by Stoney M. Setzer
For several minutes, the silence took on an almost tangible weight in the Colossus Pictures conference room. Any other man in his position might be squirming by now, but Preston Rusch was no other man. He was one of the best directors in Hollywood, and he could not have been calmer. Even if the studio executives balked - and they would - he had already mapped out a foolproof strategy.
As if on cue, Wilbur Rhodes shook his head. He was the studio’s founder and president, and the rest of the board had learned to let him do the talking. “Incredible budget here, Rusch. You realize that this would be the most expensive picture in the history of the studio?”
“In the history of Hollywood, actually,” Rusch corrected him, not caring if he sounded smug. That comment was good for sparking murmurs around the table. Quickly Rhodes threw up his hand, and like well-trained soldiers the others fell silent and stared back at Rusch, reminding him of a firing squad.
“If this picture’s anything less than a hit, we’re ruined!” Rhodes exclaimed. “So what in blazes makes you think we would sign off on such a budget?”
“That’s easy. Cecil B. DeMille.”
Rhodes reddened. Mentioning the name of any rival studio’s employees in his presence was tantamount to blasphemy. “What does he have to do with this?”
“Were you aware that he’s planning on doing a movie called The Ten Commandments?”
“He’s already done it, back in the silent...”
“This is a remake,” Rusch said coolly. “Full color, big name performers, the works.”
The executives became less like a firing squad and more like a buzzing beehive as they whispered among themselves. As Rusch studied Rhodes, he knew that he had hit his mark. If Rhodes believed in anything, it was competing head-to-head with other studios.
Once more he silenced his board, and then he looked at Rusch with steely eyes. “I’ll approve it, but know this: If you fail me, then I will see to it that your career is over.”
Any other director might have been intimidated by such a threat, but Rusch didn’t consider himself to be any other director. “Don’t worry about that. Just think about all the money we’re going to make off of this when we have a hit on our hands.”
Months later, a convoy of buses traversed the Egyptian desert en route to the parcel of land that would be both office and home to Rusch and his crew until the picture was completed. “Look at this place,” Cassandra Doran said with a shudder as she stared out the bus window. “It gives me the creeps.”
Rusch gave her a fatherly pat on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, child,” he whispered. “Nothing to fear.”
He had directed Cassandra in four films previously, and in that time she had accepted him as a father figure. As such, only he was privy to the fears and insecurities behind such comments. To everyone else, she was an aloof, exotic beauty with unshakable confidence, like the characters she played on the silver screen. Only Rusch knew the real Cassandra, the vulnerable child living behind the mask, and he made it his business to uphold her confidence.
When her co-star Hank Leary looked at her, however, he saw only the façade, and it took no great psychologist to discern that he would be either incapable of or unwilling to see beyond the image. As he took the seat in front of them, he grinned broadly at Cassandra, caring little for subtlety. She returned the smile, but her eyes betrayed the gesture. Rusch doubted that she could have been any more disgusted if someone had placed a ton of manure before her.
“Why does he have to be in this movie?” Cassandra whispered. “Do you see the way he keeps looking at me?”
“I know, I know,” Rusch replied. “I don’t like it either, but the studio wanted a male lead that appealed to female audiences, and apparently he’s what the ladies like nowadays.”
“He looks good,” Cassandra conceded, glancing at his matinée idol face and muscular arms, “but that’s about it.”
A ton of hype had surrounded Hank since he had switched careers from baseball to acting, making him an instant household name, but in reality Hank had done little to justify it. Calling the former catcher a below-average ballplayer was an understatement, and it was only by sheer providence that a movie producer had happened to be a guest in the owner’s box at what happened to be Hank’s last game before the team cut him. The producer saw past his baseball ineptitude to his physical appearance - helped no doubt by the audible adoration voiced by the female fans in attendance - and realized that he had the perfect look to draw women to theaters like a magnet. Rusch had heard rumors that Hank’s movie contract had been hastily arranged to reduce the severance the team would have to pay him. It would certainly have explained how he kept landing lead roles with so little talent.
For his part, Hank was oblivious to their dislike of him; he had never been accused of being overly intelligent. “Sure is a lot of money they’re putting into this picture, huh?” he asked jovially.
