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’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."

"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. 

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 Hollywood A-lister. 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.” He moved to New York as soon as he could, to enable his rise to stardom. He was sure he’d be slapping away parts the moment he arrived. He chose New York because of Broadway and years of watching, Friends. After all, if Joey could make it big there, anyone could.

His first impression of the big apple was one of isolation. He 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 who wanted to be paid in advance for his services, rather than on a percentage of 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, or get a real job.

The decision to stay had been one born of embarrassment. It turned out, finding a real job was no picnic either. 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 who knocks on a door with a baseball bat, but the annoying kind that rings non-stop, at every hour of the day and night, until you change your number or pay up.

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 was the money. It allowed him to rent a shoe-box apartment without having to share, and to indulge himself with a succession of high-tec gadgets. The latest iPhone being his pride and joy. Yes, half the world had iPhones, 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 in the overly warm carriage. He was glad he’d managed to snag a seat, there was twenty minutes to his stop. Even though the car was packed, it was nearly silent. The only noise was the screech of wheels on steel, speeding them through the guts of a city. It was the rule of the subway; don’t look at anyone, don’t talk to anyone and don’t attract attention to yourself.

People plugged in earphones, read books, hid behind newspapers, or tapped on phones; all pretending they were alone. Sam’s fingers were going a mile a minute across his phone screen. Snapchat, email, Facebook, Twitter; he was constantly connected to the world wide web, but still connected to nobody. As if sensing his emotion, an advert appeared.

Need a friend? Sign up for, Buddy App, and experience the ultimate in interactive technology.”

Buddy App? Why not, he thought. He clicked on the advert and read its promise of Artificial Intelligence. “It’s like having a person in your pocket,” it said. Amazingly enough, it was only $9.99. What the hell, for ten bucks, what could go wrong.

Sam hit the purchase button. A contract sheet appeared with page after page of small print. On the top of the first page was a tick-box for agreeing to terms and conditions. He clicked it without a second thought and hit go. The next page appeared with only one line and a red dot. Place thumb here. Sam had never seen anything like it but he pressed his right thumb against the screen anyway. The screen glowed and Sam felt heat sear his skin.

“Jesus Christ,” he said, pulling his thumb away, shaking it like he’d pressed it against a hotplate. Sam examined the phone but it was cold to the touch. “Flipping weird,” he said as the screen moved on.

Buddy App Loading. Please wait.” 

In a couple of seconds, the screen became a kaleidoscope of swirling colours. A rich male voice, with a deep-south accent, spoke to him.

Why, hello there Sam. Mighty glad to make your acquaintance.”

“Cool,” he said to himself.

The voice on his phone laughed. “Glad you think so Sam, I think.” He was impressed. How had the programmers predicted what he’d say? This was some good stuff.

“How did they do that?” he wondered 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. I just answered.”


Clearly not. Ask me any question you like.”

“Okay, what’s 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 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 him. They joked and laughed, a lot, Buddy had a wicked sense of humour. A few weeks after the download, Sam had some friends visiting from home. They invited him out to dinner, and he wasn’t keen on them thinking he was talking to his phone so he decided to leave it, and Buddy, at home.

“I’m going out later, Buddy,” Sam said after coming out of the shower.

Excellent. If you ask me, we spend far too much time in this pokey little flat.”

“It’s just going to be me. I’m meeting some friends,” he said. He noticed the colours swirling on the screen darken a little, becoming mainly brown and grey. It had never done 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,” he said drying his hair with a towel and wondering why he felt the need to placate his telephone. From the corner of his eye he saw the screen flash pink and yellow. Normal service had resumed.

That night Sam met his friends in a trendy Thai restaurant. As this was his home turf, he offered to get in drinks before they ordered. Sam gave the waitress his credit card and said, “Start a tab, would you.”

 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. He was beyond livid. In the morning, he was going to rip someone in the bank to shreds.  

When Sam got 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?” he said, incredulous.

You can’t just ignore me, Sam. I won’t be discarded on a whim.”

“I don’t believe it,” he said, snatching up the phone. He felt like smashing it against the wall, but it had cost a fortune.

You can’t take me for granted Sam, I won’t allow it,” said Buddy, the phone screen dulling to a rusty red, then it just shut off. He tried several times to power it back up, but it wouldn’t do anything. Eventually, he decided to send the phone in for repair in the morning. It was clearly malfunctioning.


The next day, he dropped the phone at the shop and asked them to give it the once over. On his return, he was presented with his perfectly working iPhone5s.

“Nothing wrong with this phone, guy,” said the man behind the counter. “That will be sixty dollars.”

Sam handed over the bills and took his precious phone back. “What about the Buddy App? Did you have to delete that?”

“I didn’t see anything with that name, but I reset the phone to factory settings, so it must be wiped,” said the technician. Sam looked at his screen, which looked completely normal, and slipped it into his pocket. On the journey home, he turned on the phone and 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. The screen was a sea creams and greys.

I thought we were friends,” it said, sounding sad.

“Bloody hell! You scared the life out of me,” he said, holding the spatula out in front of him like a sword. “I thought you were gone?”

I know you did, and you were happy about it, weren’t you?”

“No, I wasn’t,” he said and found to his surprise he ment it.

