The city woke with the persistence of a bad hangover.
I walked up the long spiral. First, the sky cleared, mist siphoning away into reservoirs to be purified and returned to the fish. False stars became visible in the distant sky, then disappeared as the eastern arc lightened in a dazzling series of static grays. It wasn’t the best sunrise sequence in the repertoire, but it was welcome nonetheless. It came with a wave of dry, cool air that helped my damp bones realize how uncomfortable they’d been all night without actually making things any better.
At first, I hugged the inner rail where I could see the faraway city spiraling up on the other side. The view dizzied me, same as it ever had, so I veered through the meandering streets farther from the center. Navigating city streets farther from the inner space meant a longer walk, but my joints couldn’t ache any more, and my muscles couldn’t get any more exhausted. What was another mile or two in the early hours of the morning?
Anyway, I didn’t feel the urge to wake the Cecilia by arriving at the church too early. I was the priest’s lost sheep. Didn’t mean I needed to be an asshole about it.
“Want a lift?”
I turned to see the woman I’d met the previous night. She now wore red slacks, a billowing white blouse, and sunglasses that covered half her face. Her ride was a slick electric motorcycle, and there was barely room on the back for half of me.
“Charlotte Beck,” I said. “Quite a coincidence running into you again.”
“Oh, honey, you know there’s no such thing as coincidence when brilliant minds are at play.”
“Still enjoying our little city?” I kept walking.
“I never said I was here for fun.”
“It’s a long trip for business. Your boss must pay well.”
She rode along beside me, wrists draped lazily over her handlebars. “It’s easy when you love what you’re doing.”
“And what would that be?”
“You’re an artist?”
“Not exactly.” Pedestrians choked the narrow street, and she had to fall in behind me for a short distance. When the way cleared, she accelerated up next to me again. “I hear you’re the best at finding things.”
“Fixing things,” I said. “I fix things. Sometimes I find people.”
Beck shot me a sideways grin. “Sometimes people have things I want.”
“Expensive art.” She searched the side of my face, but I refused to give her any reaction. “Stolen art. My boss wants it back.”
“You never heard of her?”
The name rattled around my skull a few times, but still didn’t stick. “Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Took you a good long pause to figure that out.”
“That doesn’t make me interested.”
She gave a little pout, still rolling along next to me. “It’ll pay.”
“Your job’s too dangerous,” I finally said. “I prefer to play it safe.”
“Buddy, you’re little too bruised to be the kind of guy who plays it safe.”
We walked in silence for a while. Finally, I cracked and asked, “What art were you looking for?”
Beck gunned her cycle, accelerating ahead of me and cutting across to block the path. She leaned toward me and met my eyes over the top of her sunglasses. “Ever heard of a painting called The Garden of Earthly Delights?”
I gave a low whistle. “What’s Ruiz want with a thousand-year-old painting from Earth?”
“This whole business smelled fishy since the moment you showed up.”
Beck gave a sniff. “Everything smells fishy around here.”
“And yet this job you’re offering is somehow able to stand out.”
A crowd gathered around the passage blocked by Beck’s motorcycle. A few people opted to go another route, but others pressed forward, zombies out on their morning stroll. Beck didn’t budge.
I focused on Beck and her smug expression. “I’m helping a guy right now who’s looking for meds to save him from excruciating pain. They might even save his life. Now, as expected, he’s a certain level of upset about those meds being missing. He hires me, and when I help him, he’s a certain level of appreciative. Maybe I get a meal out of the deal. Maybe two. That’s all I want out of life.”
An elderly woman half my height elbowed her way through to the front of the crowd to scowl at me.
I continued, “Now, when people from this town need me, I try to help. There are things I can do that they can’t. There are things they can do that I can’t. But it all stays in the closed system. It all makes sense.” I took a step forward, looming over Beck. “But when you show up with your out-of-town boss and offers of amazing wealth? That sets things out of balance. That’s not a single fellow worried about where his next dose comes from. Now you’re talking about art. Worse, you’re talking about important art. Art that makes its way into the history books.”
“You never wanted to be part of something important?” Beck said.
