Oliver gave the taxi driver a slip of paper with the address of the antique dealer and they settled back for the ride through the crowded streets.
The narrow streets of Cairo were hopelessly packed, especially along the many side roads where there were no sidewalks and the vehicles had to compete with pedestrians and animals. A wide selection of cars from the past fifty years crept bumper to bumper through streets that twisted at odd angles between buildings which had stood in this city since before the first European colonists had set sail for the Americas. The pedestrians were likewise a brightly colored mix of business people and youths in Western-style dress, men and women wearing all manners of traditional clothing, traditional being defined as everything from long robes to pants and shirts that differed from their Western counterparts only in the pattern of their cut, and obvious tourists in loud shirts toting large cameras. The main avenues had been widened and paved over with tar. These weren’t crowded so terribly. The side streets, however, were still paved in an assortment of cobblestone and brick and were so narrow that the taxi’s mirrors occasionally scraped against the stone buildings on either side.
Oliver briefly considered paying the taxi driver, getting out, and ordering his phone to give him walking directions to the meeting place, but he restrained himself. Instead he took advantage of the drive to pull out his phone and post several tweets informing Amber of their plans. His final message said, Sellers are supposedly from Leonidas Security. Keep in mind if things go bad.
He switched to a web browser and tried to track down information about Leonidas Security, but could find nothing but the bare facts: It was a private security contractor headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. The corporate website did little to explain what, exactly, the company did to secure its clients. There was no contact information. Apparently if you were the sort of person who might need Leonidas Security’s services, they would contact you.
Forty-five minutes after leaving the hotel, the taxi deposited them in front of a dusty stone building with windows of thick, possibly bullet proof glass under a wide green awning. Faded gold Arabic lettering scrawled across the awning. Oliver’s command of written Arabic was more shaky than the spoken language, but he got the impression that the text proclaimed this to be a bookshop specializing in antiquities. Diana confirmed this and went to look in through the window while Oliver paid the driver and offered him a generous tip to remain parked in front of the shop until they returned. The driver agreed and spun the volume of his radio up a bit before levering his seat back.
“Crowded street. Several people browsing in the shop. Looks like they plan on letting us out of here alive,” Diana remarked as Oliver stepped up to the window.
“The customers could be more mercenaries, but I agree. They probably picked this place to make the deal appear legitimate. Place like this you probably see someone walking in or out with a scroll a couple times a month.”
Oliver opened the door and waved for Diana to enter ahead of him. He glanced out at the street one more time, satisfying himself that the crowds were thick enough that even a mercenary turned black market antiquity dealer would hesitate to shoot them if the deal fell through, then he followed Diana into the shop.
The walls of the shop were stacked high with bookshelves filled with codexes bound in leather and cloth. Tall glass display cases held an assortment of scrolls, some partially unrolled to display the writing on their aged surfaces, others shrouded in heavy cloth to protect them from the light. Scattered throughout the middle of the shop were a variety of glass topped display cases, some of older vintage with oiled wood sides, while others were newer models with sleek metal frames and built in humidity control units. These cabinets contained more delicate books, their spines and covers cracked with age, scraps of parchment held flat under thick plates of glass tinted to block ultraviolet rays, and rolled up scrolls sealed in tubes with tightly fitted caps at the end, each with a paper placard beside it describing the contents of the scroll in Arabic, English, and French. There were no price tags apparent and Oliver knew without looking that none of these books would have a price penciled in at the top corner of the cover page. To every appearance this was a legitimate, and serious, antique dealership.
The proprietor was a short man with a thin fringe of gray hair around the back and sides of his scalp. He was perched on a tall stool behind the counter, discussing a leather-bound codex with a customer in a rapid flow of Arabic. Oliver did his best to follow their conversation as he took in the contents of a display case near the door. The proprietor was pointing out the merits of the book and recounting its chain of ownership back to the private library for which it was ordered three hundred years before. In response, the customer pointed out the flaws in the binding, scuffs on the case, and general ignobility of the original owner. After a few moments they appeared to reach a mutually satisfactory assessment of the book’s value. Hands were shaken, money exchanged, and the book lovingly wrapped in a strip of white cotton before being sealed in a waterproof bag. The purchaser slipped the book into an inner pocket of his jacket and shook the proprietor’s hand again before stepping out into the street.
The proprietor turned to Oliver and eyed him for a moment before switching to English and asking, “How may I help you?” in a crisp British accent.
“That obvious, is it?” Oliver asked.
“I suppose you could have been from the continent, but English seemed more likely than Arabic.”