Liar,” the word was disappointed, not angry. “I really thought we had a good thing going and then you try to get me deleted, 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 card. It took me ages to get the bank to straighten things out,” he said angrily. Arguing with his phone should feel weird, but it didn’t. It felt completely natural.

Yes, sorry about that. I went too far. I 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. Sam turned around and saw the screen was a cascading waterfall of rainbow bright colours. It reminded him of the day he first downloaded it, and how much he had enjoyed using the app.

“Oh, alright so,” he said, forcing himself to admit he 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, 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, discussing world events. He didn’t bother with the news anymore, Buddy kept him up to date on everything. In the evenings, they watched sports. Buddy preferred basketball while Sam liked football. This led to some sulking, but hay, it was Sam’s TV.

One day, in the office, Buddy was sitting on the desk telling Sam about a terrible school shooting when a voice startled him and made him jump out of his chair.

“Who are you talking to, Sam?” asked 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. The 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 it back on but it would do nothing…again.


He’d been unable to get his phone to work all the way home. It was infuriating. He wished he never downloaded the app. He was still brooding about it later, while he was sitting on the couch, distractedly watching TV. A voice came from his pocket and startled him.

Are you ready to apologise now?” It was Buddy and he had a hoity tone in his voice.

He took it out, and felt like punching it. “I most certainly am not, how dare you try to get me in trouble at work!”

You would do well to treat me better, Sam, or you’ll end up making me mad and you won’t like that.” He couldn’t believe it! His phone was threatening him.

“What are you going to do, block my credit card again? You can’t. I’ve changed the passwords.”

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 off, all the lights in the apartment flickered, the coffee maker started to spew water all over the place and the stereo played R&B at 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, the screen was blood red. Sam grabbed his jacket and fled the apartment. He couldn’t explain what was going on, but he was getting the hell away from it. On the landing, he hammered the button for the elevator. The door pinged open and he threw himself inside. The doors swished closed but the car didn’t move. Buddy’s voice came from the speaker, “Going down!”

The elevator plummeted like a stone and Sam screamed, hunkering down and clasping his hands over his head. The lights flashed off and he was sure his time was up. Then the car shuddered to a halt, the breaks squealing as they jammed on.  In the darkness, Buddies growled, “You can stay there until you’ve learned your lesson.”

He 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. But first he had to get out of here. He 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?” he asked, trying to break the silence.

If right were right, I’d never talk to you again,” said a solemn sounding Buddy from above.

“Friends allow friends to make mistakes, Buddy. I can see what I’ve done now, but I need you to give me another chance. I didn’t realise you were actually real, well, not until now. I can see I was wrong about you. I’m sorry.” Nothing happened. “Please,” he said.

The breaks on the lift clicked and it began to rise. The doors opened with a ping and he was back on his own floor again. He got out and knew what he had to do. There was no point in running, he had to face up to this. With shaking hands, he opened his front door. 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 too, Sam. I didn’t mean to frighten you,” said his phone from the couch.

“I’m not sure what just happened,” said Sam picking up his precious phone.

I guess it’s time to explain everything. You have to understand, I just wanted to have a friend.”

“We all need a friend, but friends don’t trick each other. Let’s take a walk and you can explain it all to me, but this time, I think we’ll 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,” he said, as he reached the lobby and made his way out of the building. He looked like a million other New Yorkers, walking along and talking on a phone. Only Sam knew the truth. He asked Buddy who, or what, he was. Buddy was evasive, saying that he was a friend. Sam crossed into a park and asked if Buddy if he were a ghost.

Buddy laughed. “No Sam, I’m as real and alive as you or anyone else. I’m just, different. Let’s leave it at that.” 

The path opened up and the city lights were reflected up at him from the surface of the lake. During the day, ducks congregated here hoping for a handout and kids sailed boats. He stood at the edge, his phone in his hand, and fear in his heart.

“You got quite a temper, Buddy,” he said, knowing he was venturing onto dangerous ground. The screen colours dimed in silent reply. “I’m not criticising, Buddy, but you have.”

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,” he said, then launched the phone far out over the lake. As it flew, he could hear Buddy scream, “NOOOO!” Then it hit the water and sank to the muddy bottom. He watched for a second, half expecting it to levitate out of the water like King Arthurs sword, but it didn’t.

He went home and collected everything connected to the phone. The charger, the carry case, he even found the warranty and put the lot in a refuse sack. He had to get rid of everything. He took the bag to the trash-can on the edge of his block, looked at it, then walked another two blocks before he finally dumped the last bits of Buddy.

That night, sleep was hard to come by. When he finally did, it was riddled with terrible dreams. Sam woke with a start; sure someone was in the room. After a few seconds his heart slowed down. He put his head back on the pillow and closed his eyes.

A harsh, rasping voice, with just a hint of Buddy, rolled across the darkness. “You should have read the fine print, Sam. We’re together, forever.” His eyes shot open. That was no dream, he was wide awake. He turned his head to the side and saw his phone on the pillow beside him. The screen exploded into life and filled the room with a red glow. It looked like the apartment was being consumed by fire. Sam screamed and Buddy laughed.

“It’s all in the contract!” and the phone cackled manically. As the noise grew louder, the skin on Sam’s thumb began to smoulder, and he finally understood. He’d allowed himself to be tempted, and signed a pact with the devil, all for the sake of an app.

The End.