Sunday, 15 February 2015

The collector

Boys love collecting things, and some boys never grow out of the habit. Stamps, toys, baseball cards even rocks, that's the joy of it, you can collect nearly anything. For some people, collecting is a hobby, for others it’s a passion, for a very few, it’s an obsession. Where Alex King was concerned, collecting had taken over his life.

When Alex was a boy, he had heard the story of Rasputin, and became captivated. It was as if, the Mad Monk, had cast a spell over him from the grave. Alex had worked hard all his life, and became very successful, but his obsession with Grigori Rasputin, had taken every cent he’d ever earned.

Alex was on the trail of his latest treasure, and this one was a gem. The rubber boot, which had been recovered from the bridge where Rasputin's body had been dumped, into Malaya Nerka River. An actual piece of clothing that Rasputin had been wearing, at the time of his murder. If it turned out to be genuine, it was going to be the prize of his collection. Like all things connected with Rasputin, finding out if the boot even existed, was proving very difficult. He had tracked it, through a succession of contacts, to an antique shop in St Petersburg. Alex had the address and name of shop but it seemed to be without a phone. With little other option, Alex boarded a flight at JFK, and headed into the east.

When he landed, he practically jogged to the taxi rank, giving the driver the address of the shop, rather than the hotel he was due to stay at. The taxi left him close to Kazan Cathedral, the driver helpfully pointed down a dark alleyway, before abandoning him in the middle of God-knows-where. Alex shouldered his bag, and reluctantly walked in the direction he had been shown. The crime levels in Russia were legendary, Alex wondered if he was willingly putting his head into the lion’s mouth.  The tiny street curved away to the right, and got darker as it went. He was on the verge of turning back, when he saw a tiny shop window, filled with aged collectables. Over the door was a hand-painted sign, declaring it to be, "Mikhaylenko & Syn."

Alex pushed open the glass door, and a tiny brass bell tinkled. The shop was crammed full of display cabinets, assorted furniture, crockery, glass-wear, stacks of pictures, marble busts, and other assorted oddments.  A film of dust covered most things, and tiny white price tags dangled off every item. From the back of the store, a hunched old man came hobbling from the shadows. "Da ser," he said blandly.

"Mr Mikhaylenko?" said Alex, his American accent sounding too loud in this confined space.

"Yes, I am Mikhaylenko," said the old man, in halting English. The fact the man spoke English was great, because Alex had about two words of Russian.

"My name is Alex King, Mr Mikhaylenko. I have travelled a very long way to ask about an item, I believe you might have for sale.

"I have many wonderful treasures, Mr King. Which one in particular are you interested in?" said the old man, spreading his arm's wide to take in his dusty inventory.

"A shoe."

"A shoe? I think you may have the wrong Mr Mikhaylenko, Mr King," said the old man with a smile.

"To be exact, a rubber boot, found on a bridge in nineteen sixteen."

"Oh, that shoe. May I ask, how you came to have this knowledge?"

"I have been a collector of Grigori Rasputin memorabilia, for many years. Let's just say, I heard a mention, of a whisper, of a rumour, which brought me to your door. Do you have his boot?"

“It is very strange things you choose to collect. Rasputin blaa,” said the old man, sticking out his tongue with the last word, leaving no doubt what he thought of the man.

“If you feel like that, I am sure you would be delighted to get rid of that old boot, should you have it?” said Alex, the game of haggling was the same all over the world. Everyone pretending they want the exact opposite, to what they actually want.

"As it happens, Mr King, I do. Would you like to see it?"

"Seeing as I’m here already, why not."  Alex followed the old man, as he retraced his steps, to the back of the shop. Alex, was expecting him to extract such a valuable piece of history, from a safe, or some equally secure location. Instead the old man just reached into an unlocked glass case, withdrawing a cracked, rubber galoshes boot, that disguised its importance, with its plain construction. Mr Mikhaylenko handed over the footwear, as casually as one would pass the salad, at a barbecue. Alex took the boot carefully, turning it this way and that, taking in every scuff and crease on the rubber.

"Are you sure this is the real one?" he asked the old man sceptically.
"Quite certain Mr King," said the old man, rummaging in a drawer. He withdrew a large brown envelope, covered in official looking Russian writing. Mr Mikhaylenko handed the envelope over to Alex, so he could inspect it. The writing was mostly double Dutch to him but the dates stood out like they were ten feet tall.

"This is original evidence container, and some photographs of bridge and its comrade, still on the body of Rasputin,” said Mr Mikhaylenko in his sonorous accent. Alex nearly tore the ageing paper, as he rushed to extract the precious photographs. There was little doubt, it was the same boot resting in his hand, as was in the great man’s body in the photos.

"This is amazing," said Alex, letting his awe overcome his haggling instincts. "How did you manage to lay your hands on such a thing? Surely it should be in a vault, in the Kremlin?

"Exactly where I came across it. The fact of the matter, Mr King, is that Russia, has very many secrets, and only so many vaults to keep them in. Old secrets often fall through the cracks, and this little thing, is hardly a secret at all."

