I patted my pockets for a cigarette, coming up dreadfully short. There were only a few hours until Beck would ask me about my progress on the case, and I had a suspicion, “Oh, I haven’t gotten around to it,” wasn’t the answer she was looking for. As much as I might have been convinced to help Floretta Smith, she needed to wait.
There weren’t many ways to track a person passing through Onegee Nicodemia that didn’t involve asking Trinity for the appropriate records. Since I wasn’t on speaking terms with the station AI, and since Beck had been on her way to the government center, I decided to take the much simpler task of finding out if anyone had seen the painting. Only a few museums in the bead would ever have dealt with such work, and the nearest sat like a brick wart nestled up against the unhealthy flesh of the Benedict Tenements. It had a banner in front that read Museum of Art History, and there wasn’t a single window on the entire structure, even on its third floor where nobody would even think of peeking inside.
Mobs of children clustered outside the museum—mostly pre-teens waiting with their classes for educational field trips. Elbowing past these groups, I muscled my way to the front of a long line.
“Excuse me?” said one adult as I passed. He had a goatee and inquisitive eyebrows. It looked like he was in charge of a group of kids all in matching orange shirts.
I tipped my hat to him. “Just passing through.”
The man pointed at the entrance. His group was next in line. “They’re only allowing school groups today.”
A sign explained the policy in great detail. Only school kids and chaperons. It even went on to explain why. I read out loud, “So that children can learn in an environment suited for them.” I turned to the man. “This sounds like garbage to me.”
The chaperon shrugged. “Its so that they don’t get as many kids wandering in on other days of the week.” The kids in his group slowly surrounded me, like an amoeba devouring a fresh meal.
I made a quick count of the kids. “Twenty,” I said. “You looking for any help?”
He smiled and stuck out a hand. “Lester,” he said.
“Demarco.” I shook his hand vigorously.
A tall man wearing a rumpled white suit that made his big belly look like a scoop of ice cream held the door open and waved our pack of orange-shirted children through. I dutifully counted twenty little heads. Hey, if I was going to chaperon I might as well take the job seriously. The guide brought us to a large room: a central hub in the middle of a dozen other smaller curated spaces. A raised platform with a massive holographic projector dominated the space. The siren call of a jazz saxophone played on the overhead speakers.
“Welcome to the Museum of Art History,” began the guide. “We are so glad to have you as our guests today.” He said it with all the welcoming sincerity of a Hallows nobleman inviting Saint Jerome in for dinner. The guide rolled into a canned speech about the rules of the museum, and how breaking any rules would mean immediate expulsion of the entire party.
Looking around, I saw no fewer than three kids from other groups breaking the rules.
I raised my hand and waited for the guide to call on me. When he glanced my way, I said, “Where is the art?” A couple of the kids snickered at that.
It also earned me the most annoyed look I’d seen all week from the guide. “I know we’re all excited to see some art.” Behind him, the holographic projector activated, projecting a seven-foot-tall marble statue of a man being attacked by snakes. At his sides, two boys struggled against the onslaught. The image earned barely a flicker of response from the kids. “This is Laocoön and His Sons,” the guide said. “This is one of the most famous statues of ancient Earth. Can anyone tell me why?”
A small girl at the front of the group raised her hand. “Because it’s horrible.”
The guide blinked. “It’s famous because it is considered the quintessential depiction of human agony.” He said it as if he were annoyed and correcting her, but I thought it sounded like they were saying the same thing. “The artist’s depiction of the human body is exquisite, and when the piece was discovered in the sixteenth century in Rome it was considered a true masterpiece. It was later discovered to be the same statue praised by Pliny the Elder.”
And he’d lost them. I entertained myself with another headcount. Twenty. Good.
The hologram changed, switching to the famous statue of David. David stood almost three times as tall as Laocoön. A couple of boys in back snorted and made jokes about the statue’s nakedness. They stopped when I caught their attention and slowly shook my head. This wasn’t going to get me what I wanted. I backed slowly from the group so that I could peek into the other rooms.
The same girl raised her hand again. “Why is he naked?”
The guide’s expression darkened. “Nudes are a tradition in art. During this period, artists would strive to depict the perfection of the human body. Many believe that Michaelangelo achieved this with David, carving him from a single block of marble.”
“But why?” the girl asked.
While the guide fumbled another answer, I ducked away. One long hall was gated off, but the others all stood open. They were lined with displays, mostly holographic depictions of art from the ages. A few protected alcoves contained actual paintings, and I lingered at these for a few moments. I’d been in museums like this before. The ones in the Hallows had a better artifact to hologram ratio, but it all amounted to the same thing. The digital displays were there so that we could remember our past. The actual artwork—that was where we could connect to that past.
I stopped in front of a Van Gogh. Even though it rested in a hard vacuum under shaded glass, I felt the pace of my heart quicken. Long ago, one of the greatest painters humanity had ever produced touched this, working the paint until the haystacks were perfect. It wasn’t exactly representative of the haystack—not that I’d ever seen a real one—but rather representative of the emotion van Gogh was experiencing as he painted it. There, in the Museum of Art History, I connected with greatness.