“Yes,” Rusch replied slowly, patiently. “A lot of money.”
“Guess it’d be a mess if we can’t pull this off.”
Cassandra’s eyes widened, but Rusch stepped in quickly. “Now there’s nothing to fear, Hank. I’m directing, remember? I’ve never had a movie fail to turn a profit. Nothing will stand in our...”
The blaring of the bus horn interrupted him. Suddenly the driver slammed on the brakes, causing everyone on the bus to pitch forward. A split second later, the second bus in the convoy swerved off the road to avoid rear-ending them. “What are you doing?” Rusch bellowed at the driver.
“Those idiots!” the driver replied, pointing ahead. In the middle of the desert road stood two robed figures, staring impassively at the bus. “They were just walking up the road, and they wouldn’t get out of the way!”
“We’ll see about that,” Rusch snapped, striding out of the bus. “Hey, you two, out of the way! We’re coming through!”
One of the men gestured to the other, who said, “Turn back instead, Mr. Rusch.”
Taken aback, Rusch demanded, “Who are you? How do you know...?”
“My associate and I know more than you can imagine. We know what awaits you if you go through with your movie.”
It’s the press, has to be, Rusch thought. That’s how they know about the movie and me. “And what, pray tell, might that be?”
The silent one went through another elaborate series of gestures. When he was finished, Spokesman declared, “Plague and woe, Mr. Rusch. Abandon this project. If you persist, then the curse of the Pharaoh shall be upon you and your crew.”
Rusch threw his head back and laughed. “Curse of the Pharaoh? You’ve been out in the heat too long! Now stand aside!”
Once more, Silent went through a series of signs, looking very much like a baseball coach. “All right, Mr. Rusch,” Spokesman said, “as soon as you pick a number from one to ten.”
At first Rusch wanted to refuse because of the absurdity of the request, but he sensed that it might be the only way to appease these two lunatics. “Six. Now move!”
“Suit yourself,” Spokesman replied with a nod as he and Silent stepped aside. Not wanting to waste another moment, Rusch scrambled back into the bus and ordered the driver on.
By the time the troupe set up camp that night, it was far too late to set up for shooting, so Rusch granted everyone the rest of the day off, on the condition that they be ready to start work early the next morning. He figured that the desert heat would be brutal, and he did not want to waste a moment of the comparatively cool morning temperatures.
A good night’s sleep proved to be an impossible goal, however. Every time he closed his eyes, Spokesman and Silent were there before him, warning him to turn back. Nameless, indistinct figures surrounded them, but Rusch could never identify them well enough to remember anything about them upon waking. Some seven times that night he awoke with a violent start from his nightmare, only to have the dream resume from the beginning as soon as he went back to sleep.
As he stepped out of the trailer shortly after sunrise, Rusch immediately noticed that he was the first to do so. Granted, he was early, but he knew that Anthony Howard, his director of photography, demanded even earlier starts of his underlings than Rusch did of everyone else. Usually he would already have them out setting up for the day’s work by this point.
Had it been anyone else, Rusch would have thought nothing of it, but this was too far out of character for Howard. Going over to his trailer, he knocked briskly on its door. “Anthony?” he called. “It’s Preston. Are you all right?”
For a tense moment he heard nothing. He let himself exhale once he heard footsteps, indulging a sigh of relief. He overslept, that’s all.
The door swung open slowly, and Rusch recoiled immediately. It took a moment or two for him to process the sight, to accept that it really was Howard standing before him. His face was now covered with huge red boils, rendering him virtually unrecognizable. The few patches of skin between blemishes were ghastly pale in contrast, looking more suited to the guest of honor at a funeral than to a living man.
“I let you beat me to work just once, and you bang on my door like a tax collector,” Howard rasped, trying to be droll. Same old Howard, Rusch thought. It would have been funnier if not for the boils.
“What happened to you?”
“Beats me. I woke up and felt like I’d been kissing a porcupine.” His eyes lit up with a mischievous spark Rusch knew all too well. “Why, I’ll bet this is even more painful than spending five minutes in the same zip code with your ex-wife.”