Oliver strode over to the counter and offered his hand to the man. “Oliver Lucas.” He spoke in Arabic, saying, “I could have handled your language, but you probably would rather I didn’t.” Then he switched back to English and continued, “My associate over there is fluent in the languages of Egypt, but I only know enough to get in and out of trouble.”
The man nodded, took Oliver’s hand, and replied in English, “Nasir Saab, owner of this emporium of knowledge. You don’t speak so terribly, though your accent is obviously American. How may I be of service?”
Oliver gestured to a scroll in a nearby display case. “We were given instructions to meet someone here. I don’t know their name, but they are probably also American and ought to be carrying a scroll.”
Nasir’s eyes darkened and he leaned forward to place both hands firmly on the polished wood countertop. Oliver got the distinct impression that the man might be willing to engage in black market dealing, but considered it unnecessary to extend the same level of politeness to those who participated in such deals. Nasir cleared his throat haughtily and nodded his head towards a door at the back of the shop.
“I believe you will find your man in my clean room. Go back there and knock on the door so you don’t surprise him, then I will ring you in.”
Oliver didn’t allow Nasir’s shift in attitude to put him off. He slapped the counter, grinned, and strode to the door the man had indicated. Diana followed, her face serious.
Oliver knocked on the door, then put his hand on the knob and waited. It resisted for a second, then he heard a faint buzzing and the knob turned in his hand. He stepped into the room and found himself looking down the barrel of a large handgun.
Oliver managed not to flinch, barely. He was in good shape and not afraid of a fair fight, but he had no illusions about being a blindingly fast martial artist. The instant he saw the gun he ruled out any possibility of fighting, or running, and determined to play cool. He looked straight down the length of the gun and locked eyes across the sights with the man holding it.
When he spoke, Oliver’s voice was soft, but firm. “This is no way to begin a business relationship. May I suggest you lower that gun and we try this again?”
The gunman’s brown eyes narrowed. He appeared to consider Oliver’s words for a moment before another voice burst in, “Frank, put that damn thing down. We’re here to deal, not fight.”
“What if this joker is armed?” Frank replied. His eyes never strayed from what Oliver imagined to be a spot somewhere just above the bridge of his nose.
“Frank, huh?” Oliver asked.
The eyes flickered briefly, but the man said nothing.
Oliver continued, “As it happens, Frank, I am armed. But I have better sense than to go pulling my gun in a respectable bookshop on a crowded street in downtown Cairo. I’m here to inspect a product for my client. If you’re not here to show it to me, I’ll just turn around, go back to my hotel, and none of this will have ever happened. If you are looking to sell me something, then I’d suggest you get that gun out of my face before I cancel the deal on principle.”
The other voice came again. “We’re here to deal. Frank here is just a bit jumpy. This isn’t his usual line. Right, Frank?”
Frank nodded slowly. He continued to gaze at Oliver for a moment, then lowered the gun to a holster strapped to his thigh and stepped back to lean against the wall with his burly arms crossed in front of his chest.
Oliver looked to the center of the room and saw the other speaker. He was as tall and muscled as Frank, but he did not immediately appear to be armed. Like his taciturn colleague, this man was dressed in desert camouflage and sported a military style buzzed haircut. A patch on his left shoulder bore the embroidered image of a shield crossed with a spear. The words Leonidas Security were stitched around the shield. He stood behind a large glass and steel work table, on which rested a short tube that Oliver guessed held the scroll they had come to inspect.
The speaker reached across the table and offered his hand to Oliver. “Sorry for that, I hope it won’t impact our negotiations. Your contact told me that I should call you Oliver, is that right?”
“That’s right. And you are?”
“Call me Kyle.”
Oliver shook Kyle’s hand and gestured back to the door. Diana had ducked back around the corner of the door when she saw the gun, but now she squared her shoulders and made her entrance into the room. “This is Diana. She’ll verify the authenticity of the object and determine if it is worth my employer’s money.”
Diana held out her hand and Kyle shook it without comment. She turned her head and gave Frank an icy glare. He returned it without blinking until Diana finally broke and turned back to Oliver and Kyle.
“Is this the artifact?” Diana asked, affecting a French accent and waving an open hand towards the tubular case on the table.
“It is,” Kyle replied. He put one hand on the tube and looked from Oliver to Diana, then back again. “But before I open it, how do I know you’re worth dealing with?”
