Chapter 4: True Relics
The Senator rested his glass on the arm of his chair and gazed steadily at Oliver. “Not a bourbon man, eh?”
“No. I try it every now and again to be polite, but I prefer craft beer myself.”
The Senator cleared his throat. “I suppose I can respect that. Small brewers and their customers are a growing constituency in my home state. Tell me Oliver, are you a praying man?”
Oliver was taken aback by the non sequitur. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, studying the Senator though narrowed eyes. “Excuse me?”
The Senator glanced from Oliver to his father, who shrugged. “Give him a break Wheeler. He didn’t know you would be here. Boy’s still surprised.”
“That right, Oliver?”
Oliver nodded slowly, but didn’t say anything. He was still trying to figure out what was going on here. Obviously his father had arranged for him to meet with Senator Wheeler, and it was equally clear that the Senator was trying to get some sort of measure of him, but he couldn’t fathom where this might be going.
The Senator grinned again, a politician smile that reached every bit of his face and eyes, yet still struck Oliver as superficial. Perhaps because it was just a little too enthusiastic.
“I’m just wondering if you’re a man of faith, Oliver. I like to know who I’m dealing with, and the question is absolutely relevant to our topic this afternoon.”
Oliver stood and looked from the Senator to his father and back again. “Why don’t we start from the top. Hi, I’m Oliver Lucas. I’m a travel photographer just returned from a trip to Iceland and I’m exhausted. Depending on what my father has told you, I’m also either a dithering crackpot conspiracy theorist, or a dedicated historian who believes that most of the myths that shape our world today have roots in historical events.” Oliver paused and glanced at Ted, who was standing impassively by the door, eyes fixed on him but not giving any sign that he considered Oliver a threat. He continued, “You’re Senator Gary Wheeler, a career politician with a decent shot at the White House, sitting here in a secret bunker with my father, a self-made businessman who likes to play political power games in his spare time. Obviously I’ve been brought here for a reason, so why don’t you stop dithering about whiskey and religion and just tell me what the hell you want.”
Senator Wheeler leaned back in his chair, apparently surprised at Oliver’s outburst.
Oliver’s father chuckled and took a sip of his drink.
“Alright,” the Senator said, after studying Oliver’s face for a moment. “Sit back down and I’ll tell you why you’re here.”
Oliver returned to his seat and leaned back, crossing one leg across his knee and resting his hands on his lap. He looked at the Senator, expectantly.
“Tim. If you could step outside.”
The Secret Service guard nodded, pulled the heavy door open, and stepped into the landing at the base of the staircase, pulling the door shut behind him.
“Are you familiar with the Old Testament?”
“Specifically, the tale of the exodus from Egypt, when the children of Israel threw off their chains of servitude and began the long journey to the promised land.”
Oliver nodded again and gestured for the Senator to continue.
“The Bible speaks of many wondrous events during that time. Plagues. Burning bushes. Pillars of fire. All signs from God that the Pharaoh must, ‘let my people go’ as Moses put it.”
“I’m familiar with the story, Senator. All Sunday school stories and historical studies aside, I’ve seen The Ten Commandments over a dozen times. Got a friend who’s obsessed with old films.”
Senator Wheeler smiled at that, and continued. “Then I don’t have to go into detail about the origins of the legends concerning the staff of Moses.”
Oliver nodded his head in agreement. “I’m familiar with that bit of history. Moses carried it throughout the Exodus story, from the moment he spoke to God at the burning bush until he died just outside the promised land. It’s supposed to have had many powers.”
“Are you familiar with the fate of this particular relic?”
Oliver pondered that for a minute. It had been a long time since he had investigated that particular line of history. Finally he replied, “As I recall, the staff was supposed to have been passed from generation to generation among the kings of Judah, then lost during one of the invasions of biblical Israel. Some scholars believe that it might be the same as the rod of Aaron, which was placed in the Ark of the Covenant and remained there until the Ark was lost.”
“But what if the staff wasn’t lost? Both scenarios you describe say it is gone, but I’ve heard other versions of the story. What do you make of the story that Moses’s staff is actually in a museum in Turkey?”
“I’ve heard of that. Personally, I doubt it. In my experience most true relics were destroyed in arguments over what king, religion, or church should be allowed to control them. Only a few were actually kept safe by whoever won the argument. Most true relics are hidden away in remote monasteries or caves.”
