Sunday, January 29, 2006

Chapter Eleven

Having checked up on Selwyn and Lonnie, Alma considered her course of action. Here she was, penniless except for an incredibly valuable artifact, Eastern European hoods chasing her, and a pyromaniac ex-lover cropping up like a bad penny. Well, at least she’d retrieved her treasure from him. She had to sort out this situation and recover some sort of life. And then perhaps she could make it up to Selwyn. Perhaps even to Lonnie, although she didn’t dare even think how that could ever be possible. Somehow the boring security of her former life now seemed so alluring. For one thing, it had contained regular meals and sleep, and fairly continuous proximity to a clean bathroom.

All her life, Alma had been certain of the value of her family treasure. George had painted in the most glowing terms the certainty of its provenance, its gilt-edged credentials, the fact that it was unmistakeably the Real Deal. But the Sun’s headlines had confirmed George was dead, by fire, and since he would have been the most likely fence for Pyre to use, she knew that something serious had happened, and she could no longer trust in what he had told her. She needed information, and she needed it fast.

Alma had ditched the Russian’s car in Lisbon, where she had hung around an internet café until someone left their computer while their time was still running, whereupon she had Googled Fabergé and learnt where she had to go next. Judicious use of her right thumb had now helped her onto the back seat of a black BMW 5-series heading into Spain. She could tell by the actinic smell of car cleaner it had been rented by the occupants, an elegant but snooty Russian woman who was apparently some sort of academic, and her sweating, drawling American passenger. Through the ferocious argument that they were having, which was mainly about why the American had insisted they pick up a hitchhiker, it transpired that they were also looking for a Fabergé egg, an egg they had briefly had their hands on but had lost in an appalling complex scrum to some underworld hood in Lisbon.

“This sounds familiar, how many of the dam’ things are there?” thought Alma, shifting to resettle the egg below her smaller left breast, the one Lonnie had always preferred and cherished as “the tit-ch”. It was now looking somewhat bigger than the other with its uncomfortable ovoid passenger slung beneath. Alma was forced to slump to hide the odd bulge, and this hurt her back. Her eyes were red with exhaustion and her head span, but clearly this was not the time to fall asleep. She pretended to leaf through some Russian fashion magazines she found on the back seat, but her full attention was focused on the edged, tensely hissed discussion taking place in the front of the speeding BMW as they headed towards the Spanish border.

The only thing her fellow travellers agreed on was that the egg they were looking for would probably turn up on the sidelines of the Fabergé exhibition taking place in Brussels as part of the Europalia Russia 2005 events. They assumed, probably rightly, that the attention of the world’s Fabergé egg specialists would be focused on that exhibition, and that sellers, buyers and evaluators would all mill around the sidelines trawling for business. Especially sellers trying to fence what was apparently an eerily vibrating egg.

Olga had suggested flying. Oppenheimer, being a Yank and therefore contemptuous of distance, had decided to drive. Olga suspected it was to stave off that fateful moment when she knew, and he knew, and she knew he knew, and he knew she knew he knew, she would undoubtedly leave his pasty boil-covered bulbous derrière, kicking it, in all its quivering unappetising horror, as far out of her life as her pointy Manolos would punt it. Olga resolved that this act would be as emasculating as possible, not, she sniggered inwardly, that there was much more emasculating to be done. Anyone who rented this sort of car had clearly long ago resorted to material augmentation anyway.

As Alma shared the American’s vast selection of high-fat, high-sugar trip snacks, the first thing she had eaten in over 24 hours, she eavesdropped upon their conversation. Fabergé’s workshop, she discovered, did not make eggs until 1884, the first one being a present from Alexander III for his wife, the Czarina Maria, in the Russian Easter tradition of gifting decorated eggs. As the academics brought each other up to date, she learned about the use of both precious and semi-precious stones from the Urals, about guilloche technique and palladium, about the exquisite variations in enamel colour shading that Fabergé himself developed, the eggs’ commemoration of Russian history such as the opening of the Trans-Siberian railway. She learned about the marks of the supervising goldsmiths, Michael Perchin until 1903 and Henrik Wigstrom therefter, and about Russian assay marks. She learned about the two Imperial eggs photographed but then lost, the twelve further Imperial eggs never even photographed, and the seven non-Imperial eggs, ostensibly commissioned by a nobleman called Kelch.

