“…it mean?” The voice was strangely familiar, but Oliver couldn’t place it.
“I don’t know. You’re looking at the ravings of a dead man. It might not mean anything.” Diana’s voice. She sounded afraid.
Oliver’s head felt heavy. He was lying face down on a hard surface covered in sand.
Another voice. This one also strangely familiar. “Let us give her some incentive.”
Oliver heard the sound of feet crunching on sand coming close to him. A sharp pain bloomed in his side and he jerked sideways, letting out an involuntary shout. Oliver’s eyes popped open and he found himself looking at Diana.
She was sitting with her back against the wall, her feet bound with white plastic zip ties, her arms pulled behind her. He assumed that they were bound as well. The side of her head was bloodied, but she didn’t appear to have been severely injured.
Turning his head slowly back and forth, Oliver saw a familiar man dressed in bloodied desert camouflage sitting against the opposite wall while a similarly dressed man finished applying a bandage to his right shoulder. A set of booted feet stood beside Oliver and, as he watched, one drew back and swung forward sharply to kick him in the side again.
He coughed and groaned.
“What about it Ms. Jordan? Does this bring any thoughts to mind?”
Oliver recognized the voice now. He looked up past the booted foot that had kicked him, along the thick leg, and past the protruding belly to the face of Rais Karim.
“How the hell did you get out here?” Oliver croaked.
Rais looked down at Oliver and grinned. Despite his clean-shaven face and white teeth, the curve of his lips and glint in his eye made it an unpleasant sight. “So our little tomb robber decided to wake up at last. Looks like I’m still a bit more than a deposed bureaucrat after all.”
Oliver blinked and tried to clear his head. How did Rais Karim get here? And what happened to Frank’s shoulder?
Frank. That name brought it together for Oliver.
The wounded man on the floor was named Frank. He was a mercenary who had been part of the scheme to sell relics captured from a secret vault in the Cairo museum. Frank and his cohorts had double-crossed whoever paid them to retrieve the relics and attempted to sell them on the black market instead.
All of this came back to Oliver in a rush, but it still didn’t explain how they had known to come here.
Another voice spoke. Oliver turned his head and recognized Frank’s partner in crime and business, Kyle. “What about it, Ms. Jordan. Still having trouble translating that text?”
Diana twisted in her restraints and looked pleadingly at Oliver. He did his best to smile and give her a little nod. “There’s no point hiding anything, Diana,” he said. “If they plan on killing us, there’s nothing we can do to stop them. Make yourself useful, and you might get out of this alive.”
“A sensible viewpoint,” Kyle said, nodding his head slightly.
“Speak for yourself, I’ll kill the bitch,” Frank grunted.
Kyle laughed and threw a glance towards Frank. “Shut up man. It’s your own fault for blundering into the back room without checking it out first.”
“The girl was supposed to be some sort of language nerd. I didn’t exactly expect her to be sitting back there waiting to plug me.” Frank scowled and pushed the medic away, then pushed himself up with his good arm. “Get her working for us, or I’ll kill her.” He stalked through the narrow passage and out of the temple, wincing once as his wounded shoulder brushed the wall.
Kyle waited for Frank to leave and turned back to Diana. “As I was saying, tell us what this inscription says and we’ll let you go. It’s not as if you can go and report us to the authorities. Even if you can find someone who is willing to listen, I’d love to see how you tell this story without confessing to illegal relic hunting yourselves.”
Diana sighed and closed her eyes for a minute. Finally she took a deep breath and said, “What you see on the wall there is little more than the mad ravings of a man driven to insanity by time and rage. I can’t promise you that it will be of any use.”
“I saw you examine the bodies. You notice anything about them?”
Kyle and Rais both nodded and shared a look. Rais said, “One of them is certainly a man preserved by supernatural forces. In my early days with the secret police, we encountered one such creature. It killed three members of my squad before we managed to subdue it.”
