The lumpy sofa in the glass-doored hovel I call an office was my crash pad. When I woke fresh as day-old mackerel, I was about as ready for the new case as I was likely to get. Reheated stale coffee left in the its fibersteel pot served as my breakfast. I winced as much from the heat as the bitter aftertaste. Coffee in Heavy Nicodemia never tasted quite right to me. Something about the extra gravity and hard air pressure made even fresh coffee bitter and sour. Day-old coffee wasn’t so bad because, hell, it couldn’t get much worse.
I congratulated myself on that line of thought, figuring the bout of optimism would do me well for a change.
After a shower in water that smelled of chlorine and a shave that stung like a well-deserved slap, I buttoned up a fresh shirt and brushed off my best wide-brimmed fedora. It probably paid to look my best going to meet a fancy new client. At the very least it couldn’t hurt. There was that optimism again.
Behind the Cathedral of Saint Francis of Assisi, deep past the hollows of the warehouses, stood a building that butted up against the wall of the station itself. The architecture did its best to confuse and confound, making it appear to stretch and expand over the surrounding streets. It was a lie. The building was squat and iron gray like those around it, but it was a facade designed to give entry to the airlocks.
Beck met me at the entrance, a sideways smile on her violet lips. “You clean up well, Demarco,” she said.
My best indifferent shrug felt phony all the way through. “She really won’t come out here to meet me?”
“The boss isn’t really the kind of person to come when called.”
She waved a hand in front of the building’s security panel and the big fiberoak doors hissed open. Seven airlocks penetrated the seven walls of every bead of every Trinity station. Seven walls of seven types. Seven designs for seven systems, each one more complex than the last. Some were bulletproof to stop superfast meteors, some flexible to adjust to the sway of the station’s rotation. Some healed when damaged and others were harder than any other known material in all of space.
All of them were tedious. They were themed for the spheres of heaven, and because one wouldn’t work until the previous had run through its whole routine, it could take hours to reach the final liminal space.
Ships rarely docked directly with Heavy Nicodemia. The fast rotation around the false star made the beads at the end of the chain trickier to pair. The spin that produced the artificial gravity made for complex math and an extreme potential for disaster. For that reason, most ships docked on a hub or at the very least on one of the Hallow beads. Hallow Nicodemia rotated around the false star at the same period, meaning less actual speed and a whole lot less potential for catastrophic failure.
That was to say, Violet Ruiz had landed here for a reason.
“Maybe a phone call would have gotten the point across,” I said as we passed through the final airlock an hour later. “Or she could have written a letter.”
After spending tedious time working through each airlock, for the first time in a decade, I stepped into the liminal space where Heavy Nicodemia’s Trinity AI touched the great void beyond. I tasted the bitter bile of regret as I stepped into that space. This was where it all went wrong for me. Not this airlock specifically, but another just like it. Tension crept down the aching base of my neck.
Also, here, at the edge of it all, Trinity didn’t ignore me. The screen at the edge of Saturn, the final airlock between station and stars, flashed a single word in a plain font.
It was the first time Trinity had directly addressed me in years. I stared at the word flickering on the screen. I had a lot of bad memories tied up in an airlock like this. My palms went clammy at the thought of the day I’d been excommunicated.
“Not today, Trinity,” I muttered. Not ever, was what I meant.
Then, the final gate opened to the station’s clear shell. Beyond was Ruiz’s ship’s foyer, decorated to give us a hint of exactly how rich my new client was. This sprawling room was a testament to waste. The space had no real purpose except for when the ship was in dock, yet it had been filled with artifacts of wealth specifically to impress visitors—and as far as I could tell she didn’t have all that many of those.
The floor was covered in a lush, soft carpet that bounced ever so slightly under my footsteps. Even the click from Beck’s heels disappeared on that soft surface. The walls were papered in a velvety pattern, texture with a paisley swirl on the otherwise brutal design.
And there was wood. Not fiberoak or some other variety of simulated hardwood, but actual wooden surfaces. A desk of red mahogany stood to one side of the room, and next to it a display case of the richest black wood I’d ever seen stood held only a single occupant—a three-foot-tall metal cup covered in names.
“They called that the Stanley Cup,” Beck said. “People on Earth used to worship it.”
More displays were scattered through the ships entry corridor. Ancient paintings were sealed in vacuum under thick glass. Wood and stone pedestals held marble statues. A porcelain depiction of God above a cloud loomed against one wall. Three doors opened from the foyer to the ship, and Beck led me through the largest of them in the center.
