not sure if I can secure that much money, but I’ll try.”

Rais stood and brushed the wrinkles from his shirt. “I will make contact, using your name of course. If matters turn out poorly it would give me great pleasure to watch a grave robber like yourself be caught up in the tumult.”

Oliver stood and offered Rais his hand. The older man hesitated a moment, then reached out and took Oliver’s hand in his own. Oliver looked him in the eye as they shook hands and replied, “I would expect nothing more of you.”

Rais released Oliver’s hand and turned away.

The waiter returned with Oliver’s fresh cup of coffee. Oliver told him that he would have no further orders and asked for the bill to be charged to his room. He returned his gaze to the scene outside the window and sipped his coffee contemplatively. 

The price quoted by Rais Karim was beyond Oliver’s means. He had tracked down and recovered dozens of ancient treasures over the last decade, but he had made surprisingly little profit for his efforts. Part of that was because he did not sell everything he recovered. His private quest to recover the shards of the mechanism had consumed tens of thousands of dollars, only some of which had been reimbursed by selling photos he had taken on the expeditions. His client list was short and consisted primarily of wealthy lovers of history and rich socialites who wanted something rare and exclusive for their private collection. These clients paid well, but the money was quickly spent on expeditions, equipment, and the occasional bribe to officials in the nations from which Oliver stole relics. 

He would indeed contact the Senator and attempt to arrange funds, but he didn’t think that the man would be willing, or able, to pay the price Rais Karim had quoted.

This could, Oliver realized, be his opportunity to escape from the net that the Senator had cast. If Wheeler was unwilling to put up half a million dollars for the scroll, then Oliver would have the perfect excuse for backing out of this little expedition before the Senator’s grip on him grew any tighter. He couldn’t be blamed for the actions of a third party who had stolen the scroll and set their price for it before Oliver even came into the picture, so there was no risk that the Senator would seek revenge. If the Senator pulled the plug on this mission, then Oliver would have done his best and, while he wouldn’t get the complete payment, he should be able to walk away with his livelihood, reputation, and a couple thousand dollars to spare. 

But you don’t really want to give up, do you? said the voice in his head.

He sipped at his coffee and watched boats cruise up and down the rippling water of the Nile. The longer he sat there, the more Oliver felt the grip of an adventure closing around him like the coils of a python. He had spent the last decade searching for clues to uncover a conspiracy of global proportions stretching back centuries into the past. When that search had destroyed his career, he had turned to treasure hunting and adventure photography as a means of supporting his personal quest. Over the years he had come to love the danger of traveling to long lost places and tracking down forgotten relics. It went against his nature to turn his back on an adventure like this just because a new complication had arisen. 

He finished his coffee, pulled out his phone, and sent a text to the burner cell phone number that Senator Wheeler had provided:

Complication. ~$500k to recover first objective.

He followed that with:

Skype ASAP. Username: lucasacquisitions. 

He checked that the Skype app was running on his phone and he was logged in under the appropriate account, then stood and strode out of the café, glancing towards where Diana sat at the bar and jerking his head for her to follow. 

When they were aboard the elevator he quickly filled her in on what had passed between him and Rais Karim in the coffee bar.

“I didn’t hear much of the conversation, but I’m pretty sure your man was alone,” she replied when he was finished. “None of the people who entered the bar before him left after he did. Nobody else seemed to be watching you.”

Oliver sighed and leaned back against the elevator wall. “The question is whether he is more or less dangerous for working alone.” 

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The Staff of Moses © 2022, Andrew Linke