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Authors: Patrick S Tomlinson

Children of a Dead Earth Book One (12 page)

BOOK: Children of a Dead Earth Book One
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“That you slashed out of its frame!” Devorah stamped her feet, her fury as fresh as the morning the Heist had been discovered. “We lost almost three centimeters reframing it. A common vandal would have taken more care.”

“I didn't cut it out, all right? I just carried it. I wanted to do it right and disassemble the frame, but Turner said it would take too much time. And you already got your revenge on him, sure enough.”

“Is that supposed to exonerate you?”

“I was a kid, lady! Just the mule for them, but I knew more about this stuff,” his arms swept to encompass the entire hall, “than any of them. They didn't listen, OK? They recruited me because I could pick out the best stuff and run it around without drawing attention. That's all they wanted me for.”

“And you were only too eager to help them do it, Mr Kite.”

Sal looked away, shame filling his voice. “I was naïve.”

Benson stepped in. “Yes, you were. But he's served his sentence, Devorah, and he's here because he volunteered to help us. Now, may we finish?”

“Fine, it's way past my bedtime as it is.” Devorah moved on with the tour, explaining the significance of a print of a large can of soup before leaving the modernists behind and entering the new millennium.

She spent a lot of time explaining an evening gown woven from old-fashioned magnetic data tapes by an American artist named Timothy Westbrook, the leader of the Reclamation Movement. After his death in 2059, his work rose to prominence as a rejection of consumerism and the entire corporate mentality of planned obsolescence, a message that held obvious appeal for the people of the Ark. For his part, Benson thought the dress would look rather fetching hanging on Theresa's lithe frame.

They wove their way through the rest of the twenty-first century before reaching the
pièce de résistance
: the Kilimanjaro collection. Kilimanjaro was the only name anyone had ever known her as. Some stories said she'd grown up in Johannesburg. Others that she was from the slums of Cairo. The only thing the legends agreed on was she was from Africa, and she was the last Master of Earth.

Her work was simultaneously heart-wrenching and inspirational. They paused in front of Kilimanjaro's seminal work,
Last Launch
, which was nothing more than a selfie of the artist standing among a sea of people, their faces lit in a bright yellow against the night by the fires of the last rocket launched to supply the Ark itself. Alone in their despair and rage, her face was lit with hope. A week earlier, she'd declined an invitation to join the ranks of survivors. “You have my work, the future has no need of my body. Give my seat to a scientist,” she'd said.

The Ark launched two days later.

With her well-rehearsed tour exhausted, Devorah turned and faced Sal, toe-to-toe.

“That was my half of the bargain, Mr Kite. Now tell me where my missing pieces are!”

To his credit, Sal had the sense to step back before answering the tiny crazy woman. “There's one more thing I would like to see.”

“What?” she demanded.

Sal squared his shoulders. “I would like to see the Monet.”

Like a steam train switching tracks at full speed, Devorah's piercing gaze swept over to Benson and bored into him. “You told him about the Monet?”

Benson put up his hands. “Honey for the flies, Devorah.”

“No one's seen it yet, and you want me to give this petty criminal the honor?”

“Watch who you're calling ‘petty' lady,” Sal injected. Devorah looked like she might throw a punch, but Benson put a hand on her shoulder, arresting her momentum.

“It's just one more viewing. It'll take five minutes. That's worth it, isn't it?”

She threw his hand off her shoulder and crossed her arms. “No. It isn't.”

“Well, maybe I can sweeten the deal.” Sal reached into a pocket, but before he could pull back out again, Benson grabbed his wrist. Hard.

“Drop it.” Benson's other hand grabbed his stun-stick and trained it on Sal's left eye to emphasize the point.

“I can't,” Sal winced. “It's fragile.”

“What is ‘it'?”

“It's not a weapon, if that's what you're asking.”

Benson relaxed his grip, but kept the stun-stick in place. Devorah looked like an angry rabbit unsure about which way to jump.

“Pull it out, slowly.”

Sal gently removed his hand from the pocket, holding a small rectangular silver case not much bigger than a deck of playing cards. He presented it to Devorah.

“I would like to make a donation to the museum, from my private collection.”

Devorah eyed the case with suspicion, but curiosity won out as she donned a pair of white gloves that seemed to appear from thin air. She opened the lid with a tiny
. When no explosion or puff of poison gas followed, Benson finally relaxed.