A shiver of recognition ran down my spine as I stepped into the corridor, but I shook it off. It felt like the only ship I had ever been on. Ship hallways had a different feel from the station, like they weren’t entirely convince about what direction was down. Beck led me past a pair of armed guards into a sitting room decorated with more art.
At the center of the room stood two framed panels of an oil painting, sealed in a vacuum behind heavy glass with a conspicuous gap where a third panel ought to be.
“Is that it?” I asked, nodding at the paintings.
The first panel featured a scene of Adam and Eve, with God holding Eve’s wrist. Around them, animals crawled from the primordial pool to dance around the lush garden. The scenes playing out behind the first humans and their God were rich and abstract, with unicorns next to elephants and a landscape both strange and beautiful. I’d seen paintings before, and by comparison this was fairly tame.
The second panel was something else. It was an enormous square, so that the narrow outside panels could fold in to close it off. This panel teemed with humans, like a plague of revelry crawling across the green earth. Men and women in odd sexual positions. On closer inspection, some even had fruit heads or animal bodies. Centaurs danced in a great circle in the background.
“Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Good and Evil,” Beck said. “It’s possibly the greatest piece of art surviving the fifteenth century Earth. If it hadn’t been moved it would have perished along with everything else in the burning of Spain.”
“But it was taken,” I said. “Stolen. We’re looking at black market goods, right?”
The response came from a woman’s voice behind me. “That’s right, my dear.”
I turned to see a stately woman with her iron hair cut short and a tumbler of something that looked suspiciously like whiskey cradled in her long fingers. She wore a dress of scarlet and white, and when she walked, the trailing edge brushed the plush carpet.
Before I could think, I swept the hat from my head, clutched it to my chest, and gave her a short bow. “Morning, Ma’am.”
She gestured with her glass. “You may call me Violet, and it’s evening to me right now.”
“Of course,” I said. She hadn’t adjusted to Nicodemia’s clock. I glanced to where I thought Beck still stood, but she wasn’t there. Damn this soft carpet.
“I must say, matching spin with this place has been inconvenient.” She sauntered up next to me and peered at the painting. “Don’t you find it hard on the joints?”
“Why not dock with one of the upper beads?” I asked.
“Has Charlotte told you why we’ve hired you?”
“You need someone to track down the last panel of this painting.”
“Have a seat, Mr. Demarco,” Violet said, waving a hand at some sofas.
“I like to stretch my legs, if you don’t mind.” I started a slow stroll around the outer perimeter of her room. Where had Beck gone? There were several doors leading away, but none near where she had stood.
Violet lowered herself gracefully onto a fainting couch and slid one foot up to assume a look of casual elegance. She watched me through half-lidded eyes. “It’s been nearly twenty years since my thief of a husband stole that triptych.”
I passed another display case, this one full of gaudy jewelry. “Art was never really my thing, but my dad taught me a thing or two when I was a kid. One of the first lessons was that we’re not supposed to take art that isn’t ours.”
She waved a hand dismissively. “Ownership is such a fluid thing. I don’t resent my late husband for being a thief. It afforded our lifestyle a certain luxury.”
“Until it didn’t.”
Her eyes hardened for a split second, then turned to amusement. “When I first discovered his extra-circular activities, I was frightened—then thrilled. It was so exciting, wondering what he might bring me next.”
Or if he wouldn’t come home at all. A bookshelf stood against one wall, and on it were dozens of ancient tomes. Bibles with gold leaf stood next to the smallest Koran I’d ever seen. A first edition copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost sat open, the signature inside a calligraphic scrawl. “Paradife Loft?”
“They had some interesting ideas about letters back when that was written.”
“Let me guess. Your husband liberated this book before England burned?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. England still enjoys all the protection as an Asiatic Colony.”
“Of course.” There was a whole semester of Earth current events that every law-abiding student learned on their way through grade school. Most of us didn’t pay much attention to it, and the political machinations of a world so far away hardly ever made headlines. I continued on through the collection, passing a hunk of marble labeled as one of the Elgin Marbles, a pencil drawing of a soup can by Andy Warhol, and several Van Goughs.
For a long time, Violet Ruiz said nothing, content to watch me enjoy her collection of stolen artifacts. When she spoke again, I noticed her tense slightly, as if what she was about to say mattered a great deal to her.