Oliver had been afraid of this. It was clear to him that these men were amateurs at the black market artifact trade. Had he been conducting this deal he would have taken one of two routes: Preferably, he wouldn’t have even agreed to the meeting unless he was reasonably certain that his customer was reliable, usually by means of a personal recommendation from a past customer or trusted contact in the business. In that case he would display the artifact in a secure location and hand it over upon confirmation of the payment being wired to one of his offshore bank accounts. If a recommendation wasn’t possible, as happened from time to time in his trade, he would have requested that they bring a downpayment of somewhere around fifty percent of the asking price, which he would hold while they examined the object. If all went well, they would pay him the rest and he would allow them to take the object from the room. If it didn’t, he would return the money and keep whatever artifact was under negotiation. This was all a delicate dance, of course, and often conducted with firearms visible on both sides, but such negotiations had rarely failed to yield satisfactory results.
But these guys weren’t following either method. They were dancing along a dangerous path somewhere in the middle: Threatening Oliver and demanding some evidence of his credibility, even after accepting the recommendation of Rais Karim and setting up this meeting. That made them unpredictable, and Oliver didn’t like dealing with unpredictable people, especially when he was planning to double-cross them.
“I assume you know the man who contacted you on my behalf?” Oliver asked.
“And he explained the situation to you?”
“So, what is the problem?”
“The problem is that I need to know that I’ll be paid for my product. That burned-out bureaucrat has been nosing around for weeks, trying to get his hands on this scroll. How do I know you’re not going to try and snatch this thing and get it back to him without paying?”
Oliver rolled his eyes and half turned to Diana, holding his hands out palms up as if to say, “What am I supposed to do with these guys?”
Diana picked up on his attitude and played her part perfectly. She stepped forward and leaned across the table, her eyes burning with contempt.
“You are an idiot!” she said with quiet force. “You think only with your guns, and you know what they say about men who feel the need to carry large guns. I’ll put it in simple macho terms: If we try to screw you and run away with the scroll, then obviously you’ll shoot us. We are people of business. We think about money. If we bring money, what is to stop you men from shooting us and taking it? Nothing! Of course we didn’t bring any money.”
Kyle appeared confused by her sudden outburst. Frank remained impassive.
Oliver put one hand on Diana’s shoulder as if trying to calm her. He looked Kyle in the eye and said, “The lady has a point. From what our mutual acquaintance told me about the provenience of this scroll, we have more to be worried about than you. But I want this deal to work out, so let me tell you something.” Oliver patted a pocket on his vest and continued, “I’ve got a phone right here. If Diana is satisfied that this is the scroll my client is looking for, I’ll make a call right away and arrange payment. I assume you have an account prepared to accept payment?”
“Alright. So let’s all stop strutting around here and get down to business. That work for you?”
Kyle pondered Oliver’s offer for a moment, then nodded thoughtfully. He picked up the case and flipped a latch, then pulled the end off the tube. He set the end cap on the table, reached inside the tube, and pulled gently at a cotton-wrapped bundle inside. The bundle came out smoothly and he laid it on the table before stepping back, still holding the tube.
“There you go. That’s the scroll crazy old Karim said you wanted a look at. Price is half a million, American.”
“The price is whatever it is worth,” Diana remarked, pulling a pair of cotton examination gloves from her pocket.
She donned the gloves and reached up to click on an examination lamp and pull it closer on its adjustable arm. Then Diana unwrapped the cotton cloth from around the scroll. It came away easily. The cloth was obviously of recent vintage. Oliver guessed that it had been wrapped around the scroll by technicians in Karim’s agency when they had entered the scroll into their archive, since he doubted that these amateur thieves would know how to properly store such a delicate artifact.
Diana adjusted her glasses and peered closely at the scroll, now exposed and laying atop its modern wrappings. She tweaked the angle of the lamp, adjusted her glasses again, and looked at the scroll from several angles before announcing, “This scroll appears to be in incredibly good condition. Just from looking at it, I’d say it is made from a very fine vellum, which is unusual, but good from a preservation standpoint. Many Egyptian scrolls are papyrus or leather, neither of which hold up very well over centuries, but vellum lasts a good deal longer if it is properly protected.”
She looked at Kyle and asked, “Are you the one who took the photographs we saw?”
“Yes. I didn’t use a flash. Saw something online about how that might damage the material and cause the letters to fade.”
“Over time, that is possible. Was it difficult for you to open?”
“Nope. Was actually surprised how quick it all went, but I figured that the museum’s archaeologists had done something to treat it.”
Diana touched a gloved finger to the edge of the scroll. Oliver knew she was violating just about every rule of preservation that had been drilled into her during her training. The gloves were about the only element of this situation that were standard protocol, but they needed a look at the contents of the scroll. If a few flakes fell away from the edges as they examined it, that wouldn’t be Oliver’s problem, even if it might send modern preservationists into conniptions had they been there to watch the procedure.