“Very funny,” Rusch retorted, momentarily forgetting how far from normal things had gone. “Too bad Myra’s not here to see you like this. This is probably the best you’ve looked in the morning since your honeymoon.” Switching back to a more serious tone, he asked, “What do you want us to do for you?”
“Nothing. I may be a little late, but I’ll get there.”
“You’re coming to work today? Look, we can give you a day off, let someone else...”
Howard glared at Rusch as if he had just blasphemed. “And which one of those imbeciles would you suggest?”
The director’s jaw dropped. Rusch had never known him to have anything less than the highest praise for his cameramen. “What?”
“If I’m not out there to hold their hands and walk them through every little thing, they’ll wreck your movie, with my name on it. Imbeciles, all of them!”
Rusch raised an eyebrow. “Even your nephew?”
“Especially my nephew! For Pete’s sake, you’ve met my sister! How much intelligence can you expect from somebody who came out of that womb? Give me forty-five minutes, and I’ll be out there.” With that, Howard closed the door.
Rusch’s mind was racing. He had never heard Howard bash his crews before, although he agreed with his assessment. Still, hearing it come from Howard was even more disconcerting than seeing him pocked with boils.
It’s the first day of shooting, Rusch thought, shrugging it off. Something always goes wrong on the first day.
An hour later, the cast and crew were assembled and in their places, ready to begin the day’s shooting. True to his word, Howard showed up for work, but Rusch couldn’t help but notice the difference in his demeanor. Instead of displaying his accustomed patience with his cameramen, he was gruff, impatient, and short-tempered. At one point he looked ready to deck a grip operator because he committed the great sin of asking Howard to repeat himself.
Rusch’s assistant, Gwen, came up to him between takes with a slip of paper. “Message for you, sir,” she said.
“Who sent it?” They didn’t exactly have the world’s most sophisticated communication equipment out here, as that had been one place where Rhodes cut corners to accommodate everything else. Receiving a message from the studio would have been a nice trick, but who else would want to contact them?
Gwen shrugged. “I didn’t take the message. It was just sitting there with your name on it.”
Frowning, Rusch took the slip from her. Unfolding it, he found that the note was written in generic block print.
Already the curse of the Pharaoh is upon your crew. Abandon this project at once. Otherwise, the consequences will be severe.
Rusch wadded up the note and tossed it aside. As if he didn’t have enough to worry about, now came threats from nameless lunatics. “If I survive this film….” he grumbled.
“Mr. Rusch! Come quick!” cried a frantic voice from behind. Madelyn Kline, the chief makeup artist, was running over as quickly as her dress and high heels would permit. Panting, she came to a stop at Rusch’s chair. “We need you in makeup right now! We’ve got a huge problem!”
“What is it?” he snapped. “And what’s taking Cassandra so long?”
“She’s the problem!” Madelyn cried, as if it should have been obvious. “Now come on!”
Madelyn got a head start on Rusch, but her high heels made it easy for him to catch up. Dutifully Gwen followed, but her own choice of footwear relegated her to a poor third. They knew we were going to be on location, so why didn’t they pack appropriately? Rusch wondered.
The trip from the set to the makeup trailer, less than fifty yards, seemed to take an eternity as his imagination leafed through the possibilities. On an ordinary production, he probably would have guessed at some routine thing such as her protesting over a certain shade of eye shadow or lipstick, for Cassandra had been known for such complaints before. Only he knew that it was a manifestation of her insecurity rather than an attempt to be a spoilt brat.
However, Madelyn had been in this business too long to get this frantic over a griping actress, so he had to expect the worst. Besides, this was quickly shaping to be anything but an ordinary production.
Once they reached the trailer, Madelyn shouted to one of her assistants, “Have Cassandra come out! Mr. Rusch is here!”
“No!” Cassandra’s voice shouted back. “I don’t want anyone to see me like this!”
Stepping forward, Rusch called, “Cassandra, it’s me. Now be a dear and come talk to me.”
“I...I can’t,” she replied, her voice trembling like a frightened child’s. She sounded as if she were struggling unsuccessfully against tears.
With a sigh, Rusch shifted into the paternal tone he so often found himself using with her. “It’s going to be all right, Cassandra. You can trust me, but I can’t help you unless you come out here.”
