You’d think a city named in honor of its port would be blessed with a brilliantly lit and well-kept harbor. But this was not the case at all in the Schooner’s hometown. Instead, the rat infested district of Port City was more accurately known as Drunkard’s Docks. It was a place of bustling activity by day, as one after another, heavy and rusted cargo containers were hefted from the barnacle-encrusted freighters that limped into port.
By night, a metamorphosis of the darkest proportions took firm hold. It was a usual gathering place for thieves and drunkards who littered the streets with their broken bottles, and often lay strewn across the sidewalks in pitiful slumber. Gambling was a favorite pastime of the evil element that flocked to the docks once the sun set each evening. According to local lore, the hacked-up remains of card cheats and gangsters could be found inside the abandoned containers parked just outside the dilapidated freight yard.
The police had long since worn out their welcome in the district. It was rare to hear so much as a stray siren ringing up any of the filthy streets. It wasn’t often that you’d spot the common, everyday civilian walking the streets of Drunkard’s Docks at any time, let alone at night. But this night, the docks welcomed two such civilians to walk its poisoned streets.
“Coach, I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” whispered Herbie, a noticeable quiver in his voice.
Buck tightened his trench coat around his body and straightened the black wool cap he wore as a makeshift disguise. “Herbie, I don’t like this any more than you,” he responded, “But we gotta do it for the good of the team. You want to help the team, don’t you?”
“Sure, Coach, but don’t you think a rabbit’s foot would work just fine?”
“A rabbit’s foot? Come on, Herbie, we haven’t won a game all month. Don’t you think we something more believable than a dried up rabbit turd?”
“Whatever you say, Coach.”
They walked the dim streets, protected only by the scraping of their own feet on the scummy sidewalk. Every so often, a door leading to a noisy pub would swing open and greet them with the sound of slurred voices and clanking bottles. At one particular spot, a door swung open and a man in torn brown trousers was deposited in the street with a thud. He rolled to a stop under a graffiti covered lamppost that leaned at an awkward angle as it rose from the pavement. It was not the first time this post had been used for a similar purpose. The man, his shaggy red hair hanging down over his ears, sprang to his feet and shook his fist in the direction of the pub.
“You sons a bitches!” he shouted in a slurred voice, wobbling on rubbery legs. “I’ll has your dang money, no time, you see!” He kicked an empty bottle against the brick wall of the pub and it exploded in a million tiny shards. Then he spun around, staggered over to the curb, and flopped down upon it, his shoulders hunched over his knees.
“Excuse me?” Buck said to him.
“The hell you want?”
“I was wondering if you could direct me to a sort of antique shop I once saw in this area. I can’t seem to find it.”
“Antique shop? I wouldn’t call it no antique shop, but I guess you mean Rasputin’s.”
“Sure, pal,” Buck cooed in his most soothing voice. “Can you tell me where to find it?”
The man grinned, revealing a mouth full of yellow teeth. “I seem to ‘ave forgotten,” he said, the stench of stale whiskey hanging in the air.
“How can we help you remember?”
The smile vanished from the man’s face. “Fifty bucks,” he said..
Buck nudged Herbie in the ribs and the loyal bench coach pulled out his wallet and slapped fifty dollars in the man’s greasy hands. “It’s all comin’ back to me somehow,” the man slurred, rubbing his fingers on his temples as if gathering the information through some sort of divination, “Yes, yes…make a left at the corner…yes, yes…third door on the right.” When he was finished delivering his condescending prophecy, he popped up from the curb with the money still in his fist, and he staggered back toward the pub. “Look, ya sons a bitches! I tole ya I’d ‘ave your money!”
“Let’s go, Herbie,” whispered Buck. “The sooner we get this done, the sooner we can get out of this loony bin.”
They walked in silence, slowing down here and there to maneuver around fallen trash bins or to step over the body of a passed-out reveler of the night. As they approached the door to which they’d been directed, a brisk wind whistled down the abandoned street, blowing loose papers in the air and sending empty cans rolling in opposite directions. A light rain speckled the sidewalk and the gentle glow of the moon vanished beneath a blanket of thick, dark clouds. The night descended into opaque blackness.
Buck and Herbie approached the arched doorway of a battered-looking building, its cracked windows staring at them like squinty, glass eyes. A sign above the weather-beaten slats of the wooden door read, “Rasputin Solas: Merchant.” It was written in blood-red letters that appeared to have been hand-painted at a much earlier date. The paint was peeling and cracked.
“Well, are you gonna knock or what?” Buck asked. Herbie stared back at him wide-eyed, a droplet of sweat coasting from his temple down the side of his cheek. “Well, go on,” shooed Buck.
“I still think a rabbit’s foot would be just as—“
“What if we got rabbit’s feet for everyone on the whole—“
“Herbie! Just knock already!”
Herbie grasped the heavy, brass knocker and beat three hollow thuds into the old, wooden door. The door, hanging crooked on its rusty hinges, creaked open under its own power.
“Come in,” beckoned a raspy voice that was hard to distinguish from the creaking of the rusty hinges.
Buck and Herbie entered the building, dragging their feet behind them. As they entered the shop, they were at once stricken by the immaculate orderliness. However odd the trinkets that adorned the walls and shelves of the store seemed to be, they were set about in such a way that they elicited a somewhat comfortable feel from any customer who set foot inside.
The two men moved more assuredly now, as if a strange force was drawing them in. They climbed a short set of stairs adorned with old paintings and devices of which they could not begin to imagine the use. When they reached the top step, they were greeted by a small seating arrangement that consisted of a couch and two ancient-looking wooden chairs. The room was lit by flickering candles with wax that trickled down the brick walls from which they hung.