The Senator nodded and reached for his liquor glass. He held the glass up to the light and contemplated the dark liquid within. “You say, ‘in your experience.’ What do you mean by that?”
Oliver contemplated how much to reveal to the Senator. He was cautious to cover his adventuring with a legitimate career, but there was no denying that his actions occasionally crossed the borders of legality. Then there was the matter of just how much the Senator knew of his academic past.
His father interrupted Oliver’s train of through. “Just tell him, Oliver. You’re here because Senator Wheeler mentioned something to me and I told him you might be able to help out.”
“What did you tell him?” Oliver kept his voice level, but inside he was beginning to feel the pressure rise. After the collapse of his academic career, Oliver had kept the truth of his adventures to a small group of friends and a string of pseudonymous internet forums. The thought of someone as powerful as Senator Wheeler knowing the truth about his international travel and research efforts gave him chills.
Michael Lucas shrugged. “He knows about some of your theories, and I mentioned your trip to Brazil a few years ago.”
“As it happens,” the Senator interjected, “I share some of your theories. Maybe not all of them, but I do sympathize with your plight. It’s a hard thing to stand for your beliefs against the engines of secular academia.”
Oliver shook his head and looked back at the Senator. “With all due respect, sir, you don’t even know what you’re talking about. I gave up my career because I refused to bury my theories, and I’m not sure you’d like half of them. The influence of inexplicable technology on cultural development doesn’t exactly blend well with the strict Biblical creationism I’ve heard you refer to in speeches.”
“However that might be, what concerns me is whether your ‘experience’ extends to the location and recovery of artifacts.”
“Might you be willing to recover something for me?”
“If it exists, and the price is right.”
The Senator guffawed. He took a gulp from his drink and began to cough, then washed the cough away with another hearty slurp. He shook his head and rested the glass on the arm of his chair. “It always comes down to that, doesn’t it?”
Oliver’s voice remained level. “As you astutely pointed out, my stand against the engines of secularism robbed me of a career. Photography pays well, but unsponsored adventure travel is expensive.”
“Oh, I understand, my boy. And I am certainly prepared to pay if you can deliver the goods.”
“Again, what are you asking me to find?”
“I thought that would be obvious by now. I want to you retrieve the staff of Moses for me.”
“I’m not a thief, Senator. If you want the staff from Turkey, go find a burglar to steal it for you. My speciality is tracking down long lost relics, not breaking known artifacts out of museums.”
The Senator snorted. “Do you really think there is that much of a distinction?”
Oliver leaned forward in his chair and glared at the Senator. His voice was icy as he spoke. “There is a difference. The relics I seek out are almost always lost to history. Their very existence as more than plot points in old myths is only believed by a few people. On some rare occasions I’ve encountered cults that worship and protect the objects, but generally they’re hidden away in some decrepit temple or tomb, forgotten by all living people. I bring these objects back to the living. I give them a reason to exist once again.”
“The cultural ministries of many nations would disagree.”
“Are you this argumentative with everyone, Senator Wheeler?” Oliver asked, settling back in his chair with an exasperated sigh. “Because if you are I would seriously question your ability to govern a nation with nuclear weapons.”
“I’m just trying to get the measure of you, kid,” the Senator replied. “I need to know the person I send on this mission can be trusted to complete it without causing a diplomatic mess.”
“I haven’t accepted any mission yet, because you haven’t explained yourself, but I assure you that I will not cause any mess. Now why don’t you stop jerking me around and tell me why you think the staff of Moses is real, and what it has to to with me.”
The Senator eyed Oliver over his drink for a moment, apparently considering his words. Oliver was growing increasingly tense. His father had shown no support for his research in the last decade and this was a hell of a way to start.
Maybe I should just leave, he thought. Walk out of here and leave the old man flapping in the breeze.
Oliver had dealt with prickly collectors and power-mad curators, but nobody he had dealt with in the last ten years had intentionally aggravated him like the Senator was now. Something about the grey-haired politician rubbed Oliver the wrong way.
