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16 – Breakthrough

Oliver woke the next morning to find Diana already hunched over her laptop, silhouetted by the morning sun pouring in through the window. After a quick shower and a call to room service for some breakfast, he joined her and together they dug into the mountain of reading that lay before them. 

Diana had brought scans of the entirety of Pujol’s published letters, as well as his private journals and those of his brother. Oliver transferred a copy to his own computer and together they worked throughout the morning and late into the night, stopping only to rest their eyes and enjoy lunch and dinner at restaurants in the hotel.

As he pulled up yet another scanned letter, written in a precise but old French script, Oliver reflected that this was the element of relic hunting that you never saw in movies: The tedious slog through hundreds of pages of documents written in multiple languages. The dozens of pages of notes, half of them scratched out after being contradicted or surpassed by later discoveries. The careful comparisons of maps produced at various points throughout history. All of this had been made far easier by computers, which allowed Oliver and Diana to keep hundreds of reference works on their laptops, to say nothing of online access to the collections of entire libraries. Still, this particular adventure didn’t come with a convenient treasure map, but rather with a series of vague clues and historical coincidences.

They continued after this pattern for several days. Oliver was relieved that Diana didn’t complain about the work, but wasn’t especially surprised. She was, in fact, even more accustomed to the slog of academic research than Oliver, who had admittedly grown sloppy in the decade since his fall from academia. She still carefully documented every source and kept neat notes, as if she was preparing to write a thesis. Oliver hadn’t even tried to publish anything in years, so he tended to let his ideas run together and mix in his mind, on the theory that he would recognize patterns and connection in the sheer mass of data pouring through his head.

Midway through the afternoon of the fourth day, Oliver stood up, cracked his knuckles, and pushed the lid of Diana’s laptop shut on her fingers. She jumped back in her chair and glared at Oliver. 

“What gives?”

“It’s time to go.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I think I’ve got the location of Sephor’s estate.”

Oliver spun his own laptop around and showed Diana an annotated screenshot of a map, with a small red circle located in the desert south of a large lake. 

“What’s that?”

“Gabriel’s last few entries from Egypt describe his army unit moving along the western bank of a large freshwater lake. They go fishing every night and enjoy eating their catch as, how did he put it, ‘the heavenly orb poured out its blood upon the waters.’ No shock that there was an artist in his family.”

Diana rubbed her eyes and yawned, then stood and went over to look out the window. She spoke while gazing out across the river. “I’ve read that passage before. It’s the last entry before he stopped writing for over a month. The next one comes around the same time that he sent a letter to his brother in France, describing his services to Napoleon and saying he was about to return home to France.”

“And it’s also the last entry that doesn’t have at least some reference to his recurring nightmares or the terrors of the desert.”

“So you think that you’ve found where he was when he wrote this?”

Oliver nodded and tapped the red circle on the screen of his laptop. “Yep. I compared the pace they seemed to be keeping, according to the journal entries, with the description of the property with which Sephor was rewarded for capturing the staff. I found this site. There is an ancient estate there that was explored by archaeologists about twenty years ago, but they abandoned it when their leader and one of the crew disappeared without a trace.”

“Why didn’t they find any clues to the staff?”

“I don’t know, but if this isn’t Sephor’s estate, we might as well pack up and head home. It’s the closest match we have to the location that Gabriel Pujol may have explored, so I say we give it a shot.”

Diana pondered this for a moment. She stepped away from the window and pulled Oliver’s computer over in front of her, then began examining his notes, rechecking his evidence. 

Oliver waited quietly. He was certain she would be happy to go along with him, but knew better than to press her. He figured that Diana would probably be sulky about him finding the correlation between Gabriel’s journal, the scroll, and the archaeological dig maps first, but soon enough the thrill of exploring an ancient ruin would overcome that. She was just as accustomed to working alone as he was and, to be honest, he would have been a little jealous too if she had made the connection first.

 After nearly half an hour, Diana nodded and leaned back in her seat. “Alright, it makes sense. When do we leave?”

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The Staff of Moses © 2022, Andrew Linke