“I’ve wanted to find you for a long time, Mr. Demarco,” Vitez said. “A long time.”
We walked through the catacombs beneath the castle, where dimly lit walls were lined with art from across the ages. It should have been maintenance tunnels this deep, but wealth warps the very world around it.
Beck was on my elbow, and Vitez lead a leisurely stroll through one grand arch after another. I could sense her pain by her stiff movements, but she hid her injuries well.
“So, you knew my father,” I said, pausing to take in a Renaissance painting of a mother and child. Mary and Jesus watched me with bright eyes. Two old men flanked the mother of God, and two fat cherubs lazed about near her feet.
“I visited Nicodemia when I was a young, adventurous man,” said Vitez.
Beck’s grip tightened, but she said nothing. Such a trip would have taken years, and even a man with enormous disposable wealth and a lot of time would balk at such a trip. Beck herself was in the middle of a similar trip, and I wondered what toll it took on her.
“You own all this art?” I asked.
Vitez wave a hand dismissively. “I did a stint as a collector, but now I mostly connect collectors with suppliers.”
Without much interest in keeping things legal, I thought. “This painting of Mary. Is it Raphael Sanzio?”
His eyes brightened. “It is! I see you have some of your father’s interest in the arts?”
“Not always willingly.”
The next room opened into a wide, arched ceiling. At first, the space was dark, with only the floor illuminated by a trickle of ambient lighting. By degrees, the light increased, and the ceiling became visible.
“Is this a replica of the Sistine Chapel?” Beck asked, audibly impressed.
Vitez took a moment to gaze at the ceiling. The fresco depicted the creation of humanity and Earth in bright, powerful detail. “A near-perfect imitation. I’m afraid we’ve done some extemporaneous repair to parts of the image lost during the bombings of World Wars Two and Four.”
“Those even numbered World Wars were the worst.” I bent down to touch the cool surface. My finger came away smelling of ash.
Beck scrunched her nose as she studied the painting. “Is it really like this in the Vatican? It’s so bright.”
Vitez laughed. “Well, not anymore. The original collapsed years ago. If anyone wants anything like the real experience, they’ll just have to come here to Nicodemia.”
I stared at Vitez, trying to decide if he was joking. “This is open to the public?”
“Once the displays are properly secured, this will be a fantastic museum for the people of Nicodemia.”
Hallow Nicodemia, he meant. “It’s not secure?”
“Not enough. There’s Trinity, of course, but we all know how fallible that system can be.”
Beck detached from my arm and strolled through the room, all the while staring at the ceiling.
“Trinity does a fine job,” I said.
“You’re living proof it’s not quite good enough.”
He had a point. “Some would say art like this should go to the church.”
Vitez laughed. “Saint Lucy’s isn’t any more secure, and from what I hear, you figured that out already, too.”
“From what I hear, so have you.”
His blue eyes went dull for a flicker of a second, the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes flattening. He looked away from me, suddenly fascinated by the painting of Mary and her son. He folded his hands together behind his back and stood perfectly still for a long time.
The silence shattered under the full force of an alarm siren. Red lights blared and a garbled voice came over the audio system.
Beck pulled back, hands raised. “Sorry. Just wanted to see the next room.”
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” Vitez said, rushing to her side. “Trinity, please disengage the alarm.” When the alarm was silent, he said to Beck, “I’m afraid you’ll need to stay a bit closer. Trinity restricts access to the entire area.”
She walked back to me and took hold of my arm. The warmth of her hands burned, even through my suit coat. “I’ll behave.”
“This way,” Vitez said, leading another direction. We have more than Renaissance art down here. I have a wide selection of the 2020s plague year digital art, and a small selection of the incredible bronzeworks of Olympia Freeman.”
The name dislodged a memory of my father’s lectures about art. “I’ve heard that improved techniques allowed Freeman to make more statues during the second half of the twenty-first century than all of the previous three centuries combined.”
Vitez’s smile filled his whole face. “Very good! You remember your art history.”
The lights of the next room came on in a flash, revealing bronze depictions both large and small. Centaurs bedecked in American Civil War garb fought tigers with long, wicked claws. Fairies danced above the corpses of fallen soldiers. Men and women stood in protest in front of the bronze facades of banks and churches. The entire scene encapsulated the tumultuous years that preceded Nicodemia’s journey into space. These statues were part of our shared history, and held lessons for our shared future.
Vitez only smiled. “Prolific doesn’t even start to describe Freeman and her acolytes, but many wrongly believe mass manufacturing to be the source of that increase in production. In truth it had more to do with passion. Each piece is unique, with its own message and its own burning desire to make the world a better place.”
