Lincoln, Nebraska; Present Day…
“…the firefighting authorities were explicit in warning the public to refrain from crowding around the house since they aren’t sure just yet how the church fire was started. The fire chief said the possible causes of the fire range from a simple candle that was lit during one of the religious ceremonies to arson. Authorities think a very toxic chemical could have been released during the fire.
“When asked about the unusual cautious tone in his warning to the public, Chief Durbank had this to say…”
The 10 o’clock TV report then switched to a burly, middle-aged man in a dark uniform and hat. The local TV stations’ camera lights made his image look somewhat ghostly bright. “It’s been brought to our attention by some of the neighbors that they believe they saw a glowing effect coming from the church that did not look consistent with the fire that was engulfing the building.”
“Sir, what do you mean by, glowing effect,” the female reporter pressed him, her voice being the only manifest of her existence on the television report. “And how can a glow during a fire be separate from the fire itself?”
Before answering, the Lincoln Fire Department head paused, his eyes never so much as blinked. “Uh, as was told by the neighbors to the firefighters that arrived here first, there, apparently was…something seen that was unexplainable and we just want the public to take caution.”
The news report went on for another minute or so, but by that time Edward Schwartz and Julius Renolds, eighteen and seventeen, respectively, were already scheming their next stunt in the basement of the house that belonged to Julius’ mother.
“Hey, Jules, we should head over there,” Edward blurted out, the idea suddenly popping in his head.
Edward was on a cheap couch that was off to the corner of the basement while his host and cohort was virtually melded into his recliner.
“You know, I was just thinking the same thing,” Julius said.
“Tonight would be a good time to go since the fire chief told everyone to stay away from the church.”
Julius thought for a moment as the local news now went to commercial. “I’m just wondering what was glowing over there.”
Edward guffawed from the gaudy couch. “Come on, man, it’s not like it’s a nuke plant! Probably just some cleaning chemicals from the church’s bathroom caught on fire, or something…” He leaned over a bit on the couch toward Julius’ direction and his voice turned slightly conspiratorial. “Or, maybe it was some souls that were trapped underneath the church since they didn’t have enough money for their tickets to hell!”
Now the cluttered basement was a hall of laughter.
“Jules,” Julius’ mother, tall and slender and around fifty, called out as she made it down the last steps to the basement. “Your father and I are going over to play cards at the Favians. We still have some pizza left in the fridge if you want anymore.” She looked over to Edward with that universal mom-smile that neighborhood kids have seen for many generations. “You’re more than welcomed to have some too, Eddie.”
Even mischievous Edward Schwartz knew when to pull the innocent kid act when he needed to. “Thanks, Mrs. Renolds. I’ll do just that!”
“Say, Eddie,” Julius’ mother continued onto another subject; her countenance shifting to somber, “did you ever get any of those jobs you applied for a couple of weeks ago? I talked with your mom and she said you didn’t get so much as a rejection letter yet!”
Edward was already shaking his head. “No, Mrs. Renolds. And my mom’s right. I don’t get it! It’s not like I don’t have experience in the telemarketing field.”
“Right. You did it for that one company downtown for almost two months…” She went pensive for a second. “What was the reason you said that they fired you?”
Edward shrugged as he answered while Julius picked up the TV remote and started flipping through channels. “They accused me of stealing client information from their caller-list—but I swear to you, Mrs. Renolds, I didn’t do it!” Of course he was lying. In fact, it was because of that telemarketing firm’s list that Edward and Julius began their criminal career in the first place!
“I know, Eddie,” Amy said with a maternal sweetness. Then she looked at her own son and her face stiffened up. “And what happened to that fast food joint you were working for, young man? Why did you quit it?”
Now Julius shrugged, but kept his eyes on the TV. “It sucked, mom. I told you…all those hours for such small amount of money. Plus it was cutting into my homework time.”
She looked at him for a few more seconds. “You realize that your parents aren’t rich, Jules. We’re able to give you some allowances, but you’re a young man now! At some point you’re going to have to get another job to help with the bills around here…okay?”
“Alright, mom,” he said without looking away from the TV.
In over a year’s time, the duo had generated something in the order of thirty-five thousand dollars in their illegal operation. It was more than what some adults made in the labor and service industries! And given that the two teenagers yet lived with their respective parents, and with no dependents or serious bills to pay, Edward and Julius were able to afford their bling, their extravagant cell phones, and fairly decent cars and clothes. But for a cover story, both boys had taken on odd jobs and quit them in a few weeks.
The two husky teens expected Mrs. Renolds to finally vacate the basement, but instead she looked upon them one more time, but this time with inquisitive eyes. “You boys aren’t selling drugs, are you?”
Both of them burst into laughter, Edward clapping his hands for effect and out of habit when he was on a laughing spell.
“Mom,” Julius said to her, his attention now fully on his mother, “have you ever smelled any drugs on me? Or seen any roaches or bags or any other traces that would let you think that?”
With relieved concession, Amy Renolds slowly shook her head and turned around to head back upstairs.
“Your father and I will be leaving in about fifteen minutes,” she called out to them when she was nearly at the top of the stairs.
Mrs. Renolds had finally shut the door to the basement, leaving the two young men to their own thoughts. Julius arched an eyebrow and shifted his head as if to say, That was close!
“Hey, I just thought about something while your mom was here,” Edward said, his demeanor a lot more serious as he sat up on the couch. “We need a Geiger counter.”
Julius thought on his point, his face slightly soured for curiosity. “Why do we need one of those? The other times we were able to find things without one…besides, don’t you think with all that beeping Geiger counters do it will draw attention to us?”
Apparently it was something that Edward hadn’t thought on. But he was coming from another thought. “Good point. But I was thinking more about whatever’s in that burnt up church that’s causing that glow. If it survived the fire, it’s got to be worth a lot of money! And if it is glowing a lot like the news reporter said, we should be a little more careful. I know I joked about it not being a nuclear plant a few minutes ago, but there are other ways to get exposed to radiation, and I could do without that!”