Alma felt a huge prickling heatwave of shock rise from her shoulders and cristle its way across her scalp to culminate in her forehead. Her ears buzzed. If the first egg was not made until 1884, then hers couldn’t be from Catherine the Great, could it? Hadn’t she ruled over a century before? Clearly George had been telling the most enormous porky pies. What else had he been untrustworthy about? Was her egg even genuine? Clearly Pyre and Boris had thought so. She itched to fish it out from the depths of her bosom and examine its gold marks, see which goldsmith had made it, wonder whether it was an Imperial egg after all, or a Kelch egg, and if so, what exotic minerals and metals the mining magnate may have provided for use in its making. But she knew that any eggy glimmer from the back seat would be picked up by her travelling companions, so it remained against her skin, growing warmer by the minute. With the anticipation, Alma could swear she could almost feel it vibrating.

It felt as if it was about to hatch.

For all she was dog tired, Alma could not miss a single minute of the odious sniping between Olga and Oppenheimer as they let slip vital pieces of the puzzle Alma’s life had become. As they changed drivers and filled up in a service station near Zaragoza, Alma ducked into the ladies’ loos and took out her egg. It had been the first time she had had an opportunity to examine it closely since the night she had given it to Pyre. Once safe in the locked stall, she raised the seat, stood on the toilet basin and lifted it towards the dusty flyspecked 40-watt lightbulb.

alma in the bog


It wasn’t hers.

It was close. The enamelling was a similar colour, the goldwork very close, but it wasn’t hers. The paintings were not the familiar faces she had fondly imagined were distant imperial half-relatives, but of a completely different family she did not recognise. From the mark she was able to tell it was made by Wigstrom, so after 1903.
Whose egg was this? Where was hers?

Alma swayed on the toilet basin, nearly slipping. Tucking the egg back under her bra, she lowered herself gingerly back to terra firma. How much more was she going to be able to take? Here she was on the road to Brussels with what was most probably stolen goods concealed in her increasingly grubby underwear. The two people driving her were probably looking for the very same egg. She considered revealing it to them, but she was fairly sure that they wouldn’t be prepared to buy it from her, and she’d be left in the lurch sans money, sans transport, and most of all sans egg. There was only one thing to do, and that was to get to the exhibition and get it off her hands to some willing buyer as soon as possible. It wasn’t as if it were her treasure, her own egg, she rationalised, and she needed the money.

Back on the road, Oppenheimer now driving at a frustratingly slow pace through the darkening night, they continued up the E-15 through Barcelona and into France. Olga had occupied the back seat in order to get some sleep, and Alma found herself up front, listening to the American. His drawl was intolerable, but the information it conveyed was something else, and despite the fact that exhaustion was beginning to make her head spin, Alma could not allow herself to fall asleep.

For it transpired that Kelch, though noble, had never had any money of his own, and gained nothing by marrying the shipping, railway and mine heiress Varvara Bazanova, his elder brother’s widow. In the pre-nuptial agreement, she had kept full control of her assets, and indeed the couple lived apart for most of their marriage, finally separating in 1905, after which Varvara moved to Paris with all her belongings, probably including the seven Kelch eggs, and they were divorced in 1915. Kelch had ended up on the streets after the Revolution, and then disappeared into Siberia under Stalin. Varvara had already lost much of her business during the Russo-Japanese War and then with the Revolution, but even in Parisian exile, she remained a woman of means.

Alma was stunned by this. Varvara seemed to have been quite a businesswoman, a female magnate at a time when Russian magnates were beginning to carve up some of the most strategic mining and transport opportunities in the world, a carve-up only recently resumed after the 70-year hiatus of Communism. Alma was beginning to see Varvara as a sort of cross between Khordokovsky and Veuve Cliquot. She had almost certainly been the source of the Kelch egg orders. What if she had had other eggs made, eggs that concealed information vital to her business concerns, that she had paid the Haus Fabergé to keep off their books? Was this one of them, or was it an Imperial egg? What would Alma’s egg prove to be, if she ever saw it again? She continued to prompt Oppenheimer, trying to extract the maximum information from him without revealing more than a polite interest in a romantic story. But academics love to talk, and Oppenheimer was so deep into the pleasure of hearing his own voice that he never imagined Alma’s interest was generated by anything more than his riveting abilities as a teacher.