"How much for the boot, including the photos and the envelope," said Alex, knowing he was tipping his hand early, but he didn't care. He needed to have the boot.

"I am thinking we can come to an arrangement," the old man said with a wicked smile. The negotiations weren’t as difficult as Alex feared. Mr Mikhaylenko asked for six thousand dollars, Alex offered four, they agreed on five. Alex was delighted as he would have paid twice as much. He made a call to his bank from his mobile and arranged to have the money transferred the following day.

"As a man who follows the exploits of Mr Rasputin, you may be interested in this little item," said Mr Mikhaylenko, beckoning Alex to follow his slow shuffling steps, a few feet further into the gloom. On a mahogany sideboard, stood a small silver egg, on a delicate three legged stand. It had a tiny crystal panel in the front and despite having no visible seam, the inside of the egg was hollow. Alex bent close so he could examine it. The workmanship was incredible, inside, the tiny egg was decorated with minute, and incredibly complex religious paintings. A tiny gold cross, hung from a spider thin thread, dangling from the point of the egg. The bottom of the interior was covered in a dark brown waxen substance, which was cracked and dry.

"What is it?" asked Alex, afraid to handle the delicate item.
"It is called the "Eternal Orb", and was created by the Carl Fabergé, for Princess Irena. She had it commissioned after suffering a terrible nightmare in the year nineteen fourteen, on the exact same night that your friend, Rasputin, was stabbed in Siberia. In the dream, she felt death was stalking her house, and wanted to take steps to protect her family. She asked Fabergé to make a fitting container for a vial of holy water, sourced from the "Garden of Gethsemane" itself. Fabergé did an amazing job, as you can see. The water was collected and transported back from Jerusalem, without ever being touched by a human hand. No one is sure how Carl created the egg, it’s a secret he took to his grave. It has been examined by many and none have been able to locate either a seam, or way of opening, this perfect prison," said the old man, enjoying giving his lecture, and showing his knowledge.

"It's amazing," said Alex, unable to believe he was actually holding a Fabergé egg in his hand. "You said it was Princess Irena that commissioned it?"
"Indeed. It was actually in the cellar, where the murder of Rasputin, took place, and that was when it was transformed."
"Transformed?" asked Alex, placing the egg back on its stand.
"The legend goes, when fatal shot was delivered to Rasputin's forehead, the water in the egg changed into blood."
"Blood?" said Alex, clearly not convinced.
"Rasputin's blood to be exact. But that's not all, along with the transformation, the orb took on a more sinister role, than the one it was intended for. It still contained the water of life, but now that water was tainted, by such an evil act, that the blessing turned into a curse."

"So your telling me that is cursed?" said Alex, with a hint of ridicule in his voice, touching the orb.
"Yes, cursed with life," said the old man, sadly.
"I don't understand. How can you be cursed with life?"
"The owner of the egg is blessed with nearly unlimited years on the earth but that in itself can be a burden."
"If owning it is so bad, why don't you just give it away?"
"The orb can’t be bought or sold, it can only be claimed by its rightful owner," said the old my cryptically, the he shrugged his shoulders painfully and walked back to the front of the shop.

All this curse stuff was all a load of balderdash, but it made for a good story, Alex thought, picking up the orb in his hand.

"How do you know any of this is true Mr Mikhaylenko?" Alex said to the old man who was now rummaging around in a tiny kitchenette, hidden behind yet another display cabinet.

"Put the orb in its cradle and I will demonstrate," said Mr Mikhaylenko, placing a small silver coffee maker on a portable gas stove, to boil. Alex placed the orb back on its tiny stand, with glass window facing them. The old man shuffled over, each step clearly causing him considerable discomfort, and reached out a shaking finger to place it on top of the orb. Inside the substance at the bottom of the orb, changed into viscous red liquid, moving around inside the tiny container.
"How did you do that?" asked an astonished Alex. The old man just shrugged, and removed his finger. The moment his skin lost contact with the orb, the liquid turned brown and solid once more. Alex pressed his finger against the thing, just as the old man had, but nothing happened. It was truly perplexing.

"Have you ever thought of selling it," asked Alex, examining all aspects of the orb for an opening.
"I told you, Mr King, the Orb has no price."
"Everything has a price," said Alex, knowing that whatever the price was, it would be beyond his means.
"If I could, Mr King, I would sell it to you for a single Ruble."

Alex placed the “Eternal Orb” back on its stand and accompanied Mr Mikhaylenko to the front of the shop where he poured the brewed coffee, into glasses with silver handles. As they drank the bitter black brew, Alex found his eyes straying, again and again, to the rear of the shop, and the treasure that rested there. He arranged to return the following afternoon, with the money for the Rasputin’s boot and accompanying artifacts. Mr Mikhaylenko locked up his shop and insisted on walking, impossibly slowly, to the taxi office with Alex, "This is not a safe city, Mr King,” he said. “Beautiful yes, safe no."

When Alex got to his hotel, he drew a steaming hot bath, and eased himself into it. He had found what he had travelled so far to find, why then did he feel so deflated and disappointed. He couldn’t get the orb from his mind. To him, it was like glimpsing heaven, but not being allowed in. The warm water soothed his tired body, but nothing was going to ease the ache in his mind. His dreams were filled with silver balls, and rolling waves of blood. By the time he woke, he knew he had to have the orb, no matter what the cost.