Now Edward was the one with a good point. Julius expressed this by, somewhat dramatically, nodding his head and making a puckered look with his lips. “We’d have to save enough money for it for a future treasure hunt, but we should be okay tonight. Unless you want to wait to buy a small Geiger…”
Edward thought for a moment then began shaking his head. “No, I don’t want to wait to go over. You know what’ll happen tomorrow…probably some insurance guy’ll show up and take pictures and stuff. And then the church members’ll probably start to clean up right after that. But we can’t go too early tonight because the firefighters will hang around for a bit and the cops will fence-off the area with that yellow tape!”
“So, what do you want to do?”
This time they both fell silent as they pondered an alternative for their pirating endeavor. A commercial about cleaning products was blaring away at them from the TV. Then Julius snapped his chubby fingers. Without saying a word, Edward looked at him for explanation.
“What about including Wayne on this one?”
Edward blew out sarcastically. “That geek?”
“Edward, that was part of the deal we made with him!”
“I know, and I wish we didn’t make it with him. Look, bro, I know he’s your friend in that science class and all, but he should have nothing to do with us! Not when it comes to what we do at nights.”
“I know, Eddie, but just hear me out…I told you that his father is a geologist at UNL, right?”
“Yeah,” Edward droned with a roll of his eyes.
“What is it that a lot of geologist have because of their profession?”
Now the idea finally hit Edward as well. He blankly stared at Julius while Julius smiled victoriously. “Geiger counters,” Edward softly said.
Julius’ parents had gathered some things for their night out with their friends and finally left about ten minutes later. Edward and Julius were up next. Since it was a Friday night, Julius and Edward knew that Julius’ parents would be out well past 12 in the morning. That didn’t leave them much time—something like two hours.
Julius had already called his friend, Wayne, and asked if they could use his father’s Geiger counter. Wayne agreed that he’d asked his father to borrow it. Only thing was he didn’t tell his father that he was borrowing it for that night.
“He better be ready when we get to that corner,” Edward bit out as he drove his 1980s foreign car from a neighborhood called Near South, in the southern portion of central-west Lincoln. “This is simple blackmail by a Bill Gates wannabe! We risk getting caught with guys like him, dude. Bookish people only go so far.”
Julius silently nodded in agreement. He didn’t want to agitate Edward any further, so he said nothing else.
They had to drive all the way out to a much further neighborhood called The Highlands, a mostly upper-middle income sector by Lincoln’s airport. That was where Professor Irwin Paul and his family lived. And Edward wasn’t happy to spend some of their limited time driving out there to pick up Julius’ friend, and then having to turn around and drive all the way back to the neighborhood where the gutted church was. Which was not far from Lincoln’s downtown area. That better be a damned good Geiger counter, Edward thought to himself.
And, indeed, it was. The lanky teen with glasses and a baseball cap was waiting for them at an anonymous street corner, not far from his immaculate neighborhood, holding the high-tech gadget that was nearly as tall as he was. With it being late night and with him standing under a street lamp, Wayne was making an effort not to be so conspicuous with the Geiger contraption. As soon as Edward pulled up with his car, Wayne hopped in and they were off toward the city lights in the distance.
As Edward had predicted, there was the yellow tape festooning the perimeter of the church grounds, placed by the Lincoln Police Department. To the trio of teens’ surprise, there were no officials to be seen. Obviously the firefighters had done a good job in killing off the fire and the coverage they had all seen on the ten o’clock news was a recording. So it had been several hours since the fire.
Another situation working to their favor was the fact that the church grounds were so large that they took up an entire block! With that said, the nearest houses and apartment complex were a mere several yards away…so the trio had to be creative with how they would get to the church, and be quick about it. They decided to take an alley at an adjacent block and creep against any nearby fences or structures that lined the alley. From there it was a lot easier to crawl to the church’s backyard, with its relatively high grass. And especially since the firefighters had strewn out a lot of the demolished structure on the church grounds, there was plenty of hiding places for the trespassers.
Julius and Edward, the chunky ones, were out of breath when they all finally arrived at the back entryway of the shell of the church edifice. Wayne had a little hard time trying to crawl around with the Geiger device, but he managed quite well and was barely panting when they got there. Julius and Edward both had large, empty laundry bags so they could stuff them with booty. And, yet, they had more trouble carrying their load than he did.
“ ‘The Russian Orthodox Church of Lincoln,’ ” Wayne read aloud upon seeing the text that was engraved on the stone above the back doors. It was in English and Russian. By this time, all three were donning their rubber gloves. They all had previously fitted their ski masks and black clothing well before getting to the church.
Now that the boys were safely tucked away in the shadows of the church, cast by the moonlight and a few street lamps, they finally had just a couple of minutes to really pay attention to some of the details of the church’s architecture. It was an echo from another era in European history! With all its piercing spires, grotesque gargoyles, and surrealistic Christian mythology depicted on the remaining stained-glass windows…
“I don’t understand religious people,” Wayne said with a wincing face under his dark ski mask as he looked around the crust of what once was a church. His thick-rimmed glasses awkwardly jutted out from the mask. “Seems like to me the churches are more concerned about scaring you into believing rather than whether or not something is true!”
Edward glanced at Julius through his own ski mask, then looked at Wayne with strained eyes. “You’re an Atheist?”
“Proud to be…born and raised that way! Why, afraid I’ll cramp up your little prayer meeting once we get inside?”
First there was silence. Then all three snickered among themselves. It would have been a ridiculous spectacle: a religious man objecting to someone’s nontheistic attitude, while all three of them were just about to rob a church!
The building had so many openings because of the destructive fire, all the teens had to do to get inside was step through one of the gaping wounds of the church. They remained quiet as they slithered throughout the charred placescape of pews, fallen statues, and the remnant of soiled water from when the firefighters had battled the fire. The smell from the fire was so strong that they all held up their shirts or sleeves to their noses until they got used to it. Dry, crunching sounds crackled periodically as they stepped quickly, trying to use their time economically. But every now and then they’d also plopped into a small puddle of water…again, an echo of the lost fight the Lincoln Fire Department fought against the monstrous element, Fire.