Senator Wheeler took another sip from his glass and set it down on the table. He leaned forward, looking Oliver in the eyes, and said, “The facts are these, kid. I’ve long been interested in biblical relics. A colleague in the State Department recently informed me that several previously unrecorded scrolls had been stolen from the Egyptian state museum during the recent upheavals in that country. Those same scrolls showed up on the antiquities black market a month ago. The description that accompanies them says they describe a battle between the Egyptians and the Hittites that ended when the Egyptians captured a magic staff from their enemies.”
“That’s all?” Oliver asked in a skeptical tone.
“No. Normally the State Department wouldn’t have gotten involved in simple antiquity theft, but my colleague started hearing rumors from his contacts within the Egyptian state security community, or what was left of it after the government fell. It seems that one of the ousted officials from the Egyptian state security service has been making waves in the underground artifact trade, intimating that he will personally execute anyone who is foolish enough to buy this particular scroll. Of course, that drew the attention of my colleagues, who identified the official and passed word of him on to me.”
The Senator paused and looked at Oliver, as if waiting for him to ask for more of the story. Oliver waited in silence, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of asking for him to continue. If the Senator wanted him to travel to Egypt and track down a relic, then he would have to stop playing games.
A minute passed in awkward silence as Oliver studied the cut of Senator Wheeler’s suit and Oliver’s father slowly rattled the ice in his glass before the Senator sighed and continued. “My colleague in the State Department learned that the official was one Rais Karim, former chief of the Egyptian Official Secrets Bureau. Is the name familiar to you?”
Oliver shook his head. “Should it be?”
“I didn’t expect you to know him, but it would not have surprised me since you are both in the same business. To the best of our knowledge, Mr. Karim was a member of an element within the Egyptian security establishment responsible for protecting, shall we say, genuine relics. Not just mummies that have been slowly turning to dust over the centuries, but fragments of the past that are deemed unsafe for public knowledge. You might say he managed the Egyptian Area 51.”
“We both know that Area 51 is nothing more than a weapon testing facility,” Oliver interjected.
“So let me see if I’m getting this right. The Egyptian people rebel, yet again, and throw out half the government. During the chaos a scroll is lost that might describe the fate of a magic staff, which you believe to have belonged to Moses. And you think all this is real because a deposed Egyptian bureaucrat is trying to get his hands on the scroll?”
“That about sums it up.”
“Sounds like a stretch to me,” Oliver replied. He didn’t say what he was thinking, however. He hadn’t exactly told the truth when asked if he recognized the name of Rais Karim. He had heard the name many times before. Indeed, he had counted himself fortunate that his quest for shards of the mysterious mechanism had never lead him to Egypt, in large part because of the reputation of Rais Karim in the relic hunting community.
The world of relic hunting was not especially large and, even if people tended to hide behind pseudonyms, word of their actions tended to leak out. Even a few of Oliver’s adventures had begun to circulate around the internet, albeit without his name attached, as other treasure hunters put together the same clues he had and made their way to the hiding places of relics he had retrieved, only to find evidence of them being recently recovered. Some had even sent him messages asking if they had discovered his handiwork, after correlating his legitimate adventure photography business with the locations of relics that had gone missing.
Oliver knew that there was still a wealth of genuine relics in Egypt, but he had long avoided that region because rumor had it that the secret police were actively protecting many of Egypt’s relics, or at least safeguarding the best clues that might lead to them. And who could blame them, he thought. After the Egyptologists of the early twentieth century shipped half of the country’s history to England and America. Rais Karim was said to be the chief of Egypt’s relic protection forces, and there was more than one story of him personally interrogating would-be relic thieves who got too close to the genuine article.
“Tell me where I come in to this.”
“I want that staff, and it looks like that scroll is the best clue out there at the moment.”
“Obviously. But why do you want me?”
The Senator sighed, his face suddenly drooping into a mask of exhaustion. “As you so adroitly pointed out, I am running for President. The rest of my party might have self destructed, but I still have a good shot. If I can get that staff however...” His voice trailed off and Oliver thought for a moment that he looked genuinely embarrassed.
“Do you know what powers are ascribed to the staff, Oliver?”
“As I recall, Moses used the staff to call down plagues and draw water from rocks. It is also said to have turned into a snake once, but a literal reading would indicate that it was actually Aaron’s staff was used for that bit of magic.”