Alex collected the money from the Western Union office, near the hotel, and took a taxi to Mr Mikhaylenko's shop. Again, the tiny bell tinkled, announcing his arrival. The old man shuffled painfully from behind a counter, extending a gnarled hand to welcome his visitor. When they shook, Alex saw the wince of pain this slight contact caused. The old man did his best to cover it up.
"Mr King, you have returned," he said, with a smile.
"Of course, why wouldn’t I?" he said, happily.
"So many come with great promises, and vanish like morning mist, in the cold light of day," the old man said, with a knowing grin.
Alex produced his fold of bills and said, "My promises are all made of gold, Mr Mikhaylenko."

Once more, strong coffee was brewed and served in the delicate glass containers, before any business was conducted. After the pleasantries, Mr Mikhaylenko parcelled up the Rasputin's boot, along with the evidence bag and photos taking extreme care. Alex counted out the money into the old man's tiny hand. He looked so weak and vulnerable.

"Do you have a phone number that I can contact you on," asked Alex. Mr Mikhaylenko shrugged his shoulders. "I am an old fashioned man, in an old fashioned business, I have no telephone, nor ever understood the need of having one. Everyone knows where I am, if they are of a mind to look for me."

Alex was about to pick up the parcelled goods when he paused. "May I see the "Eternal Orb" one more time. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since yesterday."

"Please, be my guest," said the old man, waving toward the back. Alex went alone to the back of the shop. The orb stood exactly where it had yesterday. Did this old man not know the chance he was taking, leaving such a valuable thing, out in the open? There was nothing stopping him slipping the orb into his pocket and walking out with it. How would the old man stop him? Alex examined every detail of the orb, even holding it, filled him with awe. He had to have it. Alex put the orb back on its stand, and walked back to where Mr Mikhaylenko, was draining the last of his coffee.

"You said the orb was in the room, when Rasputin was killed, this I can understand. What I can’t understand is how it came to be here, in a tiny little back alley antiques shop. Surely it should be in a museum, or a government treasure house?"
"If it had still been at the Yusupov Palace at the time of the uprising, I imagine it would have been, well, liberated shall we say, but by that time the Orb was already gone,” Mr Mikhaylenko said, placing his empty coffee glass on a tray.
"You are familiar with the history of Rasputin's murder and the people who took part, Mr King?"
"Yes, although there are conflicting reports," said Alex, sitting at the table once more.
"The truth is that there were many more, than just the four men involved, in the cellar that night. There were women of course, after all what kind of a party would it be, without some female company. Then there were the servants. Whether committing a murder or not, Mr King, the aristocracy never pour their own wine. When Rasputin tried to escape, and was shot for a second time in the yard, it was not Yusupov himself, that dragged the body back inside, it was his manservant. When the deed was done, but the shots had attracted the attention of the police, everyone knew they were going to be found out, including the servants. Yusupov's manservant fled the palace that night, taking the Orb with him, hoping to find a buyer for it and pay his way toward a new life. This man, whatever his name happened to be, was the first to fall foul of the curse. I know not what happened to him or how the orb got passed on. What I do know is, that the orb eventually found its way into my father’s hands and has remained here ever since."

"That’s truly an amazing story, and an amazing artefact. I believe this is a chance of a lifetime and I would like to buy the orb from you Mr Mikhaylenko," said Alex, diving straight, his plan to get the old man warmed up by asking questions, gone completely out the window.

"Out of the question," said Mr Mikhaylenko, sitting back waving a hand in dismissal. Alex was shocked at the reaction, the impression he had was the old man hated the orb and all it represented.
"I’m serous, sir. I must have it. Name your price," said Alex, desperate to agree a sale. He would worry about financing it later.
"There is no price, because it is not for sale, Mr King. Why would you want such a thing anyway, have I not warned you of its curse?"
"I don't believe in those kind of things Mr Mikhaylenko, but I dearly wish to have the orb in my collection."
"The answer is no! Never, Mr King. Let’s leave it there, before we lose this wonderful friendship, we have begun," said the old man, grim faced. He stood and smiled, a strained smile. "Come, you will want to be getting ready for your journey, when did you say you were flying?"
"Tonight, Mr Mikhaylenko, please would you not reconsider, I will pay anything you ask," said Alex, standing and lifting his packaged purchases. 
"You insult me now, Mr King. We will speak no more of it," said the old man, sternly. He hustled Alex to the door, closing it firmly and snapping the Yale lock shut, then drawing the blinds for good measure.