Wayne had taken the point position with his father’s Geiger counter. He had used duct tape earlier to tape over the speaker so the noise indicator wasn’t so loud. And since it was of the latest generation of Geiger counters, it had a medium-sized computer monitor displaying telemetry. That was just as good as any auditory warning signals. Of course, there is always naturally occurring radiation, so the Geiger had picked up mere traces of it from time to time. But none worth worrying about.
Edward and Julius were now veterans within the pirating business after a year’s worth of practice. The husky lads were using their keen eyes to spot anything that might be considered valuable in the illegal markets. Here and there, both of them, in quite professional execution, would craftily lift a crystal here, a silver chalice there, quickly checked the offering bowls for any stray cash…Wayne had to smile out of admiration for the two young chaps. He had known both of them since early-middle school, and here they were, acting and being professional thieves, as any one would read about or see in the news.
It was only within the last three weeks did Wayne stumble across Edward and Julius’ secret lives. Wayne, who had befriended Julius before finding out, happened to know one of the families that the duo had victimized and he was able to put two and two together and confronted Julius about it one day in one of the classes they shared. But instead of turning them in to the cops, Wayne demanded to be a part of the operation. He blackmailed the two-man team, threatening to expose them to authorities if they did not take him on. Finally, Edward had agreed to let little Wayne play supporting role in the team. Julius was the buffer in the new trio group. And Edward was the alpha-male.
“Okay, are we getting any closer to anything interesting,” Julius asked Wayne with a whisper. It was getting darker all around them as they walked further into the building, even with the collapsed roof. They were finally in the center of all the jumbled, blackened mess that the fire caused.
“I thought I brought this along to make sure you guys weren’t exposed to radiation; not look for it!”
“Whatever was glowing during the fire is likely to have some radiation,” Edward offered in hushed confidence. “I’m not one of your nerdy science friends, Wayne, but even I know that if something glows as much as the news said it did, there’s got to be something going—“
And there were muffled pings over the duct tape that encased the Geiger’s speaker. The counter’s interfacer was going wild with colorful graphs of warnings but only lasted for a split second. For a while, Wayne thought he saw the telemetry wink out on him, but the monitor never did go blank on him.
The three young men all stood in complete silence, first looking at the Geiger’s monitor, then looking out around the trashed out church. There was a breeze making its presence known in the autumn night. It rustled abandoned papers and made creaking noises with some of the church’s very old and very charred wood.
“Looks like we’ll have to go to the basement,” Julius finally said, breaking the eerie silence. For it was in the direction of a set of stairs where the Geiger had registered some radiation.
With no further conversations, the trio cautiously made their way to the flight of stairs. The stairwell was a patch of pitch black against the darkened church in the night. They all turned on their flashlights and didn’t have to worry about being seen by any of the neighbors at this point.
Upon reaching the bottom of the stairs, Edward and Julius moved to the side and let Wayne proceed with his Geiger counter.
“I don’t see any glow around, do you guys,” Wayne asked while glancing at the monitor once again.
Neither Julius nor Edward said anything, though their heads shook in response. Again, silence. Wayne narrowed his detection field toward the darkest corner of the church’s basement. Each time he pointed the Geiger in that direction the radiation levels increased, though not to dangerous levels that would fatally harm the boys, but definitely high enough to register caution.
“We’ll be okay,” Wayne informed them curtly.
Edward, still not totally trusting the bookworm, looked at him through his own ski mask with incredulity.
“Look, it’s like you said yourself a few minutes ago, there’s going to be some radiation. And, trust me, if it were that dangerous I wouldn’t be here!”
That last comment was more assuring than anything else Wayne said to Edward or even his friend Julius. The two stout ones glanced at each other and nodded at Wayne’s point. Quickly, all three made their way to the blackened corner, stepping over debris and dodging wooden stalactites that hung in the basement from the first floor. The hanging wood from the gaping ceiling above the basement was a testament to just how extensive the fire-damage was within the church. They slowed down once they got within ten meters the corner.
There was no more need to have the Geiger counter on at this point. So Wayne was about to turn off the device until he noticed a very odd reading on the monitor.
“Well, son of a bitch,” said Wayne so softly Edward and Julius barely heard him. The two stopped their advancement toward the corner and whipped their heads around to see what was Wayne’s consternation.
Wayne was shaking his head while tapping gently on the side of the counter’s monitor. “The Geiger’s reading negative!”
Edward looked to Julius for understanding. All that he did was shrug his shoulders and nimbly shook his masked head for lack of comprehension.
“And the Sun is in the center of the solar system…so what, Wayne!”
“Edward, Geiger counters read existing radiation. For this to read in the negative would be like a weather forecaster predicting how much rain would not fall during a storm…an interesting concept, but it doesn’t make sense!”
Edward was stoically nodding his head as he looked off to no particular place, thinking of the metaphor that Wayne described. “For once, C3-PO, you and I agree on something!”
“Well, I’m going in,” Julius said with impatience.
Edward snapped out of his pensive mode and followed Julius, while Wayne remained at his spot, letting the two pros do their thing. He kept his eyes on the monitor of the Geiger, noting how that each time he pointed it away from the dark corner the telemetry went back to either zero or mere traces of radiation from the burnt up church.
He also noted how, this time, the audio portion of the counter did not ping when it read negative. Rather, slurred and elongated waves of noises he had never heard before generated from the taped up speakers.
“This is getting too freakin’ weird, guys,” he said, now with apprehension in his voice, if not, outright fear. “Maybe we should—you know, get out of here?”
Edward and Julius ignored him. They were too busy thinking of the moneymaking potential of whatever item was in that corner. When they finally got to the corner, there was a disappointed sigh from Edward.
“There’s nothing here, except more debris!” Edward’s voice was still at a whisper, but its decimal was undoubtedly up.
Without saying a word, Julius went directly into the corner, took his miniature flashlight and shined his light in the area.
Julius’ inspection came across a corner of the basement’s carpet. At least what was left of it. He grabbed hold of it and pulled the carpet back with some effort. And there, he and Edward saw the outline of a sealed doorway, built right into the concrete floor. In the center of that small door—approximately four square feet—was a medallion stylistically depicting a biblical mythological scene with Jesus Christ holding some fish and bread, surrounded by a score of men. They all recognized the symbol from various parts throughout the church. It was the Russian Orthodox Church of Lincoln’s official emblem. Encircling the medallion were several Russian words and what appeared to be a date: 1891.