The Senator nodded. “Those are the popular miracles ascribed to Moses and his staff, yes. But there are others powers spoken of in folk tales, and hinted at between the lines of the biblical account. One story tells of a time when the Israelites went into battle and Moses held his staff up in his arms for a whole day. So long as his arms were raised, the battle went in favor of his people. Consider also the man himself. According to the book of Exodus and the Midrash, Moses was a timid man with a weak speaking voice in the years following his flight from Egypt to Midian. But when God blessed him and showed him the fantastic properties of his staff, Moses grew in confidence and the children of Israel followed him.”
“Does this have anything to do with your campaign?” Oliver asked.
“No. And yes.” The Senator looked uncomfortable again. “Look, this isn’t something I can easily explain. On one level I know it is ridiculous, perhaps even a bit blasphemous, but something makes me think that if I have that staff in my possession it might somehow grant me that edge in charisma. It might give me the boost I need to win this election. And even if it doesn’t, you of all people must understand the impulse to own a piece of sacred history.”
“I understand,” Oliver replied. “Even if I think that you’re just a bit cracked for believing that a relic that channeled the power of God over three thousand years ago in the Middle East could help you win an election in America this year.”
Senator Wheeler shrugged. “What can I say. I believe it will.”
“What’s in this for me?”
“How does fifty thousand sound?”
“Of course. One of my nephews will purchase some shares in your father’s horses at a higher than usual price, and he will forward the money to you as a gift. Everything completely legal and, more importantly, quite roundabout and difficult to prove.”
Oliver looked inquiringly at his father, who nodded back at him.
“I assume you have a little more information than you’ve told me. I mean, if you want me to track down this staff for you, I need more than your word that there is a scroll somewhere in Egypt that says something.”
The Senator nodded and reached beside his chair for a briefcase Oliver had not noticed before. He pulled the briefcase onto his lap and clicked it open. He pulled out a manila envelope and passed it to Oliver across the table. “Consider this a downpayment. The remainder will be transferred to your father when you complete the job.”
“I don’t return deposits.”
“Understandable in your line of work.”
“Egypt isn’t the safest place right now. I’ll need some help with getting a few weapons into the country. You cover the cost of that, also.”
“Of course. Give your father a list of whatever you need, so long as it fits into a bag about this big.” He outlined the shape of a small travel bag in the air with his hands. “Then let him know what hotel you’ll be staying at, and I will ensure it is delivered. We have diplomatic packages going back and forth several times a week, so there should be no difficulty in including your equipment.”
Oliver stood and extended his hand to the Senator. “I appreciate that you called on me for this. I’ll do my best.”
The Senator shut his briefcase, stood to shake his hand and replied, “Certainly, my boy. When I mentioned the staff to your father he assured me that you were the man for this job. When can you leave for Egypt?”
“I’ve literally just returned from Iceland. I need a day or two to rest and gather supplies for the desert, then I’ll be on my way.”
“Take a room at a hotel in Cairo. Leave the address with your father and I’ll ensure your supplies are delivered promptly, along with all the information my people in Egypt have on the scrolls that are up for sale. How long do you anticipate this taking?”
“That will depend on what I find when I get there. Do you tweet sir?”
“Microblogging. Twitter. I sometimes use a secure account to take notes and share my progress with clients.”
“Oh, yes. I have someone on my staff who manages all that social media stuff, but I never touch it myself.”
“Then you’d better arrange a prepaid cell phone for us to talk on. Buy it with cash and send the number to my hotel.”
The Senator nodded, but he was clearly uncomfortable with Oliver telling him what to do.
“Thank you, Senator. I’ll do my best. Now if you don’t mind, I need to have a word with my father, I haven’t seen him for quite a while.” Oliver gestured to the door and smiled.
“Before I go, just one thing,” the Senator said, holding up a hand and waving a finger at Oliver.
He placed the hand on Oliver’s shoulder and gripped it tightly. He looked down into Oliver’s eyes and said, “If you screw me on this, or breathe a word of what I’ve asked of you to the media, you’ll never fly again. It’s not hard. One word to the right agency and your only way off this continent will be on a private sailboat.” His voice was calm, and slightly slurred from the whiskey, but there was gravity to it.