Alex trudged his way back to the taxi office, just like yesterday, but this time he was crestfallen. A short taxi ride later, and he was back at his hotel. Alex began the chore of packing, but he was devastated that he didn’t manage to secure the orb for his collection. Devastation soon turned into resentment, and then into anger. What the hell did the old codger want with the thing anyway? Was he determined to leave it sitting on a shelf, like all the other rubbish he had cluttering up his shop? He was lucky nobody else knew it was there, or it would have been robbed years ago. That orb was worth tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands. Alex sat on the bed, his flight wasn’t until after midnight, already the city streets were dark and cold. He wanted that orb and he intended to have it. He’d tried being reasonable and failed, that only left him one option which was, be unreasonable. If someone was going to take the orb, it might as well be him. Sometimes in life if you wanted something to happen you had to be ruthless. Alex left his bag half packed and walked out of the room.

Four hours later, the night was thick with falling snow. Alex stood at the top of the tiny alleyway, where Mr Mikhaylenko's shop was located, in his pocket was a small suction cup, a diamond glass cutter and a tiny torch. The snow in the alleyway was pristine, nobody had passed this way, in over an hour. Alex walked down the alley, and stopped outside the antiques shop. A light burned in a window on the second floor, but the shop itself was in darkness. Alex checked both ways before attaching the suction cup to the glass, high up on the door. He scribed a rough circle around the cup, big enough to allow his arm through. Again he checked both ways, before giving the glass a firm tap, with his gloved hand. The glass broke evenly with only the slightest ping of noise. Alex didn’t move. He waited, ready to run should a light came on inside the shop, but it remained in darkness. He withdrew the cut glass from the hole and dropped it on the snow beside the door. Using his right hand, he reached inside and opened the latch, flipping the button to keep it open, then with the same hand he reached over the door and found the little bell. Pinching the ringer in his fingers, Alex opened the door. Once inside he left the door ajar, so as not to ring the bell when it closed. He would be in and out in a flash, after all, he knew exactly what he was looking for. 

Alex flicked on the torch, and hooded the light with his hand, giving just enough illumination out to make sure he didn’t knock anything over. He hurried to the back of the shop, and there on its little stand, stood the “Eternal Orb”. Alex grabbed it and something unbelievable happened. Inside the orb, the brown wax changed instantly into the viscous red fluid, he had seen before. It splashed about inside, coating the tiny window with a film of blood. Alex was transfixed by what was happening, and nearly let the orb drop, when the old man spoke from the darkness, "It would seem, it’s found a new owner."

Alex spun, and for a fraction of a second, thought of running, but didn't. The old man looked sad, but not surprised. He didn't try and take the orb from Alex's grasp, instead he shuffled away toward the front of the dark shop, the wintry moonlight reflecting off the snow, gave everything a ghostly pallor. He waved for Alex to follow him. From a press he retrieved a bottle of vodka and two shot glasses. "Come, come. Join me," he said, as he might, to a friend that had disappointed him. “What is done is done. I think vodka is more fitting than coffee, don't you?"

Alex went to replace the orb but the old man said, "No, bring it with you, the stand too, please." Alex did as he was asked, walking over to the table where the old man now sat, spilling vodka into the glasses, as well as the table top.
"Are the police coming?" asked Alex.
"What for?" said Mr Mikhaylenko. "Is it a crime for two friends to drinks vodka these day? Sit, sit please. You have nothing to fear from me," Mr Mikhaylenko said reassuringly. Alex sat at the table and sighed deeply into his chest, the police must be on the way, what was the point of running? The old man knew which hotel he was staying in, what flight he was taking. The worst they could do was charge him with breaking and entering. He hadn’t taken anything, well not yet anyway. Mr Mikhaylenko shoved a glass of vodka across the table, and lifted his into the air. "Nostrovia!" he said. Alex picked up his glass, and clinked the old man’s. They both drank and the strong liquor burned all the way to his stomach. 

Alex put his glass on the table, he shook his head in shame, before shoving the orb toward Mr Mikhaylenko. The old man pulled back in horror, holding his hands out, "NO! You can't do that."
"I shouldn’t have tried to take it, I'm sorry, Mr Mikhaylenko," Alex said, once again pushing the orb toward the old man. He jumped away for the table, terrified. It was the quickest Alex had seen the man move.
"I said NO!" he shouted angrily.
"Okay," said Alex, drawing the orb back towards himself. The old man must want the police to find him with the orb in his possession. If so, it was what he deserved.

"That," spat the old man, waving a finger at the orb, "belongs to you now."
"Don't be ridiculous."
"Look at the blood when you touch it, see how it flows. You have claimed it as your own, and it has claimed you. I never want to see, or touch it, ever again." 
Alex sat back, not believing what he was hearing. The old guy was completely mad, either that, or he truly believed this curse malarkey.  

"Okay, okay. Take it easy," said Alex. He picked up the orb, but the cold must have gotten into his hands, because they were stiff as he tried to close his fingers around it. The old man settled himself again in his chair, wearily eyeing the tiny treasure.  He looked at Alex sadly. “Remember I told you my father acquired the orb?"
"Yes I remember," said Alex.
"Well, he swindled a man, that’s how he got the orb. You see, a righteous man can never possess, the “Eternal Orb”. It needs a man with black on his soul. That was my father, a cheater and a swindler. It was me too, Mr King. I, like you, stole the orb, from my own father, believing it to be worth a king’s ransom. We are the same, you and I. Now the curse passes to you, because of your greed," said the old man shaking his head. He stood and pointed at the orb, "That thing, that filthy thing has taken over half my life from me, now it will do the same to you, and more. I’m sorry that I have done this to you, I truly am, Mr King. I will pray for forgiveness every day of my life, for passing this burden on to you, but it had to be done." 