By the time Julius had moved the corner of the singed carpet out of the way completely, Wayne had moved in with his Geiger counter still on. There was no mistaking it, the Geiger’s monitor was registering negative readings and the audio indicator was doing a creepy rendering of a melancholy piece. This time, Edward and Julius were there to see and hear it for themselves.
“Turn it off for now, will you,” Julius asked his friend. Wayne merely shrugged and obliged Julius.
Edward examined the rectangular outline. He ran his gloved hands around its perimeter and over the medallion, pushing it and turning at the slightly raised artwork. He hoped, somehow, the relief would be a secret key to opening the door. The door was kept safe from the fire due to the carpet that had been covering it. “Don’t see any handles or knobs…makes me wonder if they have any treasures down there!”
“Whatever’s down there, they felt it was important enough for them to lock and chain it underground,” Julius said, also getting excited about the potential loot of wealth.
“How do we know the church members didn’t get whatever’s inside, while the church was burning,” Wayne pointed out, almost more of a suggestion than a question.
“Remember, Jules had to pull up the carpet to get to the door,” Edward reminded Wayne. Wayne nodded in affirmation to himself. “I can tell the carpet hasn’t been moved for years by the staples and glue that was stuck to the carpet…Jules and I have done this for a while now, Wayne. We have a good idea what to look for. Besides, we might as well try it while we’re here, right? For all we know they were too preoccupied with the fire and forgot about whatever’s down there.”
Even Julius had to shake his head at that one. “Uh, I don’t know, Eddie. These churchgoers sure went through a lot of trouble to have this built and covered, just to forget about it during a fire? Think about it. If you had something extremely valuable in a vault at home and your house caught on fire, wouldn’t it be one of the things you’d grab with you as you got out of the house?”
Edward and Wayne both nodded their heads at Julius’ point.
“Like you said,” Wayne commented, shifting around to get a better look at the door and its medallion, “you kind of had to go through a lot of work to rip off the carpet covering the door, Julius. And that was after the fire destroyed the carpet. Think how hard it must have been to get to the door before the fire!”
Edward and Julius remained silent, thinking about what was said by their obtuse partner. Wayne continued, his head shaking out of conviction. “No, guys, I think we got it all wrong. The sealed door with no knobs or handles to open it; it was covered by a thick carpet that looks like no one even tried to pull up to get at the door; the Geiger counter always reads negative whenever I point it directly toward the door…if you ask me, I think the church members left whatever’s down there on purpose!”
That speculation left a chill in Edward and Julius. Being in a burnt-out, dark basement of a very old church in the middle of the night didn’t exactly help, either!
“Come on, Eddie; Jules,” Wayne practically begged. “You guys got several things from here already. Let’s go while we still can!”
“I wonder what the text says,” Julius said as he ignored Wayne, half to himself, half to his two partners in crime.
“It says to never open it,” a Russian-accented male’s voice came from another corner of the basement.
The three young men screamed like tweeny girls! Wayne had hefted the Geiger counter and was actually ready to use it for a weapon!
The man, though yet cloaked in the darkened corner, laughed a dry, hardy guffaw. “Well, it is rough translation, but you get point.”
He finally stepped out of the corner and slowly walked in the boys’ general direction, but made a point at stopping several meters away from them. Because of a large hole on the first floor above them caused by the fire there was some moonlight that filtered down to the basement. Before shining their lights on him, Edward, Julius, and Wayne were able to see some details of him. He was a tall, somewhat slender man, probably around early-forties. His hair, dark brown and slicked back with a part in the middle, and it was medium in length with a few strands of gray blooming on his crown and his beard was extremely long and full, having more grays in it. He wore a black robe that accentuated his height.
Oddly, the man held his left hand just above his abdomen, lightly pressed against his body and his fingers were closed tightly together, but extended across his torso. Perhaps an old war wound, congenital maybe even?
“Hey, wait a minute,” Edward said, upon all three of them shining their flashlight on him. His voice had a sense of relief to it. “By the way you’re dressed and that unshaven look about you, I’m guessing you’re the priest of this church.”
The man chuckled. “Not bad, young man…but I am actually the bishop here. We are Russian Orthodox, not Catholic.”
“So, I take it you’ve been here the whole time,” Wayne asked, fidgeting from the guilt and the embarrassment of getting caught.
The bishop, his gaunt eyes slowly moving sideways, nodded. “Oh, you could certainly say that…please, take off your masks.”
Julius and Edward glanced at each other.
“Please,” the Russian man repeated. “I could have called police on you when you first got here, but I did not.”
Well, that was certainly reasonable enough. The three pulled their ski masks off their heads. Edward sighed, still not fully trusting this bishop about his word of not calling the cops.
For his part, the middle-aged man slightly nodded upon seeing their identities. For a short time, Julius wondered if he was a pedophile, given the length of time he looked at them. But then he sensed the man was simply eccentric. Perhaps being tucked away in a church with not much human interaction was catching up with him, Julius reasoned.
“Thank you for not calling the police,” Wayne stated. Edward, having never liked Wayne to begin with, looked at him with loathing. He felt the geek was placating the strange man too much. Never mind the fact that they were pilfering from the church.
“What are your names,” the cleric asked, taking a couple of steps closer to them.
“I’m Julius,” he then pointed to his companions. “This is Edward and this is Wayne.”
The man nodded. “I am Bishop Vilkin. My lay members are quite upset about what happened to our church.” He looked upon them, his eyes narrowing. “Do you think it wise to trespass into a church that has just burnt down? Have you ever considered possibility that police might catch you and accuse you of arson?”
Edward and Julius were frozen, apparently still intimidated by this enigmatic man. That, and they had never thought of the scenario Bishop Vilkin had just laid out to them.
But Wayne, being the good geek that he was, was pondering his words. His face was frowning with concentration and it was not lost on the bishop.