Inside was a small manila envelope. She opened it and dropped the contents into her palm. “It's movie film.” Devorah ran over to the nearest light source and held one of the small strips up to it. “Thirty-five millimeters. The old-fashioned celluloid, but not the nitrate stuff.” She leaned in and brought the frames right up to her face, almost touching her eyeball. “I don't recognize the film, and my plant isn't showing any matches from the database.”

Sal chuckled. “Nor could it. I had them deleted.”

“You what?” Benson and Devorah said in unison. The admission got both of their attention.

Sal leaned against a column. “We knew you had automated searches running, Madam Curator. You weren't the first one to come up with that trick. The only way to keep some of these pieces out of your view was to create a blind spot.”

“OK,” Benson said slowly. “But how did you delete them?”

Sal shrugged. “Some of our customers had the permissions and figured they owed us some small favors. What you're holding is forty-three frames from Salvador Dali's movie–”

,” Devorah finished for him. She looked down at the frames as though she might faint. “Made in partnership with Walt Disney.”

“Very good, Madam Curator. Got it in one.”

“But… these should have turned to sludge centuries ago.”

“Yes, they should've, but a very studious collector had them treated with stabilizers and kept them safe. For my part, I've kept them away from light and in a humidor chilled to five degrees.”

“Where?” Benson asked incredulously. “Your apartment's been searched a dozen times.”

“You would be surprised what a ship this large can keep hidden, detective.”

“But how did
get it?” Devorah asked.

“Let's just say ‘Salvador' is a family name. Now, I've shown you a piece of art that no one else has seen in generations. Is that worth a ticket to the Monet?”

“Yes.” Devorah slipped the filmstrip back into the case and snapped the lid closed, then stalked off towards a recess in the wall. “It most certainly is.” She waved a hand and a secret door sprang open. “Well, are you coming or what?”

Chapter Thirteen

hese are the archives
,” Devorah said, as the trio walked down the stairs to the museum's basement. “All our restoration, preservation, and long-term storage happens down here. Only around fifteen percent of the collection is on display at any given time. We rotate the exhibits to limit their light exposure and risk. That and…” They reached the landing at the bottom of the stairs. The overhead lights sensed their arrival and flickered to life, casting a gentle white glow onto row after row of shelves, stretching back far enough that the curvature of the habitat's hull was apparent in the floor. “…We don't have the display space.”

Benson and Kite stood gobsmacked at the enormity of the room and its contents. She wasn't kidding; enough shelves, crates, and boxes filled the space to provide for another half dozen museums just as big as the one above them. Benson leaned over and whispered to Sal so Devorah couldn't hear.

“Did you know about this place?”

“Yeah, but we never found out how to get in.”

Devorah beckoned for them to follow as she hurried deeper into the archives. She stopped at a table just long enough to slap an RFID tag on Sal's donation and scan it into the computer, then opened a door set into the far wall. A gentle fog rolled out, followed by a cool breeze. The inside of the room was refrigerated. Racks of warehoused exhibits sat in foam cases stacked high to the ceiling. Devorah stuck the small case on a shelf and scanned in its location.

“There, it'll keep until I can get it in a proper mounting. Now, where were we?”

“Good question,” Sal said, still bewildered by the mass of artifacts around him. “I knew this room existed, I just didn't know it was so…”

“Full?” Devorah finished for him. “We've had to keep the exhibits fresh and exciting for over two centuries. Where did you think all of that was kept? I'm just relieved your gang never got in here.”

“So am I,” Sal said quietly. The admission surprised Devorah. Her face softened ever so slightly as she looked at him, her assumptions about the man toppling one by one.

“I'm glad we agree. This way.” She sprang off in a new direction. Benson was amazed at her stamina. It was closing in on four in the morning Shangri-La Time, yet she hadn't lost a step, despite her years. The curator stopped short at what seemed like a random stack and scampered up a ladder.

“Here, detective, this piece might interest you.” She pulled out a nondescript white foam box sealed with clear tape. A small knife clicked open in her hand, also apparently out of nowhere, and made short work of the seal.

When she pulled back the lid, Benson gasped. Even though he'd never seen one in person, the artifact in front of him was unmistakable.

“That's a gun,” he said.

Devorah smiled patronizingly. “Indeed it is, detective, but it's not just any gun. This is the weapon that killed Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and launched the First World War.” She took the small black handgun from the box and held it out. “An FN Model 1910 Automatic in 9mm Kurz. Those seven bullets,” she nodded down to the tiny brass cylinders arranged in a line next to a box magazine, “are the only ones in existence.”

“Are they still live?” Benson asked.

Devorah shrugged. “Who knows? They're almost three hundred years old, and the gun itself hasn't been fired in at least that long.”