Alex was sure of it now, the old guy was losing his marbles. Alex picked up the orb and once again, like magic, the wax melted within it, becoming a tiny lake of blood. 

"So you are being serous, this is mine now?"
"Deadly serious," said the old man. He put the stopper back in the neck of the vodka bottle and drove it home with a firm slap. His hands did not seem to shake so much this time, as he gathered the glasses to put them on the dresser. He strode to the wall and flicked on the overhead light. His back seemed a little straighter, his hair less gossamer. He looked healthier, even younger.

"It has been only minutes, but I can feel my strength returning," said the old man. Alex, by comparison, was drained by the shock of being caught, and the idea of going to prison. Mr Mikhaylenko walked toward the door, his step much more assured than before, and opened it wide.
"There is nothing I can say that will help you now, you will have to come to your own realisations, in time," he said, his head bowed. Alex stood and walked toward the door, but Mr Mikhaylenko held up his finger, pointing it at the orb on the table, "Don't forget to take that thing, out of my shop, and out of my life, what’s left of it."

Alex picked up the orb and carried it past the old man and out into the snow covered street. "I don't know what to say," he said, turning to face the old man. With the door half closed, Mr Mikhaylenko stopped and looked at him. "How old do you think I am, Mr King?"

Alex looked at him before saying, "Eighty, eighty five, perhaps." The old man pointed over his head, at the sign. "My father painted that sign when he first bought this shop. That was in nineteen fifty seven, he was twenty nine that year, Mr King. He killed himself with a bullet to the brain, just like your idol, Rasputin, in nineteen eighty eight, the year I stole that thing, and lifted his curse. He was fifty eight that year, I was sixteen."

"Impossible, that would make you..."

"That's right, Mr King, I will be forty three soon. I hope your collection was worth the price," Mr Mikhaylenko said, before closing the door on a nightmare. 


Monday, 9 February 2015

12 Year Old Scotch

One day, in a pub, in the middle of Glasgow, a man walked through the door. He was a striking figure of a man, weighing in at a good eighteen stone and over six feet tall. On his head was perched, a Deerstalker hat, he wore a three piece suit made from Tartan, in his hand, he carried a walking cane with a carved deer antler handle. He was every inch, a Scottish country gentleman, that was until he opened his mouth filling the room with a strong London accent.

The man sat at a table in the middle of the room and began rapping the cane on the floor, calling "GIRL, GIRL," at the barmaid. The young girl hurried out from behind the bar. When she stood at his table, the man said in a brash voice, "Bring me a twelve year old single malt and hurry about it love."

The girl was used to more polite customers, but went back behind the counter to get the man's drink. She searched through the bottles, selecting one, and pouring a dram into a heavy glass. The girl presented the drink to the man on a tray, who downed it, in one. Holding the empty glass he turned on the poor bartender, "I'm not  paying for that! I asked for twelve year old malt, that was an eight year old Irish, you stupid girl. Bring me what I ordered," he said dumping the glass back on the tray.

The girl scurried around the end of the bar once more, searching every bottle she could find for a twelve year old malt. With shaking hand, she poured another dram and presented it to the obnoxious customer. Just as before, he downed the whole drink, this time declaring the drink to be a ten year old single malt and he was not paying for that one either.

At the end of the bar, the owner sat reading his newspaper and watching with interest. He got off his stool and slipped quietly into the store room. When he came out he held a glass with a measure of deep amber liquid, one ice cube clinking against the heavy tumbler.

"Sally, give him this," he said, to the barmaid placing the glass in her tray.

She presented the glass for a third time, the man lifted the glass to his lips draining half the liquid before his face went scarlet. He spat the drink out in a great plume of spray. When he recovered the man stood and roared at the girl, "THIS IS PISS!!"

From behind the counter, the owner laughed at the man, "Yes, but how old am I?"

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Buddy App

We all have our treasures, things we’d dash into a burning building to rescue. If you were to ask Sam what his most treasured possession was, he'd delve a hand into his pocket and produce a silver iPhone5S. He'd queued for a full twenty-four hours to make sure he got that phone on the day it was launched. His whole life was contained on his phone, he hadn't been parted from it for as much as a second since he got it.

When Sam was a teenager, he was sure he was destined to become the next great actor on the silver screen. In high school, he took the male lead in every production he auditioned for. In between performances, he wrote and sang with his friends in a band called, “Zombie Fruitcake.”

Sam moved to New York as soon as he could, allowing his rise to stardom to begin. He was sure he would have been slapping away leading roll offers as soon as he got settled in. Choosing New York was the result of years of watching friends. Sam was certain that if Joey could make it big there, anyone could.