On the small couch lounged a man in a long black robe, tattered at the hems. His black, greasy hair hung down over his eyes and ears like individual strands on a dirty mop, and his hands and face were spotted with liver marks that clashed with the sickening whiteness of his skin.
“Welcome to my shop,” the man whispered in a raspy voice, as if he’d gone hoarse. “My name is Rasputin Solas, and I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.” He rose from the couch and offered his hand in friendship. Buck and Herbie shook the rough, calloused appendage, catching a whiff of moist soil and pond scum as they did. Rasputin smiled at them, revealing a scattered row of rotten teeth, and he motioned for them to sit down in the rickety chairs. “Please, make yourselves comfortable,” he said. “How can I be of assistance?”
Buck took the lead. “This may sound a bit odd—“
“Then you’ve come to the right place. Odd is my business.” A devilish grin rose on Rasputin’s face when he said this. “Please…go on.”
“Well, me and Herbie here, we coach a baseball team. Uh, it’s not important which one. Anyway, we’ve been losing a ton of games and we both think it has a lot to do with our players’ confidence levels and all that. I thought maybe they need something that’ll make ‘em believe they can win. You know, like a good luck charm.”
“I told him a rabbit’s foot would be—“
“Herbie, a rabbit’s foot is for schmucks! You want the guys to laugh at you?”
Rasputin’s eyes sparkled in response to Buck’s sudden outburst. He rose to his feet, walked a few steps, and retrieved a wooden crate. It was a perfect cube, about the size of a small gift box. Carved into the lid was a magnificent stallion rearing up on its hind legs. A thick plume of smoke billowed from its flaring nostrils. The box was painted a once-brilliant shade of red, which had deteriorated over time to appear cracked and brownish. It was clear the item was very old. Rasputin placed the box on Buck’s lap and, almost immediately, the coach felt an icy coldness seep into his thighs.
“I think you’ll find the contents will suit your needs,” croaked Rasputin through thin, expressionless lips. “Please…open it.”
Buck ran his fingers over the carved stallion that stared back at him from the lid of the box and again noticed the coolness exuding from it. He lifted the brass latch that held the lid closed tight and swung it open. A puff of cool steam rose from within, as if the contents had been packed in dried ice. Only, there was nothing inside but a small, velvet satchel that seemed to conceal something lumpy.
Buck dunked his hand into the damp coolness of the box to retrieve the article, which, to his surprise, was emanating heat. He dumped the contents of the satchel into his hand. What he now held was a smooth, perfectly-round gemstone, the likes of which he had never seen before. It was jet-black in appearance, however not completely opaque. Instead, it had a strange translucent quality like a darkened chunk of quartz. The stone was similar in size to a baseball, yet it felt closer in weight to a shot put. But, by far, the most bizarre property of the strange artifact was the distinct feeling of heat that radiated from its very core.
“Where in the world did you find something like this?” Buck asked, still gaping at the stone he held between his palms.
“It’s a little piece I picked off the path leading to the Gates of Hell, of course,” responded Rasputin, unflinching. Herbie’s jaw dropped open as he and Buck stared at each other in amazement and passed the stone back and forth, each determined not to be the one touching what they believed to be one of Lucifer’s most prized possessions.
Rasputin watched them, amused, and then he broke into a deep groan of diabolical laughter that rose from the bowels of his blackened heart. “I’m kidding, gentlemen. I picked it up on one of my many travels. I travel quite extensively, of course, in my business. I think I found this little piece in Rome. Quite an odd man, the merchant I obtained it from.”
Something about Rasputin describing another individual as “odd” brought gruesome images to the coaches’ minds.
“W-w-well, what is it exactly?” asked Herbie. “I mean, what does it do?”
“It’s most likely just a piece from some preschooler’s rock collection that has been placed in a fancy package,” Rasputin explained. “Although the merchant who sold it to me said it could make things happen. He claimed it was capable of great magic.” He paused as if reflecting on something. “It’s never done a thing for me, outside of serve as a reminder of that grubby little merchant who conned me.”
“But what about the temperature?” asked Buck, “I mean, it feels warm or something, even though it’s inside this freezing cold container.”
“Ah, yes,” replied Rasputin, deep in thought. “I’ve never quite been able to account for that, but I’ve read that volcanic rock can sometimes possess such a quality. I’ve come to believe that my bloody merchant friend may have found it in an area rich in volcanic activity. Who knows? I assure you, however, the stone has never served a purpose more important than that of a common paperweight.”
After mulling it over in his mind a bit, Buck responded, “Well, I’ve gotta tell ya, mister…Solas is it?” Rasputin stared at him blankly. “This is what I’m looking for. My guys don’t have the guts or the IQ’s to question the power of such a strange object. How much do you want for it?”
“How’s that?” Buck stared at the merchant in disbelief.
“Take it!” growled Rasputin in response. “It has no use for me and I can’t bear to look at it any longer!” Rasputin stuffed the rock into its velvet satchel and then cradled it back into the box. He pushed the entire package onto Buck’s lap and motioned the two men towards the door with his long, bony fingers. “Please go before I change my mind,” he said. And then he winked, once again revealing a wicked smile and a jumbled row of rotten teeth.
Buck and Herbie said no more. They jumped from their seats in unison, exited the shop, and headed back through the desolate streets of Drunkard’s Docks. As they walked, both men were ignorant to the awesome power they were transporting back to the clubhouse in the antique box, or of the unlikely and somewhat catastrophic events they were about to unleash upon their team.