“Oliver knows more about that sort of thing than I do, but yes, I believe that the… thing out there was once an Egyptian general named Sephor. The first line of the inscription appears to be a formal statement of his lineage, like the opening lines of ancient court testimony, but it’s hard to make sense of it without any supporting documents.”
Diana paused and took a deep breath. She looked to Oliver and he nodded encouragingly, then winced as Rais kicked him in the side again. Diana got a hard look in her eyes, then continued to speak.
“Sephor describes the murals on the walls of the inner sanctum as evidence of his greatest victory. After delivering the staff to Pharaoh, he was rewarded with this land, where he ordered this estate built and brought his family and retainers to live in luxury. Though he was retired from making war, Sephor was entrusted with the protection of a set of relics that would guide the holder to the temple where the staff was kept, so that he could always find his way to the temple of the staff that he had delivered. But then something went wrong.”
Diana shifted uncomfortably in her bonds. Her eyes shifted uncertainly, then she looked up at Kyle and explained, “Even if the narrative hadn’t been written by a madman, you have to understand that it was composed in the mind of a man from a different time. Nothing is written in terms of personal failures, so what I’m about to tell you comes from reading between the lines of an already fuzzy story.”
She paused, waiting for some indication that Kyle and Rais still wanted to hear her story.
Good, Oliver thought, she’s making them hungry for her information.
Kyle crouched down and looked Diana in the eyes. “Go on.”
“Well, some time after retiring to this place, the family was attacked by their own guards. At Sephor’s command, the priests who served the family in this chapel had created undead guardians to protect the house, but one night, these creatures turned on their masters. Sephor’s family and servants were slaughtered or driven away and he was wounded grievously. He fought his way to the chapel, where he forced the last remaining priest to perform a ritual that bound him to the inner sanctum as eternal guardian of the relics.”
Kyle snorted and took a step closer to Diana. “Do you really expect me to believe that crap? This is the real world, honey, not some fantasy story.”
“You asked me to tell you what the inscription says. I’m explaining a bit of the context, as much as I understand it, but every bit of this is written on that wall.”
Rais Karim cleared his throat and interjected, “Don’t be too quick to discredit her story, Kyle. You saw that corpse out in the chapel. And you know how well-preserved that scroll was, at least until you destroyed it.”
“Shut up old man.”
“I will not. You violated a relic of my people that had survived for centuries, all because these two fools outwitted you by pretending that it was not authentic. To my mind, that makes you the greater fool.”
Oliver wasn’t exactly sure what was going between the two men, but he was beginning to suspect that they were not working together entirely by choice. He had been surprised to see them at first, but as Diana related the translation of Sephor’s engraving, he had started to put the pieces together in his mind.
After he and Diana had pulled out of the deal in Cairo, Rais must have made contact with the mercenaries again. But that didn’t make sense. He didn’t have the resources to buy the scroll from them, and he had just accused Kyle of destroying the scroll after Diana told him that it was a forgery. What could have brought these men together?
Kyle’s hand slipped down to the holster strapped to his thigh. He stepped closer to Rais, momentarily ignoring Oliver and Diana. “I’m warning you, Karim. You’re here to ensure delivery, nothing more.”
“Warning me?” Rais’s face darkened and he took a step closer to Kyle. “If it wasn’t for my intervention, you would have been out on the streets now, begging for work and hoping to find a patron before your old enemies hunted you down. I gave you the name of the hotel where Mr. Lucas and Ms. Jordan were staying. I arranged the trace on their vehicle’s navigation system. Without me you’d have no chance of recovering the staff before your employer…”
Kyle pulled out his gun and shot Rais Karim in the chest.
Rais stumbled and fell backwards against the wall. His blood splattered across the mural and formed a bright red streak as he slid down and came to rest leaning against the wall, just a few feet from Oliver’s bound legs. His face was a twitching mask of shock and confusion. He raised one hand to the bloody hole in his chest, probing it with his fingers as if he didn’t believe it was actually there.