“Not one damn day of my life.” I reached out, lifted the front of her scooter with one hand and moved it to the side so the old lady could pass. It opened the floodgate of pedestrians. “People who care about art enough to cross the stars for it care about it far more than a few human lives. I’m not interested in becoming the gravel under the tires of that machine as it speeds forward. Let someone else take that job.”
“There is no one else,” Beck said in a quiet voice. “Not like you.”
My chest clenched at the words, and my tongue went dumb for several seconds. Finally, I said, “I’m a dime a dozen, lady, but I’ll listen to more of whatever you have to say if you’re willing to tag along.”
“Really?” She sounded hopeful.
“Once you’ve said your piece, I’ll make my decision, and you’ll be on your way.”
I stepped past her through the narrow alley, elbowing my way past more morning traffic. Soon, the streets would be packed with commuters, making their way from residential sections of town down to the docks or up to the farms. We were headed upward, so we moved to a street flowing the right direction. Vendors appeared along sidewalks, selling anything from newspapers to falafel.
“So,” I said to Beck as she struggled to maneuver her motorcycle through the crowd, “what’s so special about Violet Ruiz.”
“There are too many ears around here.”
Of course, there were. “Follow me,” I growled. We made our way farther upsprial until we found what I was looking for. A tall building that looked like it had been carved from a solid slab of granite stood as a sentinel against the crowded upper quarter. Beck left her cycle on the street, and we took the stairs to the roof. Once there, I found a corner covered in cigarette butts and broken liquor bottles. Standing close to the edge made my head swoon, but it gave me a good view of the surrounding area, including Heavy Nicodemia’s largest cathedral.
Beck eyed me as she lit a cigarette. “It’s not so far a drop, you know.”
I looked down at the crowd only a few stories below. “At the current spin gravity you’d be dead as sure as if you jumped from the farms to the docks, and without the pleasant rush of a long fall to keep you entertained.”
She leaned over the railing, way to far above the deadly drop. “You’d think they would have some kind of safety mechanism,” she said. “Like a net or something.”
I took hold of her arm. Her strength surprised me, even though my big hand easily wrapped all the way around her whole wrist. “Trinity has drones that can catch people, but not for short drops like this. And not in the Heavies.”
A crinkle at the corner of her eyes hinted at a smile. “They don’t use rescue drones in Heavy Nicodemia?”
“They do,” I said, “and when you fall from up at the peak they’re almost fast enough to save you by the time you hit the Docks.”
I made a so-so gesture. “Sometimes they slow you enough that you can have an open casket.”
Beck raised an eyebrow at my hand still gripping her wrist. When I didn’t move it, she relented and stepped back from the edge. “Trinity wouldn’t catch you, though, would it?”
I released her wrist and turned to the street below. Her words irritated me, and I couldn’t explain why. “There are blind spots all over the station, and this is one of them. If you’ve got secrets you want to spill, then this is the time to do it.”
A cloud of smoke drifted lazily from her flaring nostrils, as if to punctuate the irritation I was giving her. “My employer, Mrs. Ruiz, is a woman of considerable wealth, and I’m her personal assistant. She expects me to make things happen, and it’s not always easy.”
Below, pedestrians moved through the streets, going about their day. A teenage girl lingered near the corner.
Beck continued, “What you probably didn’t figure is how she got that wealth, how she keeps it, and what she plans on doing with it in her old age.”
“Is there a Mr. Ruiz?”
“Mr. Ruiz died in the coarse of his work a few years before we left to come here.”
“What did he do?”
“He was an art thief.” She grinned. “A good one, and he had decent taste.”
“Hence the Hieronymous Bosch.”
“Oh, you were paying attention?”
“A little.” The girl below moved on, lingering near a group of kids. None of them were over the age of fifteen, and the youngest looked like he couldn’t have been older than six. Maybe this was the gang Sam once ran with. Maybe not.
“The Garden of Earthly Delights is a triptych. Three panels, and they fold together to close. The left panel is all about Adam and Eve meeting. The center panel contains images of earthly sin, and the third panel—“
“Hell and the afterlife.”