“My husband loved me very much, Mr. Demarco.”
“I’m sure he did.”
“Over the years, he brought me all of these things. Mostly they were things he pocketed on the side as other jobs brought in the real profits.” She swallowed the last of her whiskey, her thin tongue licking the last touch of flavor from her lips. “He was a real charmer, my Richard. Always knew the right gift to bring and the right things to say.”
A man in a white suit coat emerged from a panel in the wall that I hadn’t thought was a door. He took Violet’s glass and offered her another. She waved him away and he disappeared back from whence he came.
Violet continued. “I couldn’t honestly say it was originally his idea to take the Garden of Earthly Delight, but the logistics of the heist were his plan and he was responsible for what happened.”
I watched her reflection in the glass of a display case. She stared into space as if she were speaking to herself.
“He was betrayed. That much I know. It was a team of six, and three of them ran off with the different pieces of the painting.”
“You have two here.” Never hurt to state the obvious. I stood in front of a large wooden square, slightly taller than myself. It stood in another vacuum chamber and was unlabeled. The artwork on the panel was that of a landscape enclosed under glass, and it was faded almost to nothing.
“I have recovered these two,” Ruiz said, “at great personal expense.”
“And you’re convinced the third piece is in Heavy Nicodemia.”
She waved a hand dismissively. “Two of my husband’s accomplices arrived here two years ago. After that…”
I peered at the wooden square. The world under a glass bubble, like a snow globe without any snow. Lakes and mountains in the distance disappeared under the mottles of stained wood. In the glass reflection, I saw Violet stand. “Are you sure I can’t offer you a drink, Mr. Demarco?”
I walked along the wall and peered closely at an ornate box. The label said it contained a relic of Saint Catherine of Bologna, patron saint of artists. The box was closed, so the display required a good deal of trust that I didn’t possess. “I think I’ll be leaving.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“Look. You don’t need me. You need a long conversation with Trinity to track down your lost merchandise, then you need to trade one of these priceless things for that priceless thing, if it even exists. If you’re not willing to give that up, then maybe hire someone to do some stealing for you. Either way, it’s none of my business.”
In three long strides she crossed the floor to me. I was tall, but somehow her slender form intimidated. She had a presence even I couldn’t stand against.
“Mr. Demarco,” she said, “I have done my research. You are the only person who can move through the streets of all three Nicodemias without rousing suspicion. Because of your—“ she waved lazily in the direction of my whole self “—background, you stand a chance at blending in with both the lowest and the highest echelons of society.”
“Low, I’ve pretty much got covered.”
She took my hand in both of hers. Her skin was boiling hot. “Don’t be coy. You were born and raised in Hallow Nicodemia. Your family goes back generations.”
I didn’t ask how she knew that. People like her didn’t give up their sources without a struggle and I wasn’t up for that kind of fight. Not for something like that. “So you’re convinced you want me. How are you planning to convince me that I want this job. Sounds like it’s going to dredge up something I buried a long time ago.”
“Nonsense. I don’t need to convince you.”
“No, I don’t, because she’s already done it.” She let go of my hands and opened her arms wide to greet Beck, who had appeared again while I wasn’t watching. The two women came together in a polite embrace: the kind rich people use to greet people after a long absence.
Beck separated and approached me. She looked me in the eyes and gestured toward the door. “Shall we?”
They were, of course, perfectly correct. I was taking the job. There wasn’t much choice of that. I needed the money, and the challenge intrigued me. Pretending to be uninterested wasn’t going to gain me anything, so I switched gears. “Who were the thieves?”
Violet Ruiz said, “The two men who came to Nicodemia were Maurice Ribar and Trey Vitez.”
“I’ll need a stipend.”
Beck said, “You’ll get what you need.”
“Fine. I’ll find your thieves, and if it still exists, I’ll find your painting.”
Violet gave me a peck on the cheek and said, “Thank you, dear. This means a lot to me.”
Beck took my elbow and led me back through the airlocks into Heavy Nicodemia. Every lock we passed my mood improved. A stipend. It only occurred to me what that meant after the third airlock. It meant food, clothes, and maybe even access to avenues of inquiry that would make my job so much easier. If this investigation dragged on, I might eat for a week, whether or not I found anything. From my position of the bottom of the barrel, things definitely wouldn’t get much worse, and they stood a chance at getting better.
And for the first time that day I wondered if, “Things can’t get much worse,” really counted as a streak of optimism.
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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