When Alex was a boy, he’d 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, never dwindled.
He was on the trail of a piece of Rasputin’s history, and this one was a real gem. The rubber boot, which had been recovered from the bridge when Rasputin's body had been dumped into the 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 was genuine was proving difficult.
He’d tracked it through a succession of hands and finally he had a lead on its present owner. An antique shop, in St Petersburg. It had no listed phone number, and with no other way to verify the story, he’d decided to make the trip to Russia. He boarded a flight at JFK, and headed east.
When he landed, he practically jogged to the taxi rank, giving the driver the address of the shop, rather than the hotel where he was due to stay. The taxi dropped him close to Kazan Cathedral and the driver pointed down a dark alley. Alex shouldered his bag, and reluctantly walked in the direction he had been shown. The crime level in Russia was legendary and he wondered if he was walking into a world of trouble. 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 shop window, filled with aged collectables. Over the door was a hand-painted sign, declaring it to be, "Mikhaylenko & Co."
He pushed open the door and a brass bell tinkled. The shop was crammed full of display cabinets, assorted furniture, crockery, glass-wear, stacks of pictures, marble busts, and other oddments. A film of dust covered most things, even the price tags that dangled off each item. It didn’t seem to be a thriving business. A hunched old man came hobbling from the shadows. "Da ser," he said, blandly.
"Mr Mikhaylenko?" he asked, his American accent sounding too loud in the confined space.
"Yes, I’m 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’ve travelled a very long way to ask about an item I believe you might have.
"I have many wonderful treasures, Mr King. Which one in particular are you interested in?" said the old man, spreading his arm's wide, encompassing his dusty inventory.
"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 know this?"
"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.
“If you feel like that, I’m 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, why not." He followed the old man behind his counter and into a back room. 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 and withdrew a cracked, rubber-boot. It concealed its importance with plain construction. Mr Mikhaylenko handed over the footwear, as casually as one might pass the salad at a barbecue. He took the boot, carefully turning it this way and that, taking in every scuff and crease.
"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 stamps. Mr Mikhaylenko handed it over Alex, so he could inspect it. The writing was beyond him, but the date stood out like a shining beacon.
"That is original evidence bag, and here some photographs of bridge, the boot where it lay, and its comrade, still on the body of Rasputin,” said Mr Mikhaylenko, dealing out black and white photographs like tarot cards. Alex’s hands trembled as they picked up the precious photographs. There was no doubt, the boot he held was the same as the one in the photos.
"This is amazing," he said, letting his awe overcome his haggling instincts. “How did you manage to lay your hands on them?”
"Mr King, 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," he asked, knowing he was tipping his hand early, but he didn't care. He had to have them.
"I’m thinking, we can come to an arrangement," the old man said with a smile.
The negotiations weren’t as difficult as he feared. The man asked for six thousand dollars, he offered four, they agreed on five. Alex was delighted, as he would have paid twice as much. He made a call to his bank and arranged to have the money transferred. He would have it in twenty-four hours.
"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 glass circle in the front. Despite having no visible seam, the interior seemed hollow.
“May I?” he asked, and the old man nodded. He picked up the delicate item and peered through the tiny window. He was amazed to see the inside was decorated with tiny religious paintings. A gold cross, hung from a spider thin thread. The bottom of the egg was covered in some dark brown substance. In contrast to the perfection of the rest of the egg, the floor was dry and cracked.
"What is it?" asked Alex.
"It is called, The Eternal Orb, and was created by the Carl Fabergé, for Princess Irena. She suffered terrible nightmares where death stalked her. The Czar was so concerned he brought in Rasputin to advise. The holy man produced a vial of water, which he said came from the Garden of Gethsemane. He blessed the Princess with it and gave her the remainder, to keep her safe. The Czar instructed Fabergé to make a suitable container for the water, so his daughter could be protected forever. As you can see, he did an amazing job. No one is sure how Carl created the egg. He took that secret to the grave with him," 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. "Sadly, the water is gone.”
"Ah, there you are wrong! You see, the egg and the Princess are reputed to have been in the cellar when Rasputin was murdered. The legend is, a miracle took place. The holy water was…transformed."
"Transformed?" asked Alex, placing the egg back on its stand.
"Yes. It is said, 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! When the water transformed, the orb absorbed some of the evil in that act. It became cursed."
"So, your telling me this is cursed?" he said, with a hint of ridicule in his voice.
"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," said the old man, cryptically. Then, he shrugged his shoulders painfully and walked toward a small kitchen area. Alex thought the curse stuff was a load of balderdash, but it made for a good story. He lifted the orb again and looked through the window once more. Blood? Rasputin’s blood? Wouldn’t that be something.
"How do you know any of this is true, Mr Mikhaylenko?" Alex said, and the old man stooped to rummaging in a press. He retrieved a small coffee pot and put it on the cooker to boil.
"Put the orb in its cradle, and I will demonstrate," he said, wiping his hands on legs of his trousers. The old man shuffled over, each step clearly causing him considerable discomfort. He placed a shaking finger on the tip of the egg.
“Look,” he said.
Alex peered through the window and the substance at the bottom of the orb changed into viscous red liquid, rippling under the old man’s touch.