She drew a lungful of smoke and let it roll out the corners of her mouth. “Yeah. The results of all that earthly delight.”
The girl below returned to the blind spot and the other kids spread out among the commuting crowd. People moved along with their daily lives, hardly noticing the presence of the children among them—children who ought to have been in school or in some kind of apprenticeship. It seemed an oversight that Trinity hadn’t already gathered them up, and I wondered what the police would do if they knew what was going on in this particular blind spot.
“My boss has the first two panels, but she wants the third. A few years ago, we tracked it as it went onto a freighter-class vessel, headed for this system. It’s here somewhere, and she wants it.”
“There are dozens of station cities rotating around this star and there are settlements on the nearby planets. What makes you think they’d bring it here, to Nicodemia?”
“None of the settlements are established enough to support the kind of environmental controls needed for a thousand year old painting.”
“But why Nicodemia? Why not Samaria or Alexandria? There are a dozen different strings of beads, and your thieving friends would have had enough money to get established at any of them. For that matter, why Heavy Nicodemia? There’s no reason someone of means would pick the toughest part of the roughest stack.”
Beck leaned against the railing, her elbows sticking out over the city below. The cigarette dangled from ruby red lips. “I think you’re starting to get curious, big guy.” Her tone was enticing. Provocative.
“I’m always curious. It doesn’t mean I’ll be stupid enough to take your job.”
“Yeah, well, you’re asking the right questions. Why here? Why this stack?” She closed her eyes and shook her head as if to clear it. “We don’t know where it is, but we know where to start looking.”
“That’s all you’re going to say before I agree to work for you?”
She tossed her cigarette into the pile of butts and stepped it out the way a fat cat casually snuffs a moth. “That’s the sum of it. We’re looking for stolen art, Demarco. That warrants a little caution.”
“Good,” I said, “because I already have a job, and it’s about to get busy.”
Beck shot a glance at the girl below. “How about I tag along?”
I sighed. “I’m sure you’re a busy lady.”
“Tell you what. Let’s say I help you do this, then you help me with my thing.”
“I’m not taking that deal.”
She slapped my on the back. “Sure you are, Demarco. Sure you are.”
“Right now all I need to do is have a nice, civil conversation with that girl down there,” I said. “That is the extent of my ambition.”
“She’s not going to want to talk.”
“What makes you say that?”
Beck drummed the four iridescent crosses on her nails against the metal railing. “This is a waste of time.”
“Look at those kids working the crowd,” I said. “Look close. Each of them carries a cross somewhere visible. It’s a gang.”
Beck got an expression like she’d just eaten a sour grape. She watched the kids moving through the crowd for a minute, watching as they stole trinkets from the morning commuters. Some of them wore the cross on a sleeve. Others wore it dangling from their belt. Nobody wore it as a necklace, but one of the larger boys wore a cross as a single dangling earring. “They all have one except for that girl.”
“She’ll talk,” I said, “because she’s going to want her necklace back. It’s all about having something to trade.”
“Demarco,” she said, her voice flat and professional. “Let this waste of time drop. Help my employer. It’ll be better for everyone.”
I couldn’t find the words to explain why sometimes job wasn’t about what was best for those involved. It wasn’t making the world a better place that drove me. It wasn’t getting art into the right hands or even saving people from their own greed and misfortune. It was about the riddle. Cracking the case. I had a puzzle that could only be solved by chatting up a certain street urchin, and I was going to do that with Beck’s help or without.
It surprised me when Beck fell into step behind me when I headed for the stairs. Together, we descended the fiberstone building toward the cobbled streets. The doors whooshed open onto a dwindling crowd, and the young girl across the way looked up just as I took my first step into the yellow light of day. By the time I took my second step, she was gone.
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Bio: Anthony W. Eichenlaub's short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Little Blue Marble, On Spec Magazine, and the anthology A Punk Rock Future. His novels range from pulse-pounding technothrillers to the adventures of irresponsible scientists on a colony planet. In his spare time he enjoys woodworking, video games, and working in his garden. Support him at: https://www.patreon.com/AWEichenlaub