“The Artistic Bronze Age,” I said, remembering the lesson.
“Correct. Statues of the earlier ages were replaced with these new bronze visions of the future.”
“It’s amazing,” Beck said. “And you transported all of this out here when you came?”
“Oh no,” Vitez said. “These were brought out here over the years.” He nodded to me. “I only wish your father would have seen the look on my face when I saw this display he’d assembled.”
“My father was an asshole.”
The sparkle returned to Vitez’s eyes. “He was a brilliant artist and an even more brilliant curator. When he said something had artistic worth, he was almost always right. We stayed in contact after my visit to Nicodemia. Our correspondence over the years was a lesson in the entire artistic history of both Earth and the colonies.”
His words described my entire childhood. An art lesson. “Tell me, then, what was the deal you made with him? You send art and he sends you—what?”
Beck answered for him. “Art. Poetry. Media. Earth is as fascinated with colony culture as this colony is with Earth. I’ve seen some of the work coming out of this place and others. It’s different. Raw. It speaks of experiences we only dream of back on Earth.”
Vitez grinned. “It’s enough to inspire a person to make the trip to the stars, isn’t it, my dear?”
Beck rolled her eyes. “I am here on a purely professional basis.”
His expression fell. “I do hope you’re able to enjoy your stay.”
She looked up at me, then said, “It’s been interesting.”
I didn’t know what she meant, but something bothered me about what Vitez said. “Let me get this straight. You send art here via freighter because it’s the cheapest way to safely transport your treasures. My father maintained your property here, getting it ready for your retirement. Meanwhile he’d send you art from Nicodemia’s best and you’d use that to fund your purchase of more of Earth’s treasures?”
Vitez led us into the next room without a word. Marble statuary stood on the marble floors of reconstructed temples. At the center of the room, a worn milk-white statue of a beautiful woman lounged with its eyes cast at the entrance. It was only upon venturing farther into the room that the figure’s hermaphroditic nature became apparent. Upon further inspection, its expression was more impish than enticing.
“With all that legitimate business happening, when did you have time to steal anything?” I asked, figuring it might as well come out straight.
He shook his head disapprovingly. “I prefer the term rescued.” He gestured to Beck. “Your friend here can confirm that the nations of Earth are in disarray. Art is being destroyed by the truckload, and if—”
“Yeah, you’re a real hero,” I said. “Funny how it made you so rich.”
“Demarco,” Beck said, a warning in her voice.
“Sorry,” I said. “You’re right. It’s no business of mine.”
Vitez spread his hands wide. “I’m not wealthy, you know. It might appear like wealth, but I’m the steward of something very important here. I tend the treasures of old Earth, and my legacy will last a thousand years.”
“Sounds like wealth to me.” I looked at a statue of Laconis with snakes biting him and his sons. “Maybe you’re not like the Travelers here, but you’ve got something they don’t.”
“Purpose. You’re bending the rules of this place, and you don’t care if it breaks everything as long as your precious art gets preserved.”
Vitez smiled, but this time his eyes remained cold. “Guilty as charged.”
We didn’t speak for a long time, the silence stretching through Vitez’s museum as we walked through one display after another. He had ages of human history gathered in the place, displayed as if in a public museum. The lack of patrons rang strange in such a place. It was a public museum designed for one person only.
Or, maybe for two.
“When did you learn of my father’s death?”
Vitez’s voice was quiet when he spoke, but the acoustics of the space made his words travel. “He was silent for a long time before I came out here. It worried me, but I didn’t learn his fate until after I arrived.”
“You came because you were worried your museum’s art would fall into the wrong hands.” A thought occurred to me. “It already had, hadn’t it?”
He answered, but I wasn’t listening because thoughts raced through my head. Of course, that’s what had happened. When my father wasn’t around anymore, nobody managed the museum’s collection. Saint Lucy started picking up pieces of religious-themed art for their own archive. Under the pretense of preserving Christian lore, they became complicit in the robbery and financial dismemberment of the legal organization of Vitez’s museum. One way or the other, they acquired his art. When Vitez finally arrived in Nicodemia to take control of his property, he found it missing some vital pieces.
That’s when the church started getting burglarized. Vitez couldn’t stand the idea of giving up some of his art, so he arranged to have it stolen back.
That’s where the clever bit came in. Vitez wasn’t just a thief. He was a master forger. He donated back to the church, but instead of giving them the originals, he gave them the fakes.
These thoughts ran through my head as I stood in front of the Salvador Dali’s seven-foot-tall Christ of Saint John of the Cross, and as closely as I looked, I could not see the difference between this and the version in the basement of Saint Lucy of the Light. They were the same down to the small damage in one corner and the scuff marks on the golden frame.