“OK.” When she reluctantly emerged, Rusch saw that she too had developed boils on her skin. Hers were not nearly so advanced as Howard’s, but the condition was still quite noticeable. Immediately Rusch felt a pang of sympathy for her. The boils would be painful enough for anyone, but he could only imagine how traumatic they must be for her, who in private would be the first to admit that her success hinged upon her appearance. “See what I mean?” she whispered.
“That does it!” Rusch declared. “We have to get a doctor out here immediately!”
“I’m on it, sir,” Gwen replied. She hobbled off as quickly as she could, having turned an ankle on the way over. In light of the circumstances, she wisely decided not to mention it.
Sighing deeply, Rusch said, “All right, Cassandra, you’re not working today. We’ll manage until we figure this out.” Liar, he thought ruefully.
“Oh, thank you, Preston!” Cassandra squealed, her giddy tone a stark mismatch with her boils. She skipped out of the makeup trailer, knocking Madelyn’s assistant to the ground, and threw her arms around Rusch’s neck. “You have no idea how happy I am, getting out of working with that creepy Leary! The way me looks at me just makes me feel so...dirty!” With that, she abruptly kissed him—right on the lips, the sort of kiss for which the likes of Hank would have gladly given an eyeball.
So stupefied was Rusch that he could not even move. Finally pulling away, Cassandra gave him an impish grin, giggled, and bounced off to her trailer, skipping like a schoolgirl. The incident seemed so surreal that he could have stood there indefinitely, trying to convince himself that it didn’t really happen. He had never harbored any romantic inclinations toward her, making the gesture profoundly disturbing.
“And what exactly was that all about?” Madelyn demanded, pulling Rusch back into reality.
“I have no idea.”
Madelyn shook her head, making a clicking noise with her tongue. “I know it’s been a while, but she’s young enough to be your daughter!”
Rusch nodded, but he was too troubled by Cassandra’s behavior to pay much attention to her. What next? he wondered, without really wanting to know the answer.
“What do you mean, you couldn’t get a doctor?” Rusch snapped.
“Which part did you find confusing?” Gwen retorted. “We can’t call out. We are cut off from the outside world. If you want to contact anybody, you have to leave here to do it. Is that clear enough for you, sir?” Her tone made the last word sound like an obscenity. “By the way, here’s another message for you, sir.” She threw it at him rather than handing it to him.
Somehow managing to catch it, Rusch unfolded the paper and was confronted by the same block print as before.
Why are you still here? Your problems will only escalate until you admit defeat.
Trying to keep the edge out of his voice, Rusch inquired, “If we’re cut off, then how did this...?”
“I don’t know!” Gwen screamed, causing him to jump. “I didn’t realize that this job required me to know everything! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going ice this ankle that I turned working for you!” With that, she stormed out as quickly as her gimpy ankle would allow. Rusch said nothing but stood there for several seconds, watching her leave.
Her skin had been clear at the trailer, but now she was developing boils of her own.
“I’m afraid we have no choice but to cancel shooting for the rest of the day,” Rusch announced as he addressed the set. About a dozen more people now had boils on their faces as they stared back at him. “Some members of our company are ailing, and I feel that it would be in our best interests to give them time to recuperate.” His announcement was met with a mixture of grumbling and applause, the latter of which he could certainly understand. It was only 10:30, and already the temperature was unbearable.
The loudest objections came from Howard. “Do you mean that I came out here and set up for nothing?” he shouted. “I could have saved myself the aggravation of dealing with these idiots if I’d known!”
To a man, Howard’s underlings gaped at him with mouths hanging open, as if he had somehow managed to slap all of their faces at once. No one looked more shocked than Billy, his nephew.
Cutting them off before they could retaliate, Rusch said, “Owing to the temperature, I would advise everyone to return to their quarters as quickly as possible. Thank you.” Much to his relief, everyone began to disperse. No one lingered to speak to Howard.
The only one who did not follow Rusch’s advice was Hank, who instead came up directly to him. In spite of himself, Rusch couldn’t help feeling a bit of the revulsion Cassandra must have held for him. “Are you sure we can’t shoot today?” he pleaded. “I was all set for today’s scenes!”
Rusch started to reassure him when realization dawned upon him. “You had a love scene with Cassandra today, didn’t you?”