His first impression of the big apple was one of isolation. Sam sent out countless job applications but only got called for a hand full of auditions. He’d even found it difficult to get an agent, eventually having to settle for one which wanted to be paid in advance for his services, rather than the work he procured. It wasn’t long before the money in Sam’s savings account ran out, and he was faced with a decision, tuck tail and return home to face his friends having failed to make a success of his life or get a real job.

The decision to stay had been one born more from embarrassment than anything else. It turned out that even finding a real job was a lot harder than he’d imagined it would be. After weeks of looking, he eventually found employment with “Maxwell Financial Services.” The name was impressive, but the work was anything but. He was nothing more than a debt collector, not the butch type that comes calling to a door with dark glasses and a menacing sneer, but the annoying kind that rings non-stop at every hour of the day and night until you either change the phone number or pay off the money. Sam hated everything about his job, he hated harassing people for stupid bills, he hated the way some of his workmates ravelled in their merger power and he hated the damn paperwork. The only good thing about the job was the money. It allowed him to rent a tiny shoe-box apartment without having to share with someone else. It allowed him to indulge himself with a succession of High-Tec gadgets, his phone being Sam’s pride and joy. Yes, half the world had iPhones these day’s but his was the limited edition platinum model with extra processing power.

It was spring in New York and the rain had been torrential for days. The subway was packed with damp commuters, steaming up the windows of the overly warm rail carriage. Sam was glad he had managed to get a seat as it was twenty more minutes before his stop would come. Even though the car was packed to capacity, it was nearly silent, apart from the screech of wheels on steel speeding them through the subterranean network of tunnels. All around him, people were listening on earphones, reading books or papers, but mostly they were scanning through their tablets or phones which is exactly what Sam was doing. Snap chat, email, Facebook, Twitter, he was constantly connected to the world wide web, but he still felt alone. As if sensing his emotions an advert for the latest App appeared on his screen.
Need a friend, sign up to Buddy App and experience the latest in interactive technology.”
Buddy App? Why not?

Sam clicked on the advert and read its extended promise of the newest development of Artificial Intelligence for the mobile market. “It’s like having a person in your pocket.” Amazingly enough, the app was only $9.99. What the hell it, for ten bucks what could go wrong. Sam hit the purchase button. Unusually a contract sheet appeared with page after page of small print. On the top of the first page was a little tick box for indicating you agree to terms and conditions. Sam clicked the box without a second thought. The next page appeared with a message that said: “Place thumb here.” Sam had never seen anything like this before but pressed his right thumb against the screen anyway. The screen glowed bright red and Sam felt heat sear his skin.

“Jesus Christ,” he said pulling his thumb away, shaking it like he had pressed it against a hotplate. Sam examined the phone but it was cold to the touch. Flipping weird. On the screen was a message which said “Buddy App Loading. Please wait.” In a couple of seconds, the screen turned into a kaleidoscope of gay swirling colours. From the speaker came a rich male voice with a deep-south accent.
Why hello there Sam, mighty glad to make your acquaintance.”
“Cool,” said Sam to himself.
The voice on his phone laughed. ”Glad you think so Sam, I think.” Sam was amazed, how had they predicted what he’d say?
“How did they do that?” said Sam aloud.
How did they do what, and who are they?” asked the voice in a pleasant drawl.
“Know what response to have lined up and they are your programmers.”
Again the voice chuckled, “You said Cool and I just answered.”
Clearly not, ask me any question you like and I will try my best to answer.”
“Okay, what is today's date?”
“Seventeenth of March in the year of our Lord two thousand and fourteen. Too easy Sam, try something else.”
“Okay, where am I right now?”
We, not you, are on a subway car, travelling on the One line, between Franklin St and Canal St, sitting in the second last seat, back right of the rail car. And you are wearing a New Yorker's baseball hat and a black rain slicker.”
How did you do that?” Sam said in amazement.
Easy, I accessed the global positioner in the phone to find out our exact position after which it was easy to know we were moving along the exact path of the number one track heading north. Second I can see one seat behind you so you are in the second last seat and the windows are on your right. I can see what you look like so knowing what you are wearing is a piece of cake.”
“You can see me?”
Sure, through the camera, just like I can hear you through the microphone and speak to you through the speakers.”
“That is amazing.”
Why, thank you, Sam I like you too,” said the voice and the screen flashed a sunflower yellow of happiness. “Tell me Sam do you like jokes?”
“Sure I guess.”
A Priest, a Rabbi and an Irishman walk into a bar-.”  The rest of the journey passed in the blink of an eye.
As the weeks passed Sam and Buddy became inseparable. Like the advert promised, it was just like having a friend in his pocket. They discussed things, not that Buddy always agreed with Sam. They joked and laughed, a lot, Buddy had a wicked sense of humour.
A few weeks after Sam had downloaded Buddy some of his friends from home happened to be visiting New York. They had invited Sam to join them on a night out.
“I’m going out later Buddy,” Sam told his phone after coming out of the shower.
Excellent Sam. If you ask me we spend far too much time in this pokey little flat.”
“It’s just going to be me and my friends tonight,” said Sam to his phone, which sat on his bedside table charging. The colours swirling on the screen darkened a little becoming brown and grey. Sam frowned at the change, he had never seen that before.
I thought we were friends Sam,” said Buddy.
“We are friends Buddy but I can’t tell the guys from home that my best friend in New York is my phone.”
Do you think I’m your best friend?”
“Of course Buddy,” said Sam drying his hair with a towel, from the corner of his eye he saw the screen flash pink and yellow again.
Later in the night Sam and his buddies shared a meal in a Thai restaurant before making their way to a mid-town bar. Sam offered to get the first round of drinks in and when the waitress dropped the glasses on the table Sam gave her his credit card. The lady swiped the card through her handheld machine but it came back declined. She tied it once more unsuccessfully before one of Sam’s friends paid for the drinks.

