Summer was in full swing in Washington D.C. The air was hot, humid, and heavy with the reek of automobile exhaust from the thousands of vehicles that sat in gridlocked traffic around and throughout the city. Oliver strode down K Street with his hands in the pockets of his jeans, a camera slung around his neck and a backpack hanging loosely over his shoulders. He smiled to think that the security guards lining the streets would assume he was nothing but a tourist, even down to the bright red tan, bordering on sunburn, on his face and arms.
It had taken Oliver and Diana only four days to get back to the United States after the events in the temple.
He had emerged from the bath chamber, pursued by Kyle’s screams of pain and rage, to find Diana hiding behind a statue of Horus half way down the path of the gods. She held the staff in one hand as she hugged Oliver, but said nothing. They used the rope from his pack to climb down the rock face to sands below, then hiked to the Jeep as quickly as they could, the darkness that covered the entire basin of the lake to a depth of a foot or more dissipating to nothing as they ran through it.
When they reached the Jeep, Oliver was immensely relieved to find that the water in the five gallon jugs was still fresh. The two of them had each drunk nearly a gallon, before Oliver got the Jeep started and drove back the way he had come.
Diana hadn’t said a word to him until the Jeep was bouncing and skidding across the desert sands as Oliver followed a route on his GPS that would, eventually, return them to the wide loop of highway surrounding Al Fayyum Lake. When she did, it was only to ask Oliver what he planned to do with the staff.
He had remained silent for a minute, then glanced at Diana as he replied, “I’m going to break it.”
Diana had nodded.
They were both silent for several kilometers, then Diana had said, “That’s the right thing to do. It… it felt angry, and powerful. We can’t let anyone get their hands on it.”
Oliver stopped the Jeep, there in the middle of the Egyptian desert, and looked toward Diana. She had returned his gaze for a moment, then leaned forward and put her hand on his cheek.
She kissed him gently, then sat back and studied him in silence.
They now shared an understanding of something that went beyond their personal history, or their shared belief in ancient powers and conspiracies. Both had now touched a relic of awesome power and been judged worthy of determining its fate.
Oliver slowed his pace as he approached Founding Flounders, an upscale seafood restaurant only three blocks from the White House that was increasingly popular with executive office staff. Oliver pushed through the rotating door and introduced himself to the hostess, explaining that he was expected by one of her more private diners. She checked the reservation book, nodded, and passed Oliver off to a waiter who led him back past the crowded bar and whitewashed walls decorated with framed caricatures of political figures as fish, to one of the private dining rooms at the back of the restaurant. The waiter knocked on the door. The door opened to reveal a burly man in a dark suit.
The guard examined each of them in turn, then nodded towards Oliver’s bag. “I’ll need to look into that.”
“Have at it.”
The suited bodyguard unzipped Oliver’s bag and a puzzled look crossed his face.
Oliver smiled at that. It wasn’t every day that a sunburnt tourist met with a presidential candidate carrying a piece of wood.
“A gift. It’s harmless.”
The guard cleared his throat and pushed the wood back into the bag before tossing it back to Oliver. He nodded at the waiter, who turned and hurried away.
“Go ahead.” The guard stepped aside to reveal Senator Wheeler sitting at the far end of a large table set for sixteen, sipping a glass of whiskey on the rocks.
“Good to see you alive, kid,” Senator Wheeler exclaimed, setting the glass down and waving for Oliver to approach.
Oliver stepped past the guard and strode to a chair two seats away from the Senator. He dropped into the seat and tossed his backpack into the chair between them.
“Your father called and said you need to meet with me about our little project. I was under the impression that it had come to an end.”
“Yes. I suppose you were.” Oliver leaned back and crossed his legs under the table, enjoying the confused look on the Senator’s face. “Thanks for meeting with me, though I suppose you had to after the whole screwup with Leonidas Security.”
“I’m not sure what…”
“Please, Senator. You can be honest with me. After all, I’m the man you hired to clean up your mess.”
The Senator was silent for a moment. He worked his jaw back and forth contemplatively, then reached for his glass and took a swallow of the amber liquid. He coughed and said, “I’m not sure what you mean.”
Oliver nodded towards the guard.
The Senator got his meaning and told the man to wait outside the door.
They both waited until the door was closed, then the Senator said, “I had nothing to do with the raid on the vault. That was all Rais Karim.”
Oliver pulled a large brown envelope out of his backpack and slid it down the table towards the senator. “Take a look in there.”
The Senator unclasped the envelope flap and peered inside without dumping out the contents. His face darkened and he gave Oliver a cold look, then he closed the envelope, folded it sharply in half, and slipped it into his suit coat.
“Blackmail is a crime, kid. I hope you know that.”
Oliver laughed out loud. He had been afraid of what Wheeler could do to him when this whole adventure started, but recent events had given him a sense of confidence that was hard to shake. He laughed long and hard, pushing himself to continue even after the genuine hilarity of the moment had passed, simply to relish the growing expression of fury on Senator Wheeler’s face.
Finally he sat upright in his chair and steepled his fingers in front of his face, and said, “I think you’d have a hard time convincing anyone that this is blackmail, Senator, assuming that you let any of this come to light. Blackmail assumes that one party is offering to cover up potentially damaging information in exchange for some sort of payment. All that packet contains is screenshots from a video of some Leonidas Security contractors attempting to sell an illegally obtained Egyptian artifact last month. You can see the timestamp there at the bottom left of the image. But that’s not an issue, right? Obviously you know nothing about the internal operations of your biggest campaign contributor. It might look bad, but there can’t be anything that could be traced to you.”