“What is it, young man?” Edward, Julius, and Wayne all noticed that his left hand had not lowered once since talking with this guy.
“What you just said…you speak as though you know we didn’t do it. It’s almost like you’re warning us. I noticed that you did not accuse us of anything since we met you, not even the stealing that we have done…it’s like you already knew all this.”
Edward and Julius looked at Wayne thoughtfully and Bishop Vilkin’s eyes narrowed even more, but this time there was a microscopic smile to go with it. “I give you a break, as they say here in America. You may leave with items you have stolen. Trust me, those little trinkets you took are one of the last things my church is worried about.”
“Bishop Vilkin,” Wayne hastened to say as Edward and Julius began to turn to vacate the basement. They stopped and turned to face Wayne while the cleric patiently waited for Wayne’s question. “I’m sorry but I have this bad habit of being curious about things…what’s in the small door?”
“Wayne,” Edward rebuked from the stairs leading to the first floor.
For a while, Bishop Vilkin didn’t say a word. In fact, he didn’t even move at all. And when he did, it was only his mouth, much of it covered by his beard. “A secret....”
Wayne stood there, expecting to hear more. Even Edward and Julius were askance at the man’s reply.
With that, Wayne got the hint and followed his buddies out of the basement. They slipped their ski masks back on and, with their loot in hand, quietly made their way out of the gutted church and were back outside. They retraced their steps from the backyard of the church and through the same alley, and to Edward’s old car. For a couple of blocks he drove his car with the lights out until they were safely away from the Russian Orthodox Church of Lincoln.
It had been three weeks since Edward, Julius, and Wayne pirated the Russian Orthodox Church and the trio had cashed out quite well off the few items taken. Even though Wayne did not actually rob anything from the church, he still got his share for helping out with his father’s Geiger reader. Despite the fact the team did not get any treasures from that small door in the church’s basement floor. He was at least able to be on the lookout for any passersby. That had to count for something.
Wayne was known for his book smarts, but Edward and Julius definitely had him on the street smarts. The two knew enough not to put the church items up for sale on Ebay or to go to any of the local museums between Lincoln and Omaha. For there were plenty of people that read the papers and heard the news and would have put two and two together and figured out where the antiques suddenly came from. Especially since some of the looted antiques had some fire damage and Cyrillic written on many of the pieces.
Instead, Julius and Edward manually trolled the Internet for churches, museums, and other institutions on the East and West coasts and auctioned off the items. Unlike some potential Ebay’s customers, most of those academic and religious institutions on the coasts weren’t in the market actively seeking antique, Eastern European artifacts resold from the Midwest…hence, anonymity was safe assured.
Julius was in the middle of his Algebra class, at Lincoln High School in central Lincoln, while Edward was in Spanish when they both had received a very ominous text message from Wayne. It said to meet him in the boys’ locker room, since it was between the next gym class and the last one. Of course, this made it difficult for Edward and Julius to come up with an excuse for them to leave their current courses, but the two managed. They were young, career criminals already; getting out of a math and language class was nothing for them.
When the two had converged at the boys’ locker room, they found their geek friend, pacing among a couple of rows of lockers in the midst of the stench and dirty towels hanging off of various ledges. He had several sheets of paper with him, some of them having pictures, Edward and Julius noticed from the distance.
“Wayne, what’s up with you, dude,” Edward asked with a coating of concern as they walked up to him. He glanced at Julius, who also had a worried look on his face.
“Oh, crap,” Julius said as he swacked the side of his own head, something occurring to him suddenly, “did someone find out what we did at that church a few weeks ago?”
Now Edward’s face had gone blank, but Wayne was already waving that off by now.
“No, but it does have to do with that church…” He took a quick look at the papers in his hand, and shoved it toward Edward. “Take a good look at this guy in these archival photos.”
For about a space of half a minute Edward and Julius studied the photocopies and the literature accompanying them. Then it suddenly dawned on Edward. Wayne nodded with quiet satisfaction while Julius was looking back and forth at Edward and the photos, still trying to figure out who was the tall, dark, middle age man in the printout. And then it hit him as well.
“This is impossible,” Julius finally said. Edward’s face hadn’t change while Julius continued. “This can’t be! Wayne, this is—“
“Rasputin, I know. To be more specific, Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin. Appropriately enough, his surname was Vilkin. As in our bishop friend, Vilkin, from that Russian Orthodox church…I was in my social studies class, doing some research on the former Soviet Union when I ran across this info at the library online.” Wayne’s face was a bit on the pale side. He finally sat down on one of the locker room’s benches before he continued.
“We’ve all heard of the saying that we all have a twin, but this is too close! I was three feet from the guy. I know what I saw.”
“Oh, come on, guys,” Edward finally spoke up, handing the papers to Julius. “It was about twelve at night when we saw him. There are—“
“Eddie, I know what I saw,” Wayne repeated, uncharacteristically aggressive. “You were there, too! Take a look at him in those photos…he even holds his left hand up all the time like Bishop Vilkin. Dude, look at his eyes, his beard, and the fact that Rasputin was Russian—and who did we happen to see in a Russian church…?”
There was an uncomfortable space of silence as Wayne left his rhetorical question to itself.
Julius, now having second thoughts, was shifting uncomfortably next to Edward. “I don’t know, Wayne…this guy lived a hundred years ago! And what would Lincoln, Nebraska have anything to do with a Russian mystic? And all those things you mentioned—for all we know, he could be some Rasputin-wannabe or admirer. Kind of like those Elvis impersonators.”
“But what about the Geiger readings,” Wayne protested, one of his hands arbitrarily pointing out.
“What about them,” Edward shot back after glancing at Julius. “You took those readings from that small door, not him.”
“Yeah, but that door has to have something to do with, with Bishop Vilkin, or whoever he is! It can’t be a coincidence that I got those negative readings and there was a guy standing there, in the dark, just hanging out, who just happened to look exactly like Grigori Rasputin!”
“Hey, what are you doing believing in something like this anyway,” Julius said. “Aren’t you Atheistic?”
