Monday, April 23, 2012

The Ersatz Staff

Written Feb. 27

I could see she wasn't buying it. “But it's fake,” she insisted. “You said so yourself.”

“That's not the point, Jess,” I said mildly, and popped open the car's trunk.

Then what the hell is the point!” she all but shouted, and I shushed her frantically. No need to draw attention, after all.

She took a deep breath and tried again. “If it's a forgery, then why steal it? Help me out, here, Brian, because I'm at a loss as to why it's even worth the effort.”

“It's simple,” I began, taking a duffel bag out of the trunk and balancing it on the bumper. “About eighty, eighty-five years ago, a British artist carved it as a gift to one of his archaeologist friends. It was supposed to be a joke, apparently – the staff of Ra, in all its splendor. And the materials that make it up are authentic to the period, it has that much going for it. Anyway he didn't tell his friend it was a forgery right away, and his friend immediately went to about a dozen museums and showed it off, and they authenticated it. That's how good the carving was.”

“Right, okay. So when did the other shoe drop?”

“I'm getting to that,” I said dismissively, handing her a grapnel hook. “The artist was mortified, obviously. Eventually the archaeologist sold it to this very museum -“ I waved a flashlight in the general direction of the building - “for the modern equivalent of 500,000 pounds.”

Jess whistled at that.

“The artist was far too embarrassed to reveal the joke at this point. He left it in his will, apparently, that all involved parties be informed.” I shrugged, taking out a pair of black masks and handing one to her before donning one myself. “Can't say I blame him. The museum sometimes exhibits it as a whole thing about hoaxes. It's great. Saw it last year.”

“I see. Well, no, I still don't. Why are we here?”

I smiled. “It turns out – and this is the good part – it turns out that the staff, while a fake, does have one very special, very interesting feature.”

She crossed her arms and raised her eyebrows in that 'this-had-better-be-good' expression she'd gotten so good at in the three years we'd known each other.

I gave my best effort to keep a straight face, but I can't say I succeeded. “The orb on the end of the staff had some very intricate carvings – hieroglyphs, mainly. It so happens that the artist took great pains to learn how to write ancient Egyptian.”

“Awfully elaborate prank.”

“Well, it seems that it wasn't just a prank.” I pulled a big green book from the duffel bag and, setting the bag back into the trunk and closing it, I cracked open the book to a dog-eared page.

She frowned at this. “What is that?” she asked, skepticism replaced with curiosity.

“It is,” I said, unable to maintain my composure and grinning widely now, “a list of the members of the ancient Cult of Tangarō .”

“Never heard of it.” Skeptical again.

“You wouldn't have. Very secretive, very obscure.” I looked at her. “Not that ancient, either, to be honest. They just insisted on calling themselves that, like Gardner and his lot. Founded 1924 in London, vague ties to Aleister Crowley himself, all that.”

Fascinating” she intoned drily. “Can we move on?”

“Right, right. Well, despite a rather lackluster member count – membership peaked at twenty-nine people – they had a strict hierarchy, as any decent cult will, and it turns out our artist was pretty high on the pecking order. At that time their little sect was dying out, and he wanted to leave a legacy for the cult.”

She frowned again. “But if the 'ancient Egyptian' turned out to be propaganda for a modern cult, doesn't that sort of give the game away?”

Oh, sure. Which is why he didn't do that.” I flipped to another page about three-quarters through the book, and read. “'Those with true Wisdom, who learn well the words of the Gods and can divine their meaning, and who put aside folly and the evils of this world, shall come to reap great rewards, and all shall tremble to behold such wealth.' Do you see this?” I was pointing now to a group of numbers halfway down the page. “It's a code. You know how some ciphers will be based on books, with a page and line number or whatever?”

She nodded.

This,” I declared proudly, slapping the page with the back of my hand, “refers to the staff.

So what you're saying,” Jess began slowly, “is that, in the back room of a second-rate museum, there is a fake Egyptian staff that looks real, that while being in and of itself bereft of value, contains encoded upon it the secrets of some shitty cult that couldn't even muster thirty people at a time, and your plan is to go in and steal the damn thing?”


“Risking imprisonment and possible injury?”


She considered that for a moment. “Why didn't you just go in and ask to study it?” she finally asked.

I barked laughter. “That's rich. You make it sound like I still have credentials.”

That wasn't my fault. And it's fake anyway, what do they care?”
“Who knows? I already asked and they said no.” She looked like she was going to say something else but I stopped her. “Before you ask it, no, there's not a scan posted online either, and none of my old buddies from the lab would help. We're on our own.”

She held my gaze for a moment, then hefted the grapnel. “Then what the hell are we waiting for?”

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