Oliver leaned forward, a cynical smile creeping across his face as he spoke, “Certainly not phone records and visitors logs showing that you had extensive conversations with the Leonidas executives the day this video was taken, and again a week later when one of their men was arrested in an Egyptian hospital for selling relics on the black market.”
The Senator took another sip of his whiskey.
He said nothing.
He set his glass down on the table and clutched it for a moment, long, gnarled fingers turning white as they flexed tightly around the heavy glass. Oliver didn’t think he had pushed the man too far, but he tensed his muscles to dodge out of the way, just in case the Senator hurled the glass across the gap between them.
“You don’t have to answer. Frankly, I’m amused by the situation. Hiring me was at least discreet. Putting pressure on a major contractor, then checking in on them after the job fell apart, that was sloppy. But with Leonidas Security out of the picture now, I would appreciate being paid for delivering the goods.”
Senator Wheeler’s expression of quietly controlled rage shifted to one of confusion. He pushed the glass away with a flick of his finger and asked, “The goods?”
Oliver pointed to where his backpack rested on the chair between them. “Take a look for yourself.”
Senator Wheeler lunged forward and grabbed at the backpack, nearly knocking over his chair in his eagerness. He laid the tattered and sun faded bag on the table before him and scrabbled at the zippers while Oliver watched him with a smile. He wondered if anything half as tattered as his bag has ever been on this table.
The Senator threw the bag open and gasped in shock at what lay before him.
Resting between the splayed sides of the bag, wrapped loosely in a long strip of cotton cloth, was a piece of wood about a foot long and two inches in diameter. One end was smooth, worn by years of being gripped in a shepherd’s hand.
The Senator lifted the staff reverentially and laid it on the table before him. He shoved the bag across the table towards Oliver and sat gazing at the broken staff for a moment, eyes wide, his mouth working unintelligibly. He reached a trembling hand forward and untucked a fold of the cloth, revealing the jagged splinters of wood where the staff had been broken.
“Is this it?”
Oliver nodded. “I couldn’t bring you the whole thing, but this is the genuine article.”
Senator Wheeler glanced at Oliver, as if to judge the truth of his words. Apparently satisfied, he took a deep breath and returned to gazing at the fragment of Moses’s staff that Oliver had delivered to him. He caressed the wood with trembling fingertips.
Oliver waited in silence, allowing the Senator his moment of reverie.
Finally the old man spoke, “How can I…”
“Simple,” Oliver interjected. “The money you offered.”
“Of course. You will have it by the end of the day.”
“And a promise that you’ll behave yourself if you are elected.”
The Senator looked away from the staff and gave Oliver a puzzled look. Oliver doubted that the man had been this unguarded for decades, but he couldn’t fault the Senator for being overwhelmed at that moment.
“I have the rest of the staff somewhere safe. Behave yourself in office and I’ll deliver it to you as a retirement gift when your term expires. Keep working with bastards like Leonidas and it will appear in a museum somewhere, with papers clearly linking it to the antiquities collection of a respectable Saudi family.”
For an instant, rage flashed across the Senator’s face again, but it was washed away as he glanced at the shard of the staff laying before him on the table. His eyes locked on the ancient relic, tracing the smooth, worn wood down to the splintered end.
He took a deep breath.
He looked back to Oliver and nodded.
“Then I’d say our business is at an end.” Oliver rose to his feet and grabbed his backpack, zipping it up before tossing it over one shoulder. He lifted his camera from where he had set it on the table and stepped towards the door.
Senator Wheeler cleared his throat and touched the length of wood again before draping the cloth across it. He stood, one hand still resting on the shard of the staff, and stepped around the corner of the table to shake Oliver’s hand.
“Thank you, kid.”
“Always a pleasure doing business with honorable people, Senator,” Oliver replied, taking the Senator’s hand.
Oliver released his hand and turned away to walk out the door.
He strode past the diners at their tables and government staffers at the bar, dropped a tip on the hostess’s podium, and pushed his way out through the revolving door into the blistering heat of a Washington D.C. afternoon. A blue convertible idled at the curb, parked in the taxi lane, with Amber at the wheel and Diana in the passenger seat. Oliver tossed his backpack into the car and hopped over the closed rear door, dropping into the seat beside his bag.
Amber pulled the car into the traffic.
“Did he bite?” Diana asked.
“He’s hooked,” Oliver replied, leaning forward so he didn’t have to shout to be heard over the growling of the traffic around them.
“And you’re sure there is no power in the shard you gave him?”
Oliver reached into the left pocket of his jeans and pulled out a soft leather pouch. He unfastened the neck and pulled out a piece of wood about the size of his thumb.
The fragment was a darkly colored irregular knot, streaked with lines and swirls of brown and black, and perfectly smooth on all sides. It appeared to glow darkly in the sunlight, as if it had been carved, sanded, and oiled with care.
The knot of wood, and its more lightly colored twin, had fallen free of the staff when Oliver had climbed out of the battered old Jeep in the middle of the Egyptian desert and, with Diana’s help, split the staff against the fender of the vehicle. The staff had splintered in two places and given up the two tightly wound burls of heartwood. From that moment neither of them had felt anything when they touched the staff, so Oliver had judged it safe to give a portion of the powerless relic to Senator Wheeler.
Oliver and Diana had each taken one of the smooth knots of wood as a memento of their expedition. Diana now wore hers on a silver chain around her neck, while Oliver kept his in the leather pouch.
He smiled to himself, feeling the gentle prickle of restrained power against his palm as he held the knot. If he closed his eyes and listened, he knew he would feel the twinge of a power beyond his understanding pressing softly against his mind.
“Oh, I’m sure.”
⃪ Previous Chapter ⟢⟡⟣ Afterward
The Staff of Moses © 2022, Andrew Linke