“Oh, yeah. I was really looking forward to it, know what I mean?” Conspiratorially he nudged Rusch with his elbow.
Had Hank made such a comment earlier, Rusch would have wanted to punch him out of fatherly protectiveness. Now the director just stared at him, feeling only the faintest reaction stirring within him. Ever since the kiss, he had found himself wondering if Cassandra had completely misread him and if he should distance himself from her. Such conflict helped to keep Rusch’s knuckles out of Hank’s teeth.
Besides, Rusch was only paying partial attention to Hank’s words, having just noticed a half-dozen red spots on the actor’s face. They had not been there a moment ago when Hank had approached him, but they sprang up as soon as he had begun to talk. Now they were growing into boils before Rusch’s eyes.
Hank kept talking. “See, women go for that athletic type anyway. I figure my having been a ballplayer gives me an inside track on her.” He chuckled, punctuating his comment with another rib nudge.
“Hey, Leary!” shouted a sound technician who was busily gathering up equipment. Rusch noticed that he too had a faceful of boils. “If you strike out with the ladies like you used to at the plate...”
At that, Hank charged. He threw his shoulder directly into the technician’s solar plexus, taking him off his feet and knocking the wind out of him. In the blink of an eye Hank was on top of him, landing three good punches before two other technicians could pull him off of their colleague.
“Take him to the trailer, and don’t leave until he calms down!” Rusch ordered, not knowing what else to do. As the two men escorted Hank away, Rusch walked over to the technician, who was slowly pulling himself to his feet. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yeah,” the bruised man answered. “Now I know why he didn’t make a good ballplayer. He should have been a prize fighter.”
Why? Rusch asked himself for the umpteenth time. What have I done to deserve all this?
After canceling the day’s shooting, he had returned to the trailer serving as the production’s office, only to find yet another anonymous note awaiting him. Mr. Rusch, you are as stubborn as the last Pharaoh who faced this plague. How long will you persist in that Pharaoh’s sin? How much worse must it get before you surrender?
The note left enough unanswered questions to drive a man mad. Never mind the obvious ones, such as who wrote these notes or how the messages kept coming if there was no communication with the outside world. What did the writer have against the movie? What was causing the boils? And what was all this about a Pharaoh?
From what Rusch had observed, those infected with the boils had one additional symptom, that being erratic behavior. From Howard belittling his cameramen to the skirmish between Hank and the technician, every victim he had seen so far had acted in ways far removed from their normal behavior. Obviously the behavior and the boils were connected, but what did it all mean? Was it a form of insanity, or did the boils lower inhibitions somehow? He had suspected for some time now that Gwen was trying to hide her impatience with him, and it was common knowledge around Hollywood that Hank was very sensitive about his shortcomings as a ballplayer. Perhaps the boils somehow caused their victims to put their true selves, their most carefully guarded attitudes and inclinations, on open display.
Reluctantly he considered the implications of Cassandra’s behavior. That had been the first time that she had let anyone other than Rusch see her insecurity or know of her disdain of Hank, meaning that her own feelings were as unmasked as anyone else’s. That meant that the kiss...
He shuddered violently. True, he had been alone for nearly ten years now, and she was a beauty that most men would kill for, but he could never see that kind of a relationship with her. Even if by some ridiculous twist of fate they wound up as the last man and woman on Earth, he didn’t think that he could ever look at her that way, or even want to do so.
Right now all he wanted to close the door to the rest of the world and not come out until he had a solution...
A knocking on the door of his trailer immediately foiled such desires. Trying not to groan aloud, Rusch opened the door, afraid of what might confront him.
There awaited Cassandra, and his stomach sank. He would not have thought it possible before, but the boils now looked much worse. “I’ve been waiting since you cancelled shooting, Preston,” she cooed sweetly. “What took you so long?” She sidled up to him and threw her arms around him like any wife who had been awaiting her husband. Just like Maureen used to do when I came home. She closed her eyes and leaned in, going for another kiss.
Rusch pushed Cassandra away so abruptly that she almost lost her balance. The irony was not lost on him; countless men would gladly trade places with him right now, but he himself would have much rather been in any of their shoes. His lack of interest aside, the boils had warped Cassandra’s face into a grotesque parody of itself, and in the botched embrace Rusch could tell that the rest of her body was affected as well—at least what he touched in pushing her back, which made her wince noticeably in pain.