The thin material bent slightly at Diana’s touch. She drew her finger back and Oliver thought he saw a spark of surprise in her eyes. Then she reached out and grasped the wooden grip at the end of the wound vellum. She pulled slowly, unwinding the translucent material and getting her first glimpse of the neat rows of lettering scribed upon the inner surface. The farther Diana unrolled the scroll, the bolder she grew. She began twisting the carved wooden handle of the main scroll body, allowing more of the vellum to roll out across the tabletop. She continued until she had unwound about three feet of the material and was gazing at the entirety of the scroll.
The vellum was a buttery white-yellow, so close to its original appearance that Oliver immediately knew they were dealing with either a true relic or a clumsy forgery. No scroll that was even three hundred years old, let alone three thousand, had any business being so well-preserved. But Rais Karim had been insistent that this scroll was a genuine relic which had been under the protection of his agency until only a few weeks before, so to Oliver’s mind, that left only one option: The scroll had been preserved using some form of magic. He had seen that before with relics, but he knew of no way to test for it scientifically.
Diana turned her head slowly from side to side, examining the tight rows of hieratic script and brushing her fingers across the surface of the vellum. After a few moments, she pulled the examination lamp closer and bent over the scroll, using the lamp’s built-in magnifying lens to study the scroll more closely. She huffed and pulled back a lock black hair that had fallen in front of her eyes, then began fumbling in her large purse for the document magnifier she had used to examine the photographs of the scroll in Oliver’s hotel room. She bent close over the scroll, holding the glass and plastic body of the magnifier within millimeters of the surface, but never allowing the device to touch the ancient material.
After nearly five minutes of examination, during which Oliver and the other men remained awkwardly silent and exchanged as few glances as possible, Diana straightened and exclaimed, “Gentlemen, I hate to break this to you, but you’ve been had.”
Kyle gave her a puzzled look.
Diana gestured to the object rolled out on the table. “There is no way I can advise Mr. Lucas’s client to purchase this. It’s such an obvious forgery that the very fact you tried to sell it to us makes you look like fools.”
Kyle’s face flushed a deep red and the muscles in his thick neck began to bulge. His right fist tightened and he appeared ready to launch himself across the table and punch Diana. Frank stepped forward, keeping one hand on the grip of his gun as he caught Kyle’s eye. Kyle swallowed and shook his head slightly. Frank nodded and stepped back.
Kyle moved forward and gripped the edge of the table. As he spoke each word came out crisply and laden with venom. “What. The hell. Are. You. Saying?”
Diana beckoned for Oliver to come closer, then waved her hand across the scroll, inviting the men to examine it. “Just look at it, the vellum is still supple. It unrolled without a single crack. That alone is so suspicious that I had to spend extra time examining this to try and find what made you think this scroll was genuine. Honestly, the only thing I could find that appears genuine is the hieratic. The symbol structure and what I have read of the grammar is spot on, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that the ink is as fresh as if it had been written a few days ago. I will give you that the vellum and ink both appear to have been manufactured using ancient techniques. If you use my glass to examine the ink, for example, you’ll see small particles trapped within it. Those are the result of grinding the ink components with a stone mortise and pestle and putting them directly into an inkwell, rather than processing them further to remove all but the finest pigments. That is consistent with the manufacturing process used in ancient Egypt, but the object as a whole is certainly not three thousand years old.”
“My client will not be happy to hear about this,” Oliver growled, trying to transform the growing excitement he felt into a tone of frustration. “He has already spent a lot of money to send us here.”
Kyle pounded a fist on the table and shouted, “How could this happen? I was with the team that recovered this scroll. It comes from a collection that was supposed to be of unquestionable authenticity.”
Oliver shrugged. “You are the seller, Kyle. My client and I merely heard from our mutual associate that this item had become available. We know what collection it came from, so either the contents of the vault were switched before you reached them, or someone in your organization is trying to double cross you. I’d suggest you check your sources, as I am about to do.”
He caught Diana’s eye and gestured towards the door.
Diana adjusted her glasses, collected her document magnifier from the table, and walked out, leaving the scroll unrolled on the table. Oliver followed her, hoping that he wouldn’t feel a bullet burrowing into his spine as they walked away. He had barely pulled the door shut behind them when he heard the sound of glass cracking and Kyle’s voice screaming obscenities. Frank’s voice joined in, his tone defensive, but by then Oliver was too far away to make out any words.
“You may wish to screen the people who use your back room more carefully, I think they just broke something in there,” Oliver quipped as he strode past the proprietor and out of the shop without looking back.
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The Staff of Moses © 2022, Andrew Linke