“I didn't know any guns made it onto the Ark. They were contraband.”

“As Mr Kite said, you'd be surprised what remains hidden.”

“Is it dangerous?”

“Are you kidding? The last time some idiot got his hands on it, sixteen million people died. Then they did it all over again a couple decades later and thirty million people died. This gun shaped world affairs for an entire century.”

“Can I hold it?” Benson asked.

“Don't push your luck, detective.” She put the gun back in its case and resealed it, then put it back in its place on the shelf. “The Monet is over here.”

They followed her over to a table used to prep displays. She pulled back a cloth lying on the table, and Sal gasped.
Haystacks in Summer
lay there, not even a meter away from his face. No glass, no protective barriers, no elaborate security systems, just a simple canvas covered in a sea of vibrant color.

Sal set down the stave and reached out to run his fingers over the brushstrokes, but stopped himself short before Devorah had to say anything.

“It's beautiful. The archival images don't come close to matching the hues.”

“They never do,” Devorah said softly, the edge of distrust gone from her voice for the first time since starting the tour.

“Thank you. And…” Tears welled up in his eyes. “…and I'm sorry.”

“For what?” Devorah asked.

“For being a young, idealistic idiot. I thought by robbing you, I was returning art to the people, whoever the hell they are. I thought the museum represented tyranny. Total government control over our heritage. But they used my passion, and then the pieces I helped ‘liberate' got sucked down an even deeper hole where only the true tyrants could see them. I was such a fucking fool!

“And what's worse, for thirty-five years I've been too much of a coward to do anything about it. Kept my head down. Stayed off the radar. Too afraid of the tyrants who used me to get their pretty things, then turned around and killed my mates who'd done their dirty work. Everyday praying that they'd forget about that stupid kid I used to be.”

Benson put a hand on his shoulder. “That's a lot of regret to carry around for a whole lifetime.”

“Sure is.” The ex-con wiped tears from his cheeks. “I should go to bed. I have to work in four hours. I'll show myself out.” Sal took one more look at the Monet, then headed back to the stairs. He set foot on the first stair, then looked back with a chuckle. “One more thing, you might want to take another look at that film case.” Then he left.

Devorah and Benson almost tripped over each other in the scramble to get back to the cool room. Being the faster of the two, Benson got there first, but being a gentleman, he held the door for the lady.

Devorah snatched the silver case off the shelf and snapped it open, inspecting every face of it for clues. She pulled out the envelope and dumped out the film, then ran back out again and laid them out on a light table. As she poured over the film frame by frame, Benson picked up the envelope. It was real paper, worn around the edges, maybe as old as the film itself, but a quick sniff hinted at fresh glue.

Benson squeezed the sides of the envelope to get a peek inside. He saw writing.

“Devorah, give me your knife.”

She whipped the small blade out from wherever it was kept without looking up from the film. With two quick slices, Benson opened the envelope and read what had been hidden inside.

“Ah, Devorah?” He put a hand on the table to steady himself. “You can stop now.”

She looked up from the light table to see Benson holding out the exposed titles of twelve pieces of stolen art written in a column on the left, the entire cache still missing from the Museum's inventory, and four names written in a column on the right, with brackets drawn to show who had acquired what: Alfonz Lorenzo, Darius Krupt, Celine DiMaggio, and Chao Feng, Senior. The deceased father of First Officer Chao Feng, Junior, the first person in line to inherit his father's stolen art.

“Gotcha, you son of a bitch,” Benson whispered.

Devorah inspected the list and let out a long, low whistle. “That's going to rock the boat.”

“We'll capsize it if we have to.”

“It's not that simple.” Devorah shook her head. “This will upset a lot of important people if we're not delicate about it.”

“Since when have you been delicate with anyone? You have a standing warrant to track down this stuff. Use it.”

“This info is thirty years out of date. Three of these people are already dead. We have no way to know where their collections went. Celine is the only one still alive, and she's got late stage Alzheimer's.”

Benson was incensed. “It's a lead, which is more than you've had in decades. You're seriously not going to follow it up?”

“It's a bunch of names scrawled by an ex-con. You really expect me to bust down the door to a woman on her deathbed and ransack her closet on evidence that flimsy?”

“Honestly, I'm more interested in Feng.”

“Feng?” Devorah was surprised. “Why? This isn't still about the boy that went missing, is it?”

“He's not missing, he's dead. I pulled his body back inside with an EVA pod. Almost died in the process. Didn't you hear?”

She shrugged.

“Really, Devorah, you need to get out more.”