Wayne blew out a sigh from the bench, vexed at having to explain himself to someone else—again! “Julius, we’ve had this conversation before…being an Atheist is not a belief or even a philosophy. It’s the simple state of not believing in any supernatural beings or an afterlife of any sort. This—“ He pointed at the copies in Julius’ hands. “—this crazy situation is more in the realm of the paranormal. And with the paranormal, there tends to be more logical explanations to how and why things happen…they’re just often mysterious or unexplained. I know enough about life to say that the universe is so big that there are things that happen in life we simply can’t explain or understand. No more than an ant cannot explain to me how a car works. But that doesn’t make humans gods just because we create and understand cars. Humans are the same way in the universe as that ant. We cannot explain many things, but does that mean any gods exist…?”
It was a tangential point in their conversation, but a very good one nevertheless. Neither Edward nor Julius responded to Wayne’s monologue. In fact, it remained quiet in the locker room for a while as they all thought on what was next.
“Look,” Edward said, “we all got to get going before the principal sends in the SWAT units after us. I suggest we forget all about this Rasputin bullshit and just be glad we got our pay from the church.” Edward deliberately focused his eyes on Wayne, yet seated on the bench. “We all drop it! Right here; right now. Talk to anyone else about this and they’ll start asking questions about this Bishop Vilkin and they’ll trace what we did at the church to us! Personally speaking, even if he is Rasputin resurrected, I don’t care. What does that have to do with me?”
Julius and Wayne traded looks.
“By the way,” Edward said, ignoring his partners’ apprehensive glances, “looks like we have another treasure opportunity…I’ll talk to you guys about it later.”
Edward flashed a look of warning toward Wayne, and, as far as Julius could tell one at him as well! Then he left the locker room.
Wayne had gotten off the bus at a fairly busy corner on East Lincoln. It was in an area of town where fancy churches peppered large swaths of land and where upper-income Lincolnites attended their institutions of beliefs. It was here that Wayne found where The Russian Orthodox Church of Lincoln held their services temporarily. The temporary church site was very modern and quite minimalistic, in comparison to the original church’s ancient Gothic, Baroque style. It was also quite small—a mere meeting hall, virtually. But that was all that the Russian Orthodox members needed until they had a new church edifice rebuilt, thanks to the money coming from their insurance company’s fire compensation policy. And with a relatively sizable Russian population in Lincoln, Wayne guessed it would not be too much longer for a new Orthodox church to be built to replace the old one.
Wayne opened the door to the hall and found a middle-aged secretary at the circulation desk. She had a bit of a hard look about her, but she clearly made an effort not to show it in her demeanor as she smiled at him.
“Welcome to the Russian Orthodox Church,” she said with a heavy flavor of Russian. “Can I help you, young man?”
Wayne gathered his thoughts before answering. He had decided to do a little investigation on his own into the whole Rasputin episode…if, in fact, that was whom they were dealing with. It was clear that Julius and, especially, Edward were not going to help him on this.
“Hi, my name is Wayne Paul. I’m a student at Lincoln High. I’m doing a report for my social studies class. I ran across something that relates to your church and I was wondering if there was someone I can talk to about it?”
“Oh…okay.” Her English was a lot better than Bishop Vilkin’s. “Are you talking about the religious aspect of our church? Historical in nature…?”
“Mmm, a bit of both.”
“Well, you came at a good time, Wayne. Bishop Nicolas Gurnov is here today and he has a light load this morning. I believe he may have some time for you!”
The secretary had picked up the phone and was about to dial for the bishop when she noticed Wayne’s countenance.
“Is everything all right, young man?”
“Yeah…” Bishop Gurnov. Now that was interesting.
About two minutes later, a man around sixty, clean-shaven, came from behind the circulation desk and walked over to Wayne and shook his hand. He was amiable, rather plump and short, and quite nimble…the complete opposite of the man who claimed to be the Bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church of Lincoln, Nebraska he and Edward and Julius met a few weeks ago!
Gurnov walked Wayne over to his temporary office, located just a few yards from the circulation desk. The bishop closed the door and gestured for Wayne to take a seat on a chair that was in front of his desk. Wayne noted how instead of seating himself behind his desk, Bishop Gurnov sat on the chair next to his. Usually a good sign that someone wanted a more informal conversation and was more likely to listen.
“So, Wayne,” the bishop said, his Russian accent a bit softer than the secretary’s, “you’re doing some research for social studies on the Orthodoxy in Russia?”
“No, not quite. It was on the Soviet Union. But, you know how it goes when you’re doing research on the Web…your eyes run across other links that look interesting to you and the next thing you know you’re at another web site totally outside of what you’re supposed to be reading!”
The bishop laughed easily. “Yes, that happens to me nearly every day! So, what was the link that grabbed your attention? Ours?”
Here we go!, Wayne thought. “Uh, no…” Wayne produced the hard-copies from the website he had printed on Rasputin and shared with Edward and Julius. Julius had given them back to Wayne a couple of days ago, after the trio’s meeting in the boys’ locker room. Instead of embarrassing himself any further, Wayne simply handed the pages over to Bishop Gurnov without saying a word.
Wayne expected the man to scold him about bringing up such a foolish subject since he’s such a busy man. But, to Wayne’s totally surprise, Bishop Gurnov’s face turned to stone! That, in turn, caused Wayne to freeze, wondering if he offended him instead of angering him.
“And, how did you say this had to do with our church,” Gurnov inquired softly, the bright eyes on his countenance long gone by now.
Wayne paused. It almost felt like an interrogation now. He remembered Edward’s warning about telling other people about this Bishop Vilkin, since it would implicate them with the larceny they committed at the church. But Wayne knew that what they were dealing with was far larger than a few stolen items.
“I—a couple of friends and I—saw someone that looked exactly like Rasputin!”
The bishop looked upon Wayne with questioning eyes. “Where did you see this individual?”
“At your church, Bishop.”
Another moment of uncomfortable silence.
“Was this before or after the fire burnt our church down?”
“It was after.”
Gurnov leaned back in his chair and breathed out the slightest of a sigh. He leafed through the printouts silently. He then, suddenly, got up from his chair and went to his office phone. He, presumably, called the secretary, said something in Russian to her, and hung up the phone.