“Cassandra, we’ve got to talk. You’re very sick.”
“You’re right,” Cassandra answered with a flirtatious smile. “Lovesick. Do you know how long I’ve wanted to be Mrs. Preston Rusch?”
“You can’t mean that!”
“I mean it with all my heart, my love,” she said, inching close again. He tried to back away, but she would not be deterred. “All those other men love my looks, but you’re the only man I’ve ever met who cared about me, who I am on the inside. I can’t resist that, but until now I’ve been too frightened to tell you.”
Only now did Rusch realize that, in all their time working together, she had never seen any of her would-be suitors more than once. That shook him to the core, and for the first time he regretted having taken her under his wing.
“But I’m not scared anymore,” she continued. She backed him up against the side of his trailer, close enough that he could feel her breath on his face. “The only thing that scares me now is the thought of living without you.”
“Would you look at that?” a voice shouted from behind Cassandra. It belonged to Hank, whose anger had just found a new target. The two technicians who were supposed to be guarding him were visible in the distance, limping after him.
“Hank,” Rusch began, “this isn’t what it looks like.”
“What kind of fool do you take me for? You call off production because you can’t stand the idea of having to watch me do a love scene with her, and now you’re performing one of your own!”
If nothing else, the boils had not increased Hank’s modest IQ. “Uh, in case you missed it, she’s the one pursuing me.”
“I’ll kill you!” Hank cried, drawing a switchblade out of his pocket.
Cassandra spun around and stepped in front of Rusch. “Has it ever dawned on you that I don’t want a caveman? You’re just like the rest, only interested in my looks!”
“No, honey, that’s not all I’m interested in,” Hank sneered.
Just then the two technicians jumped Hank from behind, trying to wrest the knife from his hands. Both had the beginnings of boils. “Run for safety!” one of them shouted. “And call for some help!”
Rusch’s legs weren’t what they used to be, but he did not hesitate. As he neared the rest of the camp, he wondered what help he could get. The way that the boils were spreading, he saw little reason to hope that anyone else in the company would remain unaffected, so he could expect no help there. Clearly Hank was a police problem, but there was no way to contact them. With the desert sun still ablaze in the afternoon sky, he knew that he couldn’t run for very long, despite the fact that retreat seemed to represent his best chance for survival at this point.
He spotted a rock formation and immediately recognized it as a potential hiding place. If he could just lay low there until nightfall, he might have a decent chance of getting out of the camp and finding help before Hank could kill him. After all, would he be smart enough to look for him there? Rusch certainly hoped not as he ducked behind one of the rocks.
Again he wondered how he had gotten into such a mess. Was the movie really worth this? Hadn’t he been warned? But he had been too...
The sin of the Pharaoh.
“Have you had enough, Mr. Rusch?” a voice called.
Spinning around, Rusch saw Spokesman and Silent again, standing in the shade of the rock formation. The shadow lent an ominous quality to them, and Rusch felt as unnerved as he was angry at seeing them. “Who are you? Why are you doing this?”
Silent launched into another complex choreography of signs that Rusch thought Baseball Hank might have appreciated if he weren’t out for blood. If nothing else, Hank might have felt compelled to bunt instead of trying to swing away at Rusch’s head.
Nodding toward Silent, Spokesman cleared his throat. “My associate wishes to know if you’ve ever really read In the Shadow of the Sphinx in the first place.”
“What?” Rusch stammered, flabbergasted. “Of course I’ve read the script! How could I possibly make a movie without...”
“Really,” Spokesman interrupted, irony thick in his tone. “Well, Mr. Rusch, perhaps if you read a bit more, you might not have so many questions of us. For that matter, you might have never come to Egypt in the first place, but somehow I doubt that.”
“Do you even know what your movie is about, Mr. Rusch?” Spokesman prodded, wasting no effort in concealing his sarcasm.
Even with all of the chaos erupting around him, Rusch could not help taking offense. “Of course I do!” he spat. “It’s about a forbidden love affair between a Hebrew slave and the Pharaoh’s daughter and how they fight to save Egypt from an uprising by the other Hebrews...”