That was why I never take jobs finding artwork. It matters too much.
“Excuse me, sir,” said someone next to me. “Today is a school day here at the museum. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
Without taking my eyes off the haystacks, I said, “I’m with a group.”
“You don’t appear to be, sir.”
I let my gaze lock on to him. He was dressed nicer than the guide, but even with his exuberant shock of hair, he was a good foot shorter than me. “What can you tell me about the Garden of Earthly Delights?”
He blinked quickly. I’d offended him.
I kept a thin veneer of friendliness on my face and rested an arm across his shoulders. “By Hieronymus Bosch.”
“Yes, I’m aware.”
“I’d like to see it.”
“This is a—”
“Yeah, it’s a school day for kids. My business can’t wait, and you’re going to show me that painting.” I clenched my fist hard enough for the knuckles to crack.
The man swallowed, seemingly considering his odds if he ran. There were plenty of paid guards in the lobby and I’d spotted the blue hanging around outside. He’d probably do fine, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. “This way,” he said.
I’d already walked almost the entire length of the hall, so we didn’t have far. The room at the end was empty except for a large holographic projector in its center. Unlike the one the class had gathered around, this one came complete with projectors that could make the walls disappear. The curator flipped a switch and the lights dimmed to almost black.
The curator split the world into darkness and light. Nothing else in the world existed but the painting. All three frames of the stood before me in a lifelike image, showing its messy depiction of a lonely Garden of Eden, lustful Earth, and a torturous Afterlife. As I paced around the piece it adjusted so that it was always facing me.
“It’s a striking piece,” the curator said. “It’s history is a bit of a mystery.”
“So is it’s current location,” I said, watching his reaction closely. When his eye twitched ever so slightly, I knew I had the right man. “Can you explain why hell in your hologram a different resolution from the other two panels?”
He shrugged, trying to make a show of innocence, even though he had to know I’d caught him. “The scans aren’t always done under the same conditions. Even in a single piece like this, they can have differences in how the files are saved.”
There were a few options I could take. It might be possible to smooth things over here a bit, maybe make friends with the guy and get him to spill. Hell, he might even tell me what I needed if I promised not to turn him in for buying illicit scans.
But I didn’t have time for that. Quick as a crack of electricity, I snatched him off the ground by the front of his suit and shoved him back away from the hologram.
In the dim light, I leaned my face close to his so he could smell my coffee breath as I whispered, “You saw the real thing, didn’t you? A couple years ago.”
“I don’t know what you—”
I gave him a shake.
“A guy came in trying to sell.”
“Did you pay?”
The curator shook his head. “We could never afford something like that, even though it wasn’t complete.”
“But you got the scan.”
“We paid him well for that. It wasn’t something we could pass up, and he seemed desperate.”
“Where did he go?”
I shook him again. “Don’t mess with me.”
“He had to have gone to the Hallows. Something like that wouldn’t be at one of the museums in Onegee without us all hearing about it. It probably wouldn’t even be in the church.”
It made sense. Vitez would have gone farther up, looking for a private buyer. This only confirmed what I knew, though. “Who was buying?”
The curator opened his mouth, then closed it again. I set him down, and he leaned back against the wall, hand on his chest.
“What was the guy’s name?” I asked. If Trey Vitez had renamed himself already, maybe he let the new identity slip to this third rate curator.
But a smug smile spread across the curator’s lips. It was the kind of smile a perp gets when he’s done answering questions—when he’s figured out that there’s a good reason why he doesn’t need to answer questions anymore. A piece of the puzzle fell into place, or power had shifted.
Or backup arrived.
“Please take a step back, sir,” said a voice behind me.
Slowly raising my hands, I said to the curator, “What was the guy’s name?” The guards had interrupted the one question I really needed answered. With a name, I could figure out where Trey Vitez went. At least, it would get me one step closer.
There was always the option of trading fists with the guard. He’d be armed with a truncheon or stunstick, but nothing terribly lethal. No guns. Not in Onegee. This didn’t need to get messy, though. All I needed was for the curator to give me this one piece of information before I left.
“He came in just like the guy said he would,” said the curator to the man behind me. “Started talking about obscure paintings. Stolen ones.”
My palms went cold. “Like who said?” When the curator didn’t answer, I turned around to look at the guard.
Only, it wasn’t a guard. It was two guards. And they weren’t guards. They were police, all geared up for a fight. One of them carried a stunstick—the baton’s end crackling with electricity—and the other carried a small pistol. Behind them, the class I’d come in with shuffled up to the door and stared at me in silence. The girl who was interested in art watched me with wide eyes.
I tipped my hat to the girl. “I’ll go quiet,” I said. “No need for trouble, officers.”
The officer with the stunstick jabbed me in the chest, and everything went black.
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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