Oh, no; he called the cops!, was all that Wayne could think. Worse yet, may be the organization that replaced the KGB…may be Julius, Edward, and I all created an international rift!
“Wayne,” said Bishop Gurnov, his voice nearly back to its previous jovial level, but his eyes a bit more subdued, “are you finished with school today?”
Wayne considered the man very carefully before responding. “Yeah…I only had five periods today. Why?”
“Because, my young friend, you are about to take a little history lesson.”
Bishop Gurnov gave an outline on the life of Grigori Rasputin. That he was born around 1864 in Pokrovskoe, near the Ural Mountains and near the Siberia vicinity. Later, as a young man, Rasputin had been a student at a monastery in the town of Verkhoture, though he did not follow through with becoming a monk.
To Wayne’s surprise, Rasputin had married and had three children. Indeed, later, after entering the circle of the upper class in Russia of the early 1900s, it was purported that Rasputin had mistresses and was accused by some of using his high-class connection for those trysts. He also eventually had a following, a kind of discipleship. He claimed, and was believed by others, that he could heal those with infirmities and was able to foresee the future.
His move to St. Petersburg was his apex of fame, power, and, ultimately, his downfall. By the time the last of the Russian tzars, Nicholas Romanov, was desperate to stop his son’s bout of hemophilia, Rasputin had become famous throughout Russia. Other medical measures the Romanovs took apparently didn’t work. So, by 1907, Rasputin was invited to try his magic on the Russian monarch’s son. For some unknown reason, little Aleksei’s hemophiliac attack stopped and, predictably, it was credited toward the healing powers of Rasputin.
Bishop Gurnov said that, depending on whom you talk to, it’s believed that Rasputin took advantage of this apparent miracle with Aleksei Romanov. Rasputin warned Tzar Nicholas that if he wanted his son to stay alive and for his monarchy to reign successfully, Rasputin would have to have a seat in the Romanovs’ house of power!
Well, that was a little too much for some in the Romanov regime. Indeed, Tzar Nicholas and his wife, Alexandra, found out about Rasputin’s mistresses and they began to share the Russian officials’ concerns about his impact on the Russian government.
On December of 1916 there was a plot to kill Rasputin. Interestingly enough, two of the three men who ended up murdering Rasputin were relatives of the tzar. Prince Feliks Yusupov was married to Tzar Nicholas’ niece and Grand Duke Dimitry Pavlovich was cousin to the tzar. The third man was a member of the Russian parliament, the Duma…
“…yet Rasputin lived, even after eating the poisoned food,” Bishop Nicolas Gurnov was saying to young Wayne Paul, who had remained seated at the same chair through the Russian’s brief historical account of Rasputin. “So one of the three men shot Rasputin, and even that did not work!”
“Yeah,” Wayne confirmed, “I remember reading that at one of the other websites I went to! Poor guy probably would have lived to be an old man if it weren’t for the fact that they ended ganging up on Rasputin and dumping him in that river.”
“Yes, the Neva.” The bishop had been standing the whole time as he told the legend, gesticulating with his chubby hands. But now his body language had settled, and he reclaimed his seat next to Wayne’s. The bishop’s old eyes were unblinking as he addressed the young criminal. “Wayne, I don’t know what you and your friends were doing at our church when you saw this man. Honestly, I do not care…under normal circumstances, yes, right now you would be talking to police for trespassing on our property. But if it is true that you saw a man, who very much looked and seemed to carry himself like that of Rasputin, then not only does our church have bigger problems to worry about, but so do you and your friends!”
That statement made Wayne’s heart skip a beat! Wayne said nothing. He didn’t even move. It wasn’t bravado. It was his way of waiting for the next shoe to drop.
“Rasputin’s body was never found. Did you ever read that in any of the websites you went to?”
Wayne silently and slowly shook his head.
“Yes…we are told that he was tied up by Yusupov, Pavlovich, and Purishkevich and then thrown into the Neva River, but we are never told if anyone had ever found his body! Now, I cannot say you will ever read this in any of the history books, but as is told among some, Rasputin had survived the assassination attempt. Some Christians in a small village down the river from St. Petersburg had stumbled across a tall, dark-haired man in a black robe…he had wounds about him and was taking off some ropes that were around him. Now, the village was so isolated and small that they had never heard of Rasputin, so they had no idea whom he was. Otherwise, they would have never accepted him into their village, where, as it is told, he took advantage of the villagers’ hospitality and slaughtered all of them for their food, one of their horse-drawn carriages, and some of their small treasures…”
Privately, Wayne wondered if the bishop was making some point about he and Edward and Julius being thieves and stealing from a church when he said ‘small treasures’ and that bit about a Christian village. But he, wisely, kept his tongue.
“One of the treasures that Rasputin had pilfered,” Bishop Gurnov went on, “was a key. Rasputin, as he was riding away from the tiny village that he destroyed, stopped to rest and decided to look at his newly acquired small fortune. That was when he discovered this key…it had a floral design on the handle with foreign words written on both sides. Rasputin had limited formal education so he did not realize that it was in English—and this is where our Church, in Lincoln, comes into this story,” Bishop Gurnov said with gusto as he pointed at Wayne.
“The key had belonged to a relative of one of the families he killed in that tiny town outside of St. Petersburg....”
“Let me guess,” Wayne said, finally getting the nerves to speak, especially after seeing that the Bishop was not going to turn him over to the cops, “this relative of that Russian town was of your family; the Gurnovs.”
Bishop Gurnov laughed hardily. It was the most informal Wayne had seen him up to that point. “You are very smart, Wayne! How do young people call it? You are geek?” Wayne half-way laughed, half-way sighed for slight annoyance, but he let the Bishop continue; more somber now. “The key, as Rasputin had thought, belonged to something very important. Otherwise, why would a simple key be found among treasures, no? So, as is told in my family for years, Rasputin went back to that same village months later after he recovered from his wounds, so he could find whatever treasure box the key went to.
“Only, the village outside of St. Petersburg was then occupied by soldiers of a new power that had replaced his old friend, Tzar Nicholas...”