When Sam returned home he found his phone glowing green on the bedside table.
How was your night?” asked a sulky Buddy.
“It was alright up to the point my credit card was refused.”
Perhaps that will teach you not to leave me behind.”
“You did that?”
You can’t just ignore me, Sam, I won’t be discarded at a whim.”
“I don’t believe it.”
You can’t take me for granted Sam, I won’t allow it,” said Buddy, the phone screen dulling to a rusty red and the phone just shut itself off. Sam tried several times to power the phone up but it wouldn’t do anything. Eventually, Sam decided to send the phone for repair in the morning. It was clearly malfunctioning.

The next day Sam dropped his phone to the workshop and left it to be assessed. On his return, he was presented with a perfectly working iPhone5s.
“Nothing wrong with this phone guy,” said the man behind the counter. “That will be sixty dollars.” Sam handed over the notes and took his precious phone back.
“What about the Buddy App, did you delete that.”
“I couldn’t find anything with that name but I reset the phone to factory settings anyway,” said the technician.  Sam looked at his screen which now looked completely normal and slipped it into his pocket. On the journey home, Sam turned on the phone, which still looked completely normal. He searched for the Buddy Icon but it was gone, a tiny part of him felt like someone had died. Later that night Sam was making a stir-fry when Buddies voice drifted to him from the kitchen counter. On the screen swam a sea of mixing colours but mainly creams and greys.
I thought we were friends,” said a very sad sounding Buddy.
“Bloody hell you scared the life out of me,” said Sam still holding the spatula in front of him like a sword. “I thought you were gone, Buddy.”
I know you did, and you were happy about it weren’t you?”
“No, I wasn’t”
Liar,” the word was disappointed not angry. “I really thought we had a good thing going and then you go trying to get me wiped like some piece of machinery.”
“Hang on now Buddy, firstly you are a machine, and not even that, you’re an App on a machine. What you did the other night was completely out of line, interfering with my bank account. It took me ages to get the bank to straighten things out.”
Yes, sorry about that Sam. I went too far. It’s just I felt so let down, unappreciated. I won’t ever do it again I promise.” Sam gave the phone an unsure look as he went back to stirring his food.
Can we go back to being friends please,” said Buddy from the counter. Sam turned around and saw the screen was a cascading waterfall of rainbow bright colours.
“Oh alright so,” said Sam. He had actually missed the little guy.
Yah!” cheered Buddy. “Do you want to hear a joke, Sam?”
“Sure but it better be a good one, not like those Paddy Irish Man jokes you told the other day,” teased Sam, they had been very funny actually.
Nope not an Irishman in sight,” assured Buddy with a giggle. “A Politician, a Lawyer and an Accountant walk into a brothel.
“Oh NO! What have I done,” said Sam laughing and mock slapping his forehead.
The days passed and Sam got used to Buddy being around once more. He looked forward to chatting with him over breakfast about what was going on in the world. He didn’t bother with the TV news anymore Buddy would tell him all the interesting things anyway. They watched sports together in the evening but Buddy preferred basketball while Sam liked football. This lead to some sulking when one was picked over the other. One day in the office Buddy was sitting on the desk talking to Sam about a terrible school shooting that had taken place in the Midwest. A voice behind him made Sam spin in his chair.
“Who are you talking to Sam?” said Mr Quirk, the boss.
He was talking to me,” said Buddy in his refined southern way. Mr Quirk looked at the phone. “You know we can’t permit private calls on company time.”
“I’m not on a call Mr Quirk, honest.”
“But I just heard whoever is on the other end of the line talk.”
Thankfully Buddy stayed quiet. “What you heard was Buddy, it’s an App on my phone. You can talk to it and it answers back.”
“Really,” said Mr Quirk walking into the cubicle and picking up the phone, whose screen was going an alarming shade of crimson. “Hello Buddy,” said Mr Quirk. The phone stayed mute but the colours on the screen darkened further. The manager handed back the phone, “I don’t think your Buddy likes me. No calls or Apps while at work please Sam.”
Mr Quirk walked around the corner and from the phone, Sam heard his own voice come out, very loudly. “ASSHOLE!”
Mr Quirk returned sour-faced, “What did you say, Sam.”
“Nothing I swear, it was Buddy.”
“You must think me a fool, Sam. I won’t forget this,” said the Manager striding away. When he was out of earshot Sam picked up the phone, “Why did you do that?”
He is an asshole,” said Buddy defiantly.  
“But you used my voice, not yours, why did you do that?”
Because you’re an asshole too. I’m just an App, is that all I am to you?”
“This is ridiculous, I’m not talking about this, here.”
I don’t particularly wish to talk to you either,” said Buddy and the phone went dead in his hand. Sam tried to turn the phone back on but it would do nothing.
Sam had been unable to get his phone to work all the way home. He was sitting watching TV when it sprang to life in his pocket.
Are you ready to apologise now,” said Buddy in a hoity tone of voice.
“I most certainly am not, how dare you try to get me in trouble at work and then take over my phone like that,” fumed Sam.
You would do well to treat me better Sam or you will end up making me mad and you would not like that.”
“What are you going to do, block my credit card again? You can’t. I have changed the passwords and they are not stored on you anymore.”
You have no idea who you are dealing with Sam, you would do well to hold your tongue,” snarled Buddy.
“Or what?” said Sam throwing the phone down on the couch. The TV set went blank, all the lights in the apartment flickered on and off, the radio coffee maker in the kitchen started to spew water all over the place to the sounds of R&B played to volume ten. Sam jumped to his feet like he had been electrocuted.
Just an App am I,” yelled Buddy from where he lay on the couch. His screen blood red. Sam grabbed his jacket and fled out the door. On the landing, he hammered the button for the elevator just needing to get the hell away from his haunted flat. The door pinged open and Sam threw himself inside, pressing the ground floor button. The doors swished closed but the car did not move. Through the overhead speaker, Buddy’s voice filled the cabin. “Going down!”