Kyle shot him again.
The old man’s head slumped down as he gave one last shuddering gasp, then fell silent.
A loud pounding of booted feet on stone sounded from outside the chamber. Oliver craned his neck around the corner and caught a glimpse of a large man in desert camouflage dodging behind the altar. At the end of the short passage that led out to the main hall of the chapel he saw the tip of a boot poking out around the corner of the wall.
“Commander Sanders, what happened?” a rough voice shouted. “Are you alive?”
“Stand down,” Kyle said, holstering his gun. “Just dealing with a little problem.”
“Yes sir,” the same voice replied. Oliver caught another glimpse of movement in the chapel, as the men out there moved away from the narrow passage.
Oliver looked over and saw that Rais’s chin had settled down on his chest. He didn’t appear to be breathing, which was no surprise given the two holes in the center of his chest and the pool of blood spreading out around him. He turned to Diana and was relieved to see that she was remaining calm. He knew that she was strong, but anyone could be excused for getting upset in present circumstances. The wet streaks of tears had etched bright lines of pink in the dust covering her face, but her mouth was firm and her eyes were open.
“Now, about you stopping the bullshit and telling me what I need to know about that inscription,” Kyle said, stepping close to Diana. He squatted in front of her and pointed back at the lifeless body of Rais. “I said that I would let you go, and I still might, but only if you don’t jerk me around. I’ve got a lot riding on finding that staff. Got it?”
Oliver cleared his throat and waited for Kyle to turn and face him. When the mercenary commander looked around, Oliver said, “Look, Kyle, you’re obviously angry. I don’t want to upset you any more, but Diana’s not screwing with you when she talks about undead guardians and ancient priests. I can’t read that inscription, but I’ve had a lot of experience with getting in and out of magically guarded tombs. If you let us help you, we can all get out of this alive.”
Kyle pondered this for a moment. His face remained harsh, but he kept his hand away from his gun, which was good enough for Oliver. He imagined that it was difficult for a man like Kyle, accustomed to dealing with the gritty realities of modern warfare, to accept the existence of such things as undead warriors and skeleton guards.
“What sort of tomb robber are you if you don’t even read the language?”
“The sort who usually stays far away from Egypt, and will be happy to return to that modus operandi if allowed to keep breathing.”
That got Kyle to let a crooked smile crack his dour expression. He let out a short chuckle and said, “I almost like you, man. Even if your girl here shot Frank.”
“Listen, Kyle, I don’t know what your situation is, and I really don’t want to if it’ll make me end up like that old bastard,” Oliver nodded in the direction of Rais’s body, “but I’ve got this hunch that you’re under a lot of pressure to find a particular ancient staff. Diana and I were in a similar situation when we met you in the book shop. What do you say we put the past behind us, figure all this out without any more killing, then go our separate ways?”
Oliver was playing a close game here and hoped that he hadn’t pushed too far by mentioning the pressure Kyle was under. It seemed to work though, because Kyle nodded his head, then said, “Help me get to the staff and I’ll keep my word on not killing you both. If you screw with me though…”
He let that hang in the air as he looked between Oliver and Diana.
They both nodded.
“Good. Now, tell me where to find that temple.”
Diana sniffed and cleared her throat, then squared her shoulders and said, “Sephor describes the temple as being located on an island in the middle of a desert lake, three day’s journey west of his estate.”
“That can’t be far from here. That was thousands of years ago, they couldn’t have traveled very fast,” Kyle said. He paused and looked thoughtful for a moment. “But I don’t know of any lakes in this area except those three lakes north of here.”
Diana looked to Oliver. Oliver didn’t like giving the mercenaries the location of the temple, but at the moment, he was more concerned with staying alive. He shifted his legs to get Kyle’s attention, then said, “I don’t know for sure, but if we looked at some satellite imagery we might be able to find a dry lakebed that matches the description. You’ve got to remember that this inscription was written by someone who was trapped in this chapel for over three thousand years. That’s plenty of time for a spring to dry up, or a stream to shift course.”