Spokesman immediately held up his hand. “Enough. Think about the last thing you said.”
Rapidly losing patience, Rusch shrugged. “So?”
Silent looked at the ground and shook his head, as if overwhelmed by Rusch’s lack of understanding. Speaking more slowly, as one might with a confused child, Spokesman said, “Not only is your story historically inaccurate, but we also find its tone rather blasphemous. It treats the Egyptians as heroes and the Hebrews as villains.”
“Isn’t that how the Egyptians might have seen it?” Rusch challenged. The whole appeal of the script had been that, by telling the story from the Egyptian point of view, it put an entirely different spin on an ancient story. “And isn’t blasphemy supposed to be speaking evil of God, not people?”
If there were any doubt that Spokesman considered him to be slow and unperceptive, his expression and inflection would have erased them. “Who do you think made the Exodus possible? If you treat the Hebrews as villains, what does that make God out to be? That is why we will not suffer for this film to be completed!”
“So all of those notes—and this plague—you’re behind it all?”
“Just like the Pharaoh in the true account of the Exodus, something had to be done to get your attention. As for the plague, you chose it out of ten possibilities when you picked the number six. Unless you abandon this project, you cannot expect to escape.”
“There you are!” a voice shouted. Rusch whirled around to see Hank rushing toward him with the two technicians still in pursuit. No doubt there was murder in Hank’s heart, and the director could run no more. He could either prepare himself to die, or...
“All right!” he shouted. He wasn’t sure if it would work, but what could it hurt at this point? “You win! I’ll stop production! We’ll get out of here!”
Suddenly all of the shouts from behind him subsided. Pulling himself to his feet, he ventured a look back at the scene he had left behind. Cassandra, Hank, and the technicians were still there, but their faces bore the signs of marked confusion.
The boils, however, were absent.
Cautiously Rusch made his way back to his trailer; he hadn’t covered nearly so much ground as he had thought. He noticed Cassandra looking at him, but her face was shy and childlike now—back to the old Cassandra, not the lovesick girl who had thrown herself at him moments before.
Except for the eyes. One glance told Rusch that he could never look her in the eyes again.
“Are you all right now?” Rusch asked them all.
“Uh, yeah,” Hank said, “except I can’t remember how I got here or why I was fighting with these guys.”
The technicians’ murmurs bespoke their own amnesia. “Do you know how we got here, Pres—I mean, Mr. Rusch?” Cassandra asked hopefully.
It was as if an eraser had wiped out the day’s events from the blackboards of their minds. He suspected that Howard, Gwen and all the other boil victims would be equally forgetful. Just as well, he decided, uncomfortably aware of Cassandra’s unwavering gaze. He turned to look at Silent and Spokesman, hoping that they could prompt him toward a response, but they had vanished without a trace.
“I couldn’t say,” he answered, recognizing that there was a ring of truth in that. “Let’s get out of here. We’re going back to Hollywood.”
Preston Rusch’s sudden retirement stunned the entire industry. Upon return from their aborted production, he took all of his assets and bought some land in Georgia, moving out there to become a farmer. He left no forwarding address, and no one in Hollywood ever heard from him again. Some even speculated that the entire Georgia story had been a smokescreen and that he had gone somewhere else entirely.
No one took the news harder than Cassandra Doran. He had been like a father to her, and everyone noticed how she had flourished under his wing. Surprisingly, Rusch had only left her a mere note as a farewell. Even though they had been so close, no one could quite understand why she was so devastated over his departure. It was as if she had lost more than a father figure.
However, Rusch left no greater mystery behind than that of a memo he sent directly to the president of the studio. It consisted of a single sentence: Abandon all plans for In the Shadow of the Sphinx, for your own good. It’s just not worth it.
© 2007 Stoney M. Setzer
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.
Stoney Setzer is a middle school special education teacher near Atlanta, GA. In addition to spending time with his family, he enjoys writing, reading, watching old movies, and cheering for the Atlanta Braves. Stoney's speculative piece, "The Watchman" appeared in "Dragons, Knights & Angels" and his biblical flash fiction, "Awakening" appeared in Issue 2 of ResAliens.