"How did you do that?" he asked, astonished. 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 thought of selling it," he asked, marvelling at the orb.
"I told you, Mr King, the orb has no price."
"Everything has a price," he said, but he knew the price for such a treasure was beyond his means.
"If I could, Mr King, I would sell it to you for a single Rubble."
Alex placed the egg back on its stand, and accompanied Mr Mikhaylenko to the kitchen where he poured coffee into glasses for them. As they drank the bitter brew, Alex found his eyes straying, again and again, to the orb. The old man must have noticed but he didn’t comment on it. Instead they made small talk until it was time to leave. Alex arranged to return the following afternoon, when the money for Rasputin’s boot would have been transferred. 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 he 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? He couldn’t get the orb from his mind. To him, it was like glimpsing heaven. 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.
The next day, he withdrew the money from a local bank 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 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 Rasputin's boot, along with the evidence bag and photos. Alex counted the money into the old man's withered 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 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 him toward the back. Alex went alone and 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 to stop him slipping the orb into his pocket and walking out. How would the old man stop him? Alex examined every detail of the object, even holding it, filled him with awe. He had to have it. He 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?"
"If it had still been at the Yusupov Palace at the time of the uprising, I imagine it would be. But by that time, the orb was already gone,” the old man 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, there were more than four men 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 servants and butlers. Whether planning a murder, or not, the aristocracy never pour their own wine. When Rasputin tried to escape, and was shot for a second time in the yard. It was Yusupov manservant that dragged the injured man back into the cellar. When the deed was done, everyone knew they were going to be found out, including the servants. Yusupov's servant fled the palace, and he stole the orb when he left. He hoped to find a buyer and start a new life. That man was the first to fall foul of the curse. I know not what happened to him, or how the orb got passed on, but it eventually found its way into my father’s hands."
"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," he said.
"Out of the question," he said, sitting back waving a hand in dismissal. Alex was confused. The old man appeared to despise the orb but yet he would not part with it.
"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 begin your journey. When did you say you were flying?"
"Tonight. 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 out of the shop, the Yale lock snapped shut behind them.
Alex trudged his way back to the taxi office, with Mr Mikhaylenko shuffling silently by his side. When he drove away, the old shop keeper gazed after him. Back at the hotel, he began packing and was livid that the man would not sell the orb. 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, brooding. His flight wasn’t until midnight, and 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. Someone was going to take the orb, it might as well be him. Alex left his bag half packed and walked out of the room.
A few hours later, the night was thick with falling snow. He stood at the top of the alleyway leading to Mikhaylenko's shop. In his pocket was a small suction cup, a glass cutter and a torch. The snow in the alleyway was pristine, nobody had passed this way in over an hour. It was now or never.
A light burned in a window on the second floor, but the shop itself was in darkness. Alex checked there was nobody watching as he attached the suction cup to one of the glass panels in the door. He scribed a rough circle around the cup with the cutter and pulled. The glass gave way with a pop. He stood stock still, ready to run should a light came on inside the shop, but it remained in darkness. He reached inside and opened the latch. Slowly he pushed the door open, reaching his hand up to stop the little bell from ringing. Once inside he left the door ajar. He intended to be in and out in a flash. After all, he knew exactly what he was looking for.
He flicked on the torch and hooded the light with his hand, giving just enough illumination to move about. He slipped into the back of the shop, and there on its little stand, stood the orb. He picked it up and a shudder ran up his arm. It was like the thing was alive. He held it up and looked inside. He was shocked to see the brown wax change into a viscous red fluid.
“Oh, wow,” he whispered.
"It would seem, it’s found a new owner," said a voice from the dark. Alex jumped, coating the tiny window with a film of blood. He turned and faced the old man. He thought of running, but didn't. The old man looked sad, and not surprised. He moved forward but didn't try to take the orb. Instead he shuffled into the kitchen. The moonlight reflecting off the snow outside gave everything a ghostly pallor. His breath fogged in the cold air was coming in through the open door. The old man beckoned for Alex to follow. He produced 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 on 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 days? 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," he said, once again pushing the orb toward the old man but 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 it 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 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. But now, the curse passes to you," 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, now it will do the same to you, and more. I’m sorry that I have done this, I truly am, Mr King."
Alex was sure of it now; the old guy was losing his marbles. He 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 didn’t seem to shake so much as he gathered the glasses. 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 pushed it wide.
“I thought you said the curse gave you unlimited life?”
“Unlimited years…yes, but at a price.”
“I don’t understand. What is the price?”
"There is nothing I can say that will help you. You will come to your own realisations, in time," he said, his head bowed. Alex stood and Mr Mikhaylenko pointed it at the orb.
"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 into the snow-covered street.
"I don't know what to say, I still don’t understand what is happening," he said, turning to face the old man.
With the door half closed, Mr Mikhaylenko asked, "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 when he first bought this shop. That was in nineteen fifty-seven, he was twenty-nine. In nineteen eighty-eight, I stole that thing, and lifted his curse. He couldn’t forgive himself for allowing it to happen, and killed himself. He was fifty-eight, but his body was racked by the pain of a hundred years. The day I lifted his burden, I was only 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," he said, closing the door on a nightmare.