“The Soviet Union,” Wayne helped out.
“The Soviet Union,” Bishop Gurnov said approvingly with a nod. “We are not sure of details at this point, but my family speculated that Rasputin must have figured out the change in power of Russia and remained in hiding, because the atheist, anti-bourgeois Soviets would not tolerate the once-friend and close adviser to the Romanovs!”
“So, is that part of the reason why we don’t read about his body being found, or anything else about him...he was in hiding for years after his reported death? From the Soviets and some of the Romanovs who didn’t like his influence over Nicholas II?” Wayne was incredulous at the point.
“Remember, my American friend, his body was never found!”
Wayne winced at that point. “No offense, but not finding something is not the same thing as proving that something is in existence...so, what about this key, if I may, Bishop Gurnov? Does it go to that little door on the basement’s floor?”
“Not quite...the key is for what is inside the door.”
Wayne waited patiently, but the elderly man merely sat quietly. “Bishop, may I ask, what is inside that door that this Rasputin wants so badly?”
Bishop Gurnov assessed Wayne. “So, Wayne, you said you have seen the door in the basement floor. And I’m assuming you and your friends left the door exposed where Rasputin could see it?”
Wayne shifted in his chair; guilt shooting through him. “Yes, Bishop...I was going to tell you about that—“
Surprisingly, the Bishop stopped Wayne with a gentle touch on the young man’s shoulder. “It’s ok, Wayne. I probably should not tell you this much, but it was a—how do you Anglophones say it...reddish herring.”
“Red herring,” he corrected himself; smiling as he leaned back in his chair. Wayne noticed how he looked at his wrist watch.
“Bishop, I don’t understand...” Wayne had a sudden thought. “Did your church set the fire yourselves?”
He gave the slightest of shrugs. “Fires happen all the time, my young friend; especially in buildings that are over a hundred years old.”
Wayne was not amused. “Bishop, if you’re saying what I think you are saying, at best that’s considered fraud! Look, I understand that you wanted to throw that Rasputin-creep off, but firefighters and other people put their lives on the line to rescue your church!”
“Says one of the thieves who broke into my family’s church.”
Checkmate. Wayne and the Bishop both understood this. Wayne leaned back in his chair; humbled.
“You realize that Rasputin has probably already figured out you tricked him,” Wayne finally said to Bishop Gurnov.
He was already nodding his head, pensively. “Again!” Wayne did a double take. Apparently, there was some kind of cat and mouse game that’s been going on for decades between Bishop Gurnov’s church and this Rasputin! “That’s why I said that we all have bigger problems than to worry about anything that you and your friends have stolen from the church.”
“So, if the fire and the small door in the basement was just to throw Rasputin off, what was causing the radiation that my Geiger counter was reading?”
“Bits of nuclear waste,” the Bishop stated very matter of fact. “What else would make a Geiger read such levels?”
Wayne looked at the elder man; utterly shocked! “Bishop Gurnov, you can’t just go around sticking nuclear waste in a church just so you keep people away! Where did you get it from, if I may ask?”
“When I went on a trip to Chernobyl years ago,” he said with a shrug. “One of our church members is a scientist and he helped me smuggle it into the US...we knew it would be one of the few things to keep other people away. It was this scientist’s idea to insert a machine within the nuclear cask that made Geiger counters and other readers to read weird registrations when they got too close.” He smiled at Wayne, figuring he would have tried something like that.
Just then, two muscular young men—Russian, from what Wayne gathered—opened the door to the Bishop’s room and stood by the door. They were in casual clothes, but their size was intimidating! They must have been the call that the Bishop did some time ago and why he glanced at his watch.
“Don’t worry,” the Bishop said with a slight laughter upon seeing Wayne’s reaction, “they’re for you.”
Bishop Gurnov nodded as his eyes stayed on some corner of the room. “You and your friends have stumbled upon a strange war that’s been going on for about a hundred years now...even though you all did it during a crime against my family church, you still don’t deserve to have Rasputin in your lives because of it.” He then turned his eyes squarely on Wayne. “Especially you, Wayne...we knew about you and your friends already! Without giving away too much details of our operation, we had gotten word that Rasputin was on to us and was closing in. So, we needed something to keep him at bay.”
“The fire and the dirty nuke in the media,” Wayne said with a nod of being impressed. “That way you could ensure TV cameras and the public hanging around church grounds, making it uncomfortable for Rasputin to show up at your church!”
The Bishop looked at the two guards, beaming. “As I said earlier; you are geek!”
Once again, the diplomatic laugh from Wayne. But the Bishop got serious before speaking a bit more.
“Wayne, I’m afraid you are going to have to make a choice that you and your friends have now found yourselves in. Rasputin has been chasing my family since he massacred my relatives back in that small village outside of St. Petersburg in 1916. He’s never stopped searching for us since then,” the Bishop warned Wayne with the most serious disposition he could. “I’m afraid that when he saw inside that safe was nothing but discarded nuclear waste, he will have counted you and your friends as accomplices to my family. You can join me as an ally, where I can offer you protection, but I would also expect some help from you.”
“Of course,” Wayne simply said as he nodded.
“Or you could simply move your family from Lincoln; may be even the Midwest in general...it is us he is really after.”
“And whatever it is that your family has had in possession for over a hundred years that he wants so badly, and you are still not willing to tell me what it is...”
The Bishop merely smiled while the two guards stoically looked on; waiting to see which way Wayne would choose to go. Indeed, Wayne thought hard on it while the three Russians kept their eyes on him.
“How do I know he won’t come after me if I decide to move my family?”
“Honestly, you won’t ever know that for certain. I was hoping that the nuclear waste would eventually kill him from the radiation after he would open up the box in the safe, but I have gotten word today that he was seen around Lincoln.” Another shrug from the Bishop.
But that also meant that Wayne knew he could never live his life as carefree anymore. And, ultimately, he knew he could not do it himself...not against Rasputin!
Wayne stood up from his chair and reached across the table and shook Bishop Gurnov’s hand. “So, how do I put my talents to work for the Orthodox Church of Lincoln?”