Oliver met the Senator’s gaze without blinking. He waited, not trusting his voice because he was genuinely afraid now, but still certain he could out-stare the politician. His muscles tensed as he mentally went through the steps it would take to remove the Senator’s fingers from his shoulder and snap them one by one.
Senator Wheeler blinked first. He stepped away from Oliver, nodded past him to his father, and pulled the heavy door open. Ted the Secret Service agent pulled the door shut without a word as the Senator stomped up the steps.
Oliver turned to his father and exploded. “What was that? You hardly say a word to me for six months, don’t see me for years, then all of a sudden, you’re the proud father showing me off to a Presidential candidate?”
Michael Lucas rubbed his pointy chin, took another sip of his whiskey, and gave a half-hearted shrug. “I’m sorry Oliver. I know that this won’t mean terribly much, but I do feel bad about that. I just wanted to try and make it up to you. I thought this would help.”
“And the chance to show off to a candidate had nothing to do with it?”
Oliver relaxed a little. He was still upset, and didn’t believe his father’s denial of any political motivations, but willing to listen. “Well, it’s good to see you again, Dad.”
“Likewise, son. I’ll be frank. I still wish you’d at least toned it down a little when your career started to look rocky, but you’ve still managed to make something of yourself over the last few years, and I can be proud of that.”
Michael stepped forward and offered his hand to Oliver who, after only a brief hesitation, reached out and shook it. Oliver looked his father straight in the eye and held his gaze until the older man blinked and broke his grip. He clapped Oliver on the arm and grinned. “You want to stick around for a drink? I think Gwen might have some of those beers in the fridge upstairs.”
Oliver shook his head. “Maybe when I get back. I’m still dehydrated from the flight and it looks like I’ll be boarding another before the week is out.”
Michael nodded and led his son through the heavy door and up the stairs. At the top he pressed a comically large red button set into the wall and waited for the false wall to swing up and out of their way. Once in the closet, they paused briefly to listen, then opened the door of the broom closet and stepped out into the kitchen. Amber and Gwen were there, sitting opposite one another with a steaming pot of coffee on the table between them. Amber was in the middle of explaining her opinion on a recent metal concert video she had reviewed to Gwen, who appeared a bit dazed at the younger woman’s blithe summary of the band’s onstage antics. Michael swept in and rescued her with a request to see how the gardens were growing since he had last visited the inn.
Amber recognized her uncle’s gesture and stood to hug him goodbye before grabbing Oliver’s hand and leading him out the door and directly to her car. As they drove away from the inn he filled her in on the encounter in the bunker. She expressed annoyance at having never seen the underground room then lapsed into silence for several miles. Oliver rode quietly beside her, contemplating the day’s events.
Eventually she spoke, her voice so calm and level that Oliver knew instinctively that she had been composing the sentence for at least a mile, working over exactly how to say it without too much emotion. “Oliver, are you sure you want to take this job?”
Oliver looked at her and sighed, his breath coming out long and slow. Then he spoke. “No. I don’t trust the man as far as you could throw him.”
Amber couldn’t help giggling a little at that remark, but quickly became serious again. “Then why are you taking it?”
“Because... What if? Amber, what if this is real? What if I actually have the chance to get my hands on a real piece of biblical history? So far everything I’ve managed to track down has been from the scattered remnants of fallen civilizations and dead religions. This might be my chance to find something that half the world would recognize as a genuine relic.”
“Except that they’ll never get to see it.”
“Well, yes. Except for that.” One side of Oliver’s mouth turned up in an ironic smile. “But it would still feel good.”
“Until the Senator turns on you.”
Oliver knew she was right. He had been thinking along those same lines ever since the door had closed on Senator Wheeler back at the inn, but the urge to find out exactly what he was dealing with was too strong.
“I’m going through with it,” he said.
Amber knew that tone and knew better than to try and talk Oliver out of his decision, so she just took a deep breath then said, “Do you want me to keep the mechanism fragment for you while you’re gone?”
Oliver nodded. “I’ve got the others locked up in bank vaults across the state. If you could put this one in a safety deposit box somewhere around here, I’d appreciate it.”
“If you won’t listen to my advice and get out of this game, the least I can do is lend you a hand.”
Oliver nodded and settled back into his seat. He closed his eyes and began running through a list of what he might need to pack for an expedition into the desert.