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A twenty-first century jazz revival heavy in guitar and sax played from my music rig, while Beck applied ointment to my burns. She sat with her legs straddled around my waist so she could look out over the field of my burned back. The scorched remnants of my shirt lay in a crumpled heap on the floor.
The apartment Beck had chosen contained the bed upon which we sat and a single dresser. I watched the tender expression on her face as she tended my wounds in a hazy mirror atop the dresser. This was a servant’s room, nothing like the luxurious extravagance the natives of Hallow Nicodemia might have expected.
“It’s probably not as bad as it feels,” she said.
“It feels pretty bad.”
“Is it worse than a bullet wound?”
“Maybe.”
She gave me a light slap with an ointment-laden hand, which hurt more than pretty bad. “You’ve been through worse.”
“That doesn’t make it hurt less.”
She finished in silence, bandaging the worst spots and leaving a large portion open to air. When she finished, she pulled me close, careful not to touch anything that hurt. “I’m sorry,” she said.
I didn’t know if she was talking about my burns or the painting. I said, “I just can’t figure what that guy wanted. Why destroy the painting?”
Beck answered by nibbling on my ear. It didn’t hurt, but it was terribly distracting.
My fists clenched. “I had him. He was right there in the garden and I could have stopped him.”
Her kisses migrated from my ear down my neck. Her arms wrapped around my body and fingernails raked gently across my chest. My body responded to the touch, and if moving weren’t so painful I might have turned around to her right then. Beck met my eyes in the mirror, and I saw her mischievous intent.
“My father would have disowned me if he found out I was responsible for destroying that painting. He’d murder me. He cared about art more than he cared about us.” I remembered seeing the back of the panel. “Then again—”
Beck took my head in one hand and turned it so our mouths met. She kissed deep and hard, and I rose up to meet her. For a long time, we were lost in each other, pain and world disappearing into the fog of her warm embrace.
“When—”
She took a handful of my hair and pulled me backwards, landing me flat on my back. The bandages stung, but the pain was nothing against the wave of heat and pressure as she swung her leg over atop me. She took both my wrists and pinned me down, kissing me hard until I gave up my feeble attempts to speak. Until my mind gave up its attempts to think.
And then, all we knew was passion.
Later, she curled up against my side, both us us naked. She ran her sharp nails through the hair of my chest. “What is it like living in a station?”
“I’ve never known anything else. I suppose it’s like living in any other city, only the city limits are a hard vacuum and theres nowhere to go if you piss off your neighbors.”
She got a mischievous smile. “Oh, is that what makes you so friendly?”
“You say that as if I’m not.”
Beck pulled away from me with a mock frown. “Body, soul, community. That’s what’s important. Grump, grump, grump.”
“You’re not supposed to pronounce the ‘grump’.”
She sprung to her feet and marched around the small room. “Grump, grump, grump.”
The absurdity of it got to me, and I laughed harder than I had laughed in years: big belly laughs sending pings of pain through my burned skin. There may have even been a snort at the end of one long, breathless laugh, which sent Beck into a downward spiral oscillating between grumping and hilarity. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I reached out across the tiny room and pulled her close to me again. We fell together and the whole world disappeared.
It could have lasted forever. She fell asleep in my arms, but I lay awake for a long time, thinking of the future as a last desperate grasp at avoiding the past. Violet Ruiz, my employer, would be upset. The widow wanted one last piece to remember her late husband by, and it had to be the one Vitez had taken. The piece her husband had gotten killed over. I couldn’t pretend to understand the twisted nostalgia wrapped up in her motivations, but it only led to one outcome now that the painting was destroyed.
Maybe she would blame me or maybe she would blame Beck, but she’d be mad. Whatever deal she had going with the other powers of Heavy Nicodemia would falter. She would want to leave town.
But would Beck leave with her?
I wanted to ask her, but it seemed rude to wake her for that conversation. After such a perfect time, why worry? Why grump endlessly? Ruiz would do whatever she did. The stranger would keep walking the streets unless I tracked him down and made him pay.
The more I thought about the man, the more I convinced myself that he was a danger to Nicodemia. He knew more than he let on, and what he hinted at was nothing short of the ability to ignore all the rules. He was excommunicated, but still had manual access of Trinity’s systems. He could do anything and get away with it.
So why burn the painting? That question ran through my head over and over, and each time the answers got worse.
Or nonexistent. There wasn’t a good reason to burn the final panel of the Garden of Earthly Delights. Not greed, not revenge, not even as an artistic scholar fighting a rival’s claim.
Unless the painting was a forgery.
With a forgery out of the way, the authentic copy might rise in value. With the forgery out of the way and the forger murdered, there wouldn’t be any chance of confusion in the market. Whoever owned the whole triptych could monopolize the attention caused by the piece. They could make their case about the origin of the painting and its significance to the church.
The Church. Why were the higher churches leaning toward machine worship? The trend hadn’t gotten down to Heavy Nicodemia yet, but it was rampant in the Hallows and well established in Onegee. The Church was changing in the way the Church always changed: by saying, “We’ve always been this way.” The only things that stood in the way was a strong paper record of the Church’s beliefs and thousands of years of art.
The Garden of Earthly Delight displayed a core tenet of the Christian faith. It depicted the Garden of Eden and humanity’s temptation. It showed the revelry of humanity as it discovered the pleasures of the flesh, and it showed the punishment of an afterlife caused by such revelry. Without that painting and others like it, a church might craft its own nuance to the story of creation. With modifications to Biblical translation, they might even find room for machine and God to truly become one.
This was too much for my sex-addled brain. It came down to one thing. In the morning, I would track down the stranger and confront him about the painting. Beck and I together could surely trap the man, and with a little luck we’d get him to spill about who’s paying his bills. I needed to know how Frank Lauder played into all of this, and whether Saint Jerome had sent Sam and his people to kill me or if Sam worked under another motivation.
As sleep finally tugged at my exhausted brain, another thought about the future wandered through. What if Beck wanted to stay? What if she’d had enough of the traveling life and she’d found a city she could live in? What if she wanted to be here with me?
The thought filled me with warmth, and I pulled Beck closer as I drifted off to sleep.
When I woke, Charlotte Beck was gone.

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About the author

AWEichenlaub

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

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