She sighed. “You're determined to make trouble, aren't you? Why are you interested in Feng?”

Benson rubbed at his injured forearm. “I have my reasons.”

“Fine, I'll serve the warrant on him first, so he doesn't get any warning. I'll wait on Celine until last, give her family a chance to come forward on their own.”

“Works for me.”

“I'll want a couple of constables along with me when I execute the searches.”

“I'm only too happy to help. Just give me an hour's notice and I'll get a couple of people together.”

Devorah led him out, back up into the atrium and towards the main entrance. They both paused at the archway. Hung above them was the Tribute to Lost Pioneers, but everyone simply called it the Clock. In bright red digits, it tallied every life lost aboard the Ark since launch and would only stop counting once they landed on Tau Ceti G. It stood at just over half a million people. Ten generations had lived their entire lives inside this fishbowl. The deaths had slowed down in the last few months. Like grandma holding out until after Christmas, nobody wanted to miss the big show.

The number at the very end belonged to Edmond Laraby. If someone had gotten their way, Benson would have been added to the tally last night. That wouldn't go unpunished.

en hours later
, Benson, Theresa, Chief Vikram Bahadur, and Devorah stacked up outside the first officer's penthouse at the top of the Qin Shi Huang building. Strictly speaking, Benson and Theresa weren't supposed to be there. Their authority ended at Avalon's lock. But Vikram had as much patience for assaults on constables as anyone else on the force, which was to say none at all. Bahadur had “invited” Benson along on the raid as a courtesy, and Theresa had sort of invited herself as soon as she heard about it.

Bahadur took a moment to adjust the dastar expertly wrapped around his head. Then he pulled out his stun-stick to check its charge.

“You're not nervous, are you, Vikram?” Benson asked.

The Sikh stroked his beard. “It would be a lie to deny it.”

“Don't worry, I've got your back.”

“It's not that, my friend. I've never gone after someone of such… prominence before.”

Benson nodded. “Crewmembers put their pants on one leg at a time just like the rest of us.”

“Actually,” Devorah piped up, “they usually shove both feet through at once when they're in micrograv.”

“Not really helping, Devorah.” Benson stole a peek around the corner hallway. It was empty. Not surprising at this time of day. Both Feng and his wife were on duty, and their son was in daycare. Standard procedure would have them ping Command to check plant locations and see if anyone was inside the residence before entering, but Bahadur couldn't do that without alerting Feng to the fact his penthouse was about to be raided.

“OK, we're set. Theresa, you–”

“If you say ‘hang back', ‘watch the door', or some other protective macho bullshit, I'll kick you right in the stitches on your shin.”

Benson swallowed the rest of his sentence and pulled out his own stun-stick.

Bahadur gave the device a sideways look and tugged at his curly, yet perfectly trimmed beard. “What if your ghost is inside, Bryan? These sticks won't do us much good.”

Benson pointed at the ornate curved dagger tucked into Bahadur's belt. “Then I hope that kanga isn't just for ceremony.”

“It's a kirpan, and no, it's not.”

Benson scratched his head. “What's a kanga, then?”

“My comb. Maybe I'll let you use it if things get rough. You could groom him into submission.”

“All right, we go on three, two, one!”

“Busting down the door” was somewhat more exciting in the movies, where a big, burly man would swing a twenty kilo battering ram through the lock. Or a shotgun would be put to the door's hinges, reducing them to dust. In this case, Devorah just pushed her thumb up to the door plate and punched in an override code. That was the beauty of bringing her along; Devorah's standing warrant meant she didn't have to go to the local magistrate to get permission to enter, so no notices popped up on the network until she'd already opened the door. Of course, the people who had given her that unprecedented power probably never dreamed she would have the unmitigated gall to break into the first officer's home.

Something told Benson that her unlimited warrant was about to expire. He really hoped what they found on the other side of the door was going to be worth all the trouble he was causing.

The door clicked and swung open. Chief Bahadur was the first through it with his stun-stick held at the ready, then Theresa. Benson followed her through and into the…

Palace. Benson and Bahadur stood dumbstruck by the size of the penthouse, while Theresa stared at its lavish furnishings with palpable avarice.

The penthouse's ceilings stretched up six, maybe seven, meters. Brilliant red and gold Chinese columns carved with dragon reliefs ran from the vaulted ceilings down to the floor. The floor was covered with intricate rugs, under which lay genuine wood flooring laid in complex patterns. Even if the wood was just a thin veneer, it would still have taken an entire tree to cover an area so large.

BOOK: Children of a Dead Earth Book One
8.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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