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. 


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