The elevator car plummeted like a stone as if the cables had been cut and the lights flashed off. Sam was sure his time was up but the fall only lasted a second or two and then the brakes jammed on, throwing Sam to the floor. In the darkness Sam heard Buddies voice again, “You can stay there until you have learned your lesson.”
Sam sat in the dark for a long time, knowing that Buddy wasn’t an app. He was being haunted or more to the point his phone was being haunted. He had to get rid of that thing for good. He had to stay away from the electrical stuff as clearly, Buddy could get inside nearly anything. Sam stood up and said to the darkness.
“You’re right I shouldn’t have said you were just an App, I should have said you were my friend. I’m sorry Buddy.” The lights came on but the car did not move. No sound came from the speaker. “Are you not talking to me now?”
If right is right I should never talk to you again,” said a solemn sounding Buddy from above.
“Friends allow friends to make mistakes Buddy. I can see what I have done but I need you to give me another chance. I just didn’t understand how or what you are until just now.” Nothing happened. “Please,” said Sam.
The breaks on the lift car clicked off and the elevator began to rise. The doors opened with a ping on Sam’s floor and he faced his own front door. With shaking hands he twisted the nob. Inside the only sign that a poltergeist had recently run riot through the place was a little puddle of water on the kitchen floor.
I’m sorry to Sam, I didn’t mean to frighten you,” said his phone from the couch.  
“I think there is a lot of explaining to do, don’t you?” said Sam picking up his precious phone.
I guess so, you have to understand I just wanted to have a friend.”
“We all need a friend from time to time. Let’s take a walk and you can explain it all to me but this time I think we will take the stairs if you don’t mind.”
Buddy laughed, “Sure thing Sam, that elevator thing might have been a touch overboard.”
“I thought I was a goner,” said Sam pushing open the lobby door and walking down the steps to the sidewalk. To anyone else he looked like a million other New Yorkers, walking along and talking on his phone. Only Sam knew the truth.

Sam asked Buddy who or what he was. Buddy was being very evasive in his answers, saying that he only wanted to be was Sam’s friend. Sam crossed into a park and asked if Buddy if he were a ghost. At this buddy laughed. “No Sam I am as real and alive as you or anyone else, I’m just different. Let’s leave it at that.” The city lights twinkled on the still surface of the lake where ducks normally swam and kids sailed model boats.
“You got quite a temper as well don’t you Buddy?” said Sam looking at the phone. The colours on the screen dimed a bit. “I’m not criticising Buddy, just saying.”
I think we all have some rage inside, don’t you Sam. It’s a natural part of living.”
“Well right now I need peace in my life, I hope you understand Buddy,” said Sam, launching the phone across the water with a pitchers throw. As the phone flew he could hear Buddy scream “NOOOO!” in the second before the limited edition platinum iPhone5s hit the water and sank to the muddy bottom.

Sam went home and collected everything connected with the phone, the charger, and carry case. He even found the warranty and put the lot in a refuse sack. He carried them to the waste chute but felt it wasn’t far enough away. He carried the bag to the edge of his block where a trash can stood, then walked another two blocks before finally dumping the very last bits of Buddy. When he finally got to bed Sam fell into an exhausted and dream riddled sleep.

Sam woke with a start in the middle of the night, sure he felt someone touching him. The room was dark and empty. Sam lay back on his pillow and turned on his side to go back to sleep.
A harsh rasping voice with just the hint of Buddies accent rolled across the darkness, “You should have read the fine print Sam, we’re together forever.” On the pillow beside his head his phone lit up the room with a flood of red, the colour of flame, and the skin on Sam’s thumb began to smoulder.

The End.