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Ldquo;the staretss huntr.., p.1
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       “The Starets's Hunt”, p.1

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“The Starets's Hunt”

  Wayne is a geek who turned to the small crime scene; selling stolen goods online and to pawn shops. He and his accomplices stumble into the wrong place to plunder at a Russian Orthodox Church when they run into a mystic figure from the days of Tsar Nicholas II. And now Wayne is also Rasputin's prey!

  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 burn
t 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!


  Sheer poetry.


  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 of them 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
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