“The perfect forgery,” I said.
“Nonsense,” Vitez said. “I would know.”
“What happened on that last job, Vitez?” I said. “The one for the Garden of Earthly Delights.” In the corner of my eye, I saw Beck tense. “Why did you try to back out at the last second?”
Vitez’s face grew dark again, and his pinched cheeks deepened until he looked ten years older. “That was a long time ago.”
Vitez spun on me, rage in his voice failing to mask the fear in his eyes. “Your father never cared about any of this.”
“I’m not my father.”
“Who hired you.”
“I’d like to keep that between myself and my client.”
“You’re the one who’s been following me these past few weeks?” In a fluid movement, he drew a small pistol and pointed it at me. “You think you’ll get me that easily?”
I blinked. “What?”
“That’s right. I know you’ve been following me. I’ve got eyes everywhere, remember, unlike the complacent idiots of this node, I’m not dependent on Trinity for everything.”
“Who paid you to get The Garden? Who were you working for?”
“That was a long time ago,” he snapped. “She’s long gone by now.”
“Vitez,” I said, raising my open palms, “we’re not here to—”
“My name is Savior,” he spat. “August Savior. You will not use that other name. That man no longer exists.” He backed up and an elevator opened were I hadn’t seen a door at all. He gestured with his pistol. “Get in.”
I didn’t have any particular desire to step into his box. “You got this all wrong, Savior.”
Vitez spun on Beck, who had gotten too close. “You, too,” he said. “In.”
She shot me a questioning look.
“I don’t care about the forgeries,” I said. “In fact, I’m impressed. Your forgeries are an art all themselves. Your Sistine Chapel is stunning. Christ of Saint John of the Cross is staggering. All I want to know is where the third panel of the Garden of Earthly Delights is. The real one.”
His eyes widened in fear, and he took another step back. He jabbed the gun in Beck’s direction. “Who sent you?”
“Leave her alone, Augie,” I said.
Beck was a picture of calm. She said nothing.
I raised my hands even higher and showed my palms. “She’s had a rough week. It seems like longer, but she’s only been in Nicodemia a few days. She wasn’t following you, and neither was I.”
“How do I know that?”
“Ask Trinity if you want,” I said. “Don’t trust the machine? Do you want to know what she did on her second day here? There was this kid. His name is Retch. Remember him?” Beck nodded. “He’s a tough kid, living on the streets down there in the Heavies. He lives off the city, and I’d wager his art would be something you could put right here next to these Earth classics. They’re every bit on the pulse of human life as Dali or van Gogh. Every bit as beautiful.”
Vitez took another step back. Beck watched his eyes like an owl watching a mouse.
“Thing is, Retch is a passionate kid. You talk about the passion of artists throughout the ages? Well, this kid’s got some feelings. We were in a bit of an argument when Beck found us. Do you remember that, Beck?”
“Yeah,” she said. Her voice was low and smooth, flattened out by her tension.
“That was something,” I said. “Kid had a gun on me.” I took a step forward. “Just like you.”
Vitez raised his gun, aiming at my chest.
“Thing is, Vitez,” I said, hoping Beck’s injury wouldn’t slow her down too much. “She’s quicker than she looks.”
With a crack Beck closed the distance and landed a solid strike to the side of Vitez’s head. He hit the floor like a pile of bricks.
Beck kept moving. She snapped the pistol out of his hand, trained it at his head, and—
“Stop!” I shouted.
She stopped, finger on the trigger. “You don’t understand.”
“We’re not killing him.”
Something like hurt lingered in the turn of her upper lip. “He’s a thief.”
“He’s a thief and a forger, but there’s more to him than that.” I knelt down to check his pulse. He was unconscious, but as fine as could be expected. “We can be gone before he gets up.”
“What about the painting.”
I thought about what he had said. “I don’t think he has it.”
“He must. He doesn’t give anything away.”
“He’s proud of what he’s made and what he’s acquired. If he had the Garden of Earthly Delight, he would have at least hinted at it. Instead, he lashed out.”
Beck looked at the pistol in her hand. It was a standard police issue revolver and wouldn’t pass any scans. “He did more than lash out. We need to look around. He has the painting.” Her voice strained with desperation. “Demarco, I need to look in the other rooms.”
“Then look.” I don’t know what it was that set me on edge, but I couldn’t stay. “Vitez said someone’s after him. He thought it was me, but I’d bet a roll of dimes it was the same guy who’s been following us.”
With that, I walked away into the dark.
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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