In Lyon, as dawn showed the last vines giving way to a starker, more northern landscape, Olga woke up and switched back into the driving seat. Alma found herself the recipient of a frosty silence as the American snored in the back seat with the annoying cyclical irregularity of an athsmatic air conditioner. The Russian pushed the Portuguese-registered rental BMW way past the speed limit through the historical heartland of French silk and industrial financing that forever ties lacy underwear to commercial power in France, and onwards north, towards the iron and coal fields that had cradled two world wars. Olga ignored her passenger, obviously unable to condescend to speak to the grubby and somewhat smelly hitchhiker that Oppenheimer had insisted they take on board. It was no skin off Alma’s nose. She wondered how a Russian academic managed to dress in such vastly expensive designer clothes. Olga had brought a jacket and coat out of her suitcase as they had motored north, and was sporting hundreds of euros’ worth of designer clothing. Alma’s guess was that Olga was probably involved in business beyond the merely academic, business similar to Boris’s, and she’d had quite enough of that. Besides, as the snooty cow wasn’t talking, Alma welcomed the opportunity to get some uncomfortable sleep and, surreptitiously checking the alien egg was safely slung, she lowered her head onto the seatbelt and slept.

She was woken up as Olga pulled up at the petrol station close to the Brussels Hilton just off Place Louise. “Get out, we are here” said Olga roughly, and reached across Alma to fling the door open. Alma tumbled out of the car, and Olga accelerated away down the road and into the hotel car park. She had clearly had enough of smelly hitchhikers. And besides, Olga reflected, when she gave that cellulitic Yankee lump the heave-ho, it would maximise the impact to leave Oppenheimer completely in the lurch, and not with some needy British waif to bolster his corpulent ego.
Alma turned, bewildered and observed her surroundings. It was about nine in the morning, on a very cold and crisp winter’s day, far too cold to be standing on a windswept boulevard in light clothes. Across from where she stood, a very posh shopping area beckoned, gilded warm galleries promising croissants, coffee, clean underwear and some warm top clothes to those who could pay.

Alma swore as she remembered her penniless state. She decided to review her current assets.

One, jewelled egg slung below bra. Check.

Two, clothes she was standing up in. Check.

Three. Rather heavy expensive black Delvaux handbag.

Handbag?

It was at this point that Alma realised she had, as a reflex, grabbed Olga’s handbag from the front passenger foot well as she hurriedly left the BMW.

Oh God.

A wave of fuschia rose from Alma’s toes, covering her entire body. She had never stolen anything before. She toyed briefly with the idea of taking the handbag into the Hilton’s reception, but knew that Olga and Oppenheimer would already be there, checking in on the American’s credit card before visiting the police to report the bag theft. But self-preservation began to assert itself over honesty, and Alma reflected that she would need some warm clothes and food soon, and besides, it wasn’t as if Olga couldn’t cancel her cards immediately.

Alma sat down on a bench and, after a moment in which moral precepts struggled with desperation, opened the handbag. And it was at this moment that Alma’s luck changed for the better. Aside from purse with credit cards, assorted feminine impedimenta, and a small gun, Olga had been carrying about an enormous amount of used non-consecutive €50 notes. And three passports, all in different names.

What kind of handbag contents were this for an academic? Alma reasoned. This sort of cash and spare ID just had to be the results of ill-gotten gains. There was no way Olga would be declaring any theft to the police. Alma’s moral dilemma dissolved. Within the space of four hours, she had purchased a small carry-on suitcase, filled it with clothes, eaten a rather good breakfast, and had found herself a modest but acceptable room at the Hotel des Congrès under an assumed name where she had had the longest bath of her life. Warm, clean and full for the first time since her house had burnt down, she had bundled herself up in her new woollen coat and walked through the fresh air to the Place Royale, where the Fabergé exhibition was being held.
It being the afternoon of a week day, the exhibition was not crowded. Aside from eggs, Fabergé jewellery and other artifacts were being shown, along with detailed explanations of the sophisticated craft techniques that Alma had heard about in the BMW. Alma tried not to hurry suspiciously past the sections that did not cover the eggs, dutifully eyeing the ornate, sumptuous items brought together from museums all over Russia and beyond. After what seemed like an eternity, she finally came to the prize exhibit, a series of nine eggs lent by their owner, the Russian businessman Vladimir Kastelberg. They included the last few Imperial eggs, commemorating events taking place during what was to become viewed as the decline of the Empire.

And there, in a case, labelled as the Fifteenth Anniversary egg, was an almost exact twin of the egg Alma had slung under her left breast. Almost exact, that is, in that it looked too stylised. Too perfect. Just too right.

