This is the fourth and final character spotlight in preparation for Absolute Zeroes: A Space Story, which should (hopefully) be finished and available for sale by the end of the year. The purpose of these excerpts and spotlights is just to give you a taste of the universe the story is set in, and the diverse little cast we have stirring up trouble. You can find the first three here, if you missed