“Let’s go take a look, then.”
Kyle stepped up to Diana and pulled out a long knife with one serrated edge. He bent over her and set the knife against the plastic bindings around her ankles. Then he paused and looked up at her. “No funny business. You try to kick me, or run away, or anything else, and I will shoot you.”
He waited for Diana to nod, then used the serrated edge to quickly saw through the thick plastic bands that held her feet together.
“Frank, you out there?” Kyle shouted.
An unfamiliar voice called back, “Frank went down to the chopper, Commander.”
Kyle shook his head and muttered a curse, then called back, “The girl is coming out. Waverly, take her to the chopper and pull up some satellite maps of the region for her to look over. Make sure she doesn’t have access to a comlink.”
Kyle grabbed the front of Diana’s shirt and hauled her to her feet. She stumbled and fell against him, then caught her balance and stood upright. Kyle pointed towards the doorway and Diana walked towards it, stepping gingerly around the pool of blood that now surrounded Rais’s body.
“Keep her arms tied until you’re at the chopper,” Kyle called after her.
Once she was gone, Kyle crouched down beside Oliver and asked, “Are you still working for that damn Senator?”
Well, that’s interesting, Oliver though, raising an eyebrow. But it confirmed a theory he’d been working out. Not even Rais had known that he was working for Senator Wheeler.
“No. I left his employment after Karim over there told me that you wanted half a million for the scroll. Senator Wheeler told me he couldn’t swing that sort of cash, so we went our separate ways.”
“And you decided to go after the staff yourself anyway.”
“He seemed satisfied with my explanation. I don’t like the man, so I saw it as an opportunity to break free.”
Kyle chuckled and shook his head slowly. “Well, Oliver, I wish I could get away that easy. Let’s get down to the chopper.”
With that Kyle swiped his blade through the plastic strips binding Oliver’s ankles and pulled him roughly to his feet. Oliver leaned against the wall for a moment, working first one leg, then the other, until he felt steady enough to walk again. Standing there, watching Kyle gather his and Diana’s bags in one hand and look around to see if anything else of importance remained, Oliver decided to try and get a bit more information out of him.
“Tell me to shut up if this question makes you want to shoot me too, but how did you and Rais Karim end up working together? That old bastard hated foreigners touching Egyptian relics.”
Kyle ignored Oliver’s question and gestured for him to turn around. He cut the plastic restraints off of Oliver’s wrists, then thrust the backpacks into Oliver’s newly freed hands. “Carry your own crap. Walk ahead of me and don’t try to run.”
Oliver complied. They left Rias Karim’s body in the inner sanctum and walked through the short passage into the main temple chamber. There Oliver saw a lone guard leaning against the altar smoking a cigarette as he waited for them to emerge. Kyle waved for him to follow them and he stubbed out the cigarette on the altar and slung his submachine gun up onto his back. The three of them walked in silence out of the chapel and around the outside wall of the house, backtracking the steps that Oliver and Diana had taken a few hours before.
They reached the front of the house and Oliver looked up the canyon to where he and Diana had parked their Range Rover. The vehicle still sat in the shadow of the high canyon wall, but Oliver’s view of it was now obscured by a large helicopter that had set down on the flat canyon floor between the car and the crumbling walls of Sephor’s estate. The helicopter was painted in a mottled pattern of dull beige and tan colors that succeeded in camouflaging it well enough that Oliver had difficulty picking out the exact edges of the aircraft. As he watched, Oliver saw Diana and her guard emerging beyond the wall and plodding towards the helicopter.
“Plenty of room for us all,” Kyle said. “Don’t ever believe someone who says that war doesn’t pay well, Oliver. That baby is a top of the line desert transport. Even the engines are designed for hellholes like this. You’ve got to minimize the sand getting in through the crankshaft so it doesn’t gum things up, then there’s the issue of filtering the air intake.”
Oliver nodded in acknowledgement of Kyle’s obvious enthusiasm, but didn’t say anything. He had ridden in helicopters before, but always civilian models that he chartered for getting quickly in and out of remote sites that would otherwise have taken days, or weeks, of harsh backpacking and climbing to access.
Kyle looked over at him and laughed, then clapped Oliver hard on the shoulder. “What do you say, man? Ever give a thought to making your living as a soldier of fortune?”
“Can’t say I have. My interests tend more towards avoiding dead things than making more of them.”
“You’re serious about that thing in the temple being, what, some sort of zombie?”
“Not a zombie, no. But it was certainly an animated corpse.”
“And it attacked you?”
Kyle motioned for them to keep walking. As they reached the bottom of the wide front steps and began crossing the courtyard he said, “You asked about Karim. Well, I’ll tell you the basics. Your senator tracked down our employers and applied some pressure. Let me tell you, Oliver, if there’s one thing that my bosses don’t like it’s bad news from Washington. Well, the shit rolled downhill, like it always does, and now I need to get that staff and ship it back to the States ASAP, or my team and I are out on the streets.”
“I guess your employers are less likely to overlook a little private enterprise when it comes back to bite them.”
Kyle chuckled at that. “You got that right.”
“How did you manage to get Rais Karim to work with you?”
“That’s where you are completely lost, kid. That old bastard has been in on the deal since the beginning.”
Oliver stopped in his tracks, nearly dropping the bags he was carrying.
“Weren’t expecting that one, were you?”
“No. Not at all. But I suppose it makes sense,” Oliver admitted.
“Of course it does. You think that man felt any loyalty to Egypt after he was booted out of office? Where did you think we learned about the secret vault? He knew all the secrets. We had the manpower and weapons.”
They reached the helicopter and found Diana sitting on a camp stool just outside the door of the helicopter, already engrossed with pinching and swiping her way through satellite enhanced maps of the surrounding desert on the screen of a tablet computer encased in a heavy rubberized case. A guard stood five feet behind her, smoking a cigarette with an expression of utter boredom written on his face. Kyle left Oliver with Diana and climbed into the helicopter to check on Frank, leaving instructions with the guard that she and Oliver were not to go anywhere until he returned.
Once Kyle was gone, Diana looked up and gave Oliver a sad half smile, then returned to her work. Oliver stood behind her and put a hand on her shoulder, then leaned down to look at the screen on her lap. Keeping his voice level, he asked whether she had made any progress on finding the tomb.
“A few possibilities, but nothing that jumps out and bites me.”
“Need any help?”
Diana shrugged and waved at the screen in her hand. “If they’ve got another one, maybe you could look too, but for now…” She sighed deeply and allowed a brief look of frustration to cross her face. “I’m trying to find a hidden temple in thousands of square miles of desert, based on a description that is thousands of years old.”
“Don’t forget that the author of that description was an undead warrior, driven mad by thousands of years of solitude,” Oliver said with a wink, squeezing her shoulder.
Diana didn’t laugh, but she did manage a tired smile. “Thanks, Oliver.”
“I’ve got to be useful somehow. Don’t want our hosts to think I’m worthless and kill me too.” He flashed a grin at the mercenary standing a few feet away, but if the man had heard the remark he didn’t give any sign. He gazed blankly back at Oliver for a full ten seconds before Oliver broke eye contact and looked back to Diana.
“They know who we are and why I came to Egypt. Seems that Senator Wheeler decided to take matters into his own hands and apply pressure from above. Kyle and Frank must have led the museum raid using unauthorized company resources to score a little extra cash on the side. Now they have to deliver what the Senator wants or they’re out in the cold.”
“Exactly. We already knew Frank was jumpy from his little performance at the book shop, but now Kyle’s under a lot of stress. I think that’s the only reason he even told me what’s going on.”