Alma realised she was looking at a copy of the egg she was carrying, an egg that she now knew had been stolen from the fifth richest man in Russia, a man so close to its President that he might end up governing Kamchatka. In a series of untenable positions, this was the most untenable position yet.

She left the exhibition as quickly and surreptitiously as possible, gathered up her things in the hotel, checked out and took a taxi to Brussels’ Zaventem airport. She had barely taken the top off Olga’s €50 note stash, and now she had scraped back her hair to pass for the rather fuzzy photos, the money and passports would take her just about anywhere she needed to go. She stood in front of the Departures board, the world spread out before her, a plane to any continent within the hour, her mind buzzing. Where should she go? How was she going to unload this unbelievably famous egg, clearly stolen from someone rather wealthy and powerful who would be very interested in getting it back?

And if this was indeed Kastelberg’s egg, where the hell was hers?

By Aunty Marianne

Illustration by Vitriolica

25 Comments:

Blogger DareDevil said...

nice post

11:18 PM  
Blogger Linda said...

Oh wow! This just gets better and better!

12:31 AM  
Blogger bev trayner said...

I am hooked on this story. Thanks everyone!

8:53 AM  
Blogger Dr. Rob said...

Blimey how great was that, fantastic chapter! it gets better and better

8:57 AM  
Blogger zoe said...

very good, marianne - it's getting good addictive now!

11:37 AM  
Blogger Rob said...

Very possibly the best chapter yet. Brilliant, Marianne.

5:18 PM  
Blogger tristan said...

fab ! fab ! fab !

5:55 PM  
Blogger snowqueen said...

That was excellent - I'm really hooked now! And was that Faberge stuff researched? Impressive.

9:30 PM  
Blogger Keith said...

Congratulations. This is the bestest chapter yet, and you have clearly done your research. Can't fault it in any way.

I feel sorry for the person who has to follow you. (not really, I just found out who it is. Heh, heh!)

11:58 PM  
Blogger Clare said...

I echo the others!

Very impressive, very dramatic, very well written. Can't wait to see what happens next.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Aunty Marianne said...

Thanks so much! I deliberately didn't read any of yours until just before, to get the effect all at once. You've all been brilliant at narratively torturing poor Alma, whatever will happen to her next!

P.S. Leg extensions. I'm STILL laughing.

5:20 PM  
Blogger Clair said...

So much to live up to....I'm working on the story, it just might take me a few days!

10:14 AM  
Blogger Car Loans home said...

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12:33 AM  
Blogger Aunty Marianne said...

Hello, Mr Car Loans Home. Do you also fence Fabergé eggs stolen from incredibly powerful Russians?

7:45 AM  
Blogger Guyana-Gyal said...

This was really good, the history, putting things into perspective, the money and food and clothes.

Shucks, and there you were, worried that you couldn't do it.

Now this leaves me VERY WORRIED. Will you write my chapter for me [chap. 18], then I'll just 'translate' it into my style? :-D

2:25 PM  
Blogger Aunty Marianne said...

GG - No. Yours will be better.

10:13 AM  
Blogger lucy pepper said...

i promise I'm almost there with the illo... this being ill thing ... grrrrr. tomorrow...honest!

11:58 PM  
Blogger Clair said...

Love the illustration :)

Am getting there on the next chapter...slowly but surely...

12:09 PM  
Blogger Dr. Rob said...

Хорошая, превосходная картина, Boris

4:43 PM  
Blogger lucy pepper said...

ha! i know what that says!

4:54 PM  
Blogger cream said...

Last night I printed Chapters 9 to 11 and read them from hard copy. Old fashioned you see! And I must say, A.M., you have taken the Blogstory to new heights. Although one had a rough idea what was going on prior to your chapter, I feel that you have tidied it up, clarified quite a lot and offered the next writer an excellent opportunity to expand even further.
Well done!

8:27 AM  
Blogger Aunty Marianne said...

Thanks Cream. However my words are but a foil for the gleam on the egg that Alma lifts towards the lightbulb in Vit's brilliant illustration.

Oh isn't this great. Let's start a second one!

10:48 PM  
Blogger snowqueen said...

Top illustration Vit!

8:52 PM  
Blogger Clair said...

(Whoops...I got distracted away from the story...I'll try to finish it this evening!)

1:14 PM  
Blogger Guyana-Gyal said...

Great work, Vit.

12:35 PM  

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