“What do we do if we manage to find the staff? Do you really think they’ll let us go?”
Oliver had been pondering exactly those questions for the last half hour and he still didn’t have an answer.
He gave Diana a crooked smile and shrugged. “We’ll just have to play this by ear. If we make it to the temple alive, I think we’ll be able to work something out.” He didn’t tell her that it was their only choice for the moment. If they refused to help the mercenaries, or gave obviously false advice, they would certainly be killed. Oliver was secretly harboring a hope that they would find the temple intact and that whatever guards had chased away the French soldiers would distract the mercenaries long enough for Diana and him to escape.
Diana nodded solemnly and looked out across the canyon towards the estate while she took a few slow, deep breaths. Then she blinked, shook her head, and turned her attention back to the tablet perched on her lap.
Oliver patted her on the shoulder again, then straightened and stepped toward their guard. The man stiffened and slipped his right hand from the butt of his assault rifle to the handgrip. Oliver waved genially and announced, “I need to take a leak. I can do it on your shoes or over behind the Range Rover, your choice.”
The guard narrowed his eyes and said nothing, so Oliver reached to unzip his pants.
“Fine,” The guard growled, nodding towards the car. “Make it quick and keep where I can see your head.” He patted the side of his weapon significantly.
Oliver nodded and strode towards the car. He moved slowly, not wanting anyone to think he was trying to make a run, keeping his stride casual, as if he frequently went for a walk in the sights of an assault rifle. Once he reached the far side of the car, he placed both arms in front of him and used one hand to take care of his business while he slipped the other up to the front zipper pocket of his vest. He worked the zipper as fast as he could without moving his arm too much. The entire operation took only seconds, but it felt like an eternity passed before his fingers felt the warm glass corner of his phone nestled in the pocket.
He had felt the bulge of it in his vest as he lay on the floor of the inner sanctum, curled up in a ball from Rais kicking him in the gut. He hadn’t dared to believe at the time that they would leave his phone on him, but when the opportunity arose, he couldn’t resist checking. The mercenaries had taken Oliver’s gun and presumably searched him for more weapons while he lay unconscious in the chapel, but if they had noticed the narrow bulge of his phone they hadn’t considered it worth removing. Of course, they might have been distracted by Diana shooting Frank as he blundered through the doorway into the inner sanctum.
Ducking his head to see what he was doing, Oliver saw that he had a single bar of signal. Not much, but it would be enough for his purposes. He used the thumb of one hand to launch his Twitter app and tap out a quick message:
blown by leonidas on senators orders
He tapped the send button and slipped the phone back into his pocket. He zipped up his pants and made a show of stretching his arms and back, then quickly zipped up his vest pocket again as he turned. He hoped that the action of concealing his phone and zipping the vest had been lost in all the motion of his stretching, and was relieved to see that the guard by the helicopter was only watching him out of one eye.
Oliver returned to the helicopter and sat beside Diana. He spent the next three hours trying not to think about his message. Amber might see his message right away if she was at her computer or had her phone nearby, but if she was asleep or busy it might be hours before she saw it. Even if she did read it immediately, there wasn’t much that she could do. Oliver’s Twitter was intended primarily as a means of keeping his closest friends updated on his general location in the event he disappeared for days on end, and as a high speed, low bandwidth secure communications network to share updates with clients. The best he could hope for was that Amber would forward the message to his father, who might be able to get the Senator to back off.
The more Oliver thought about it, he considered that sending the message might have put them in deeper danger. Even if his father managed to contact Senator Wheeler and convince him to stop applying pressure to Leonidas Security, they might decide to cut their losses by ordering Kyle and Frank to kill him and Diana. Even if the company didn’t give the order, it was clear now that Kyle and his team had been working for themselves for a while.
But there was no point in fretting over the situation. Oliver had sent the message and, at the least, Amber would know who to go after if she got the urge to avenge his death.
The Staff of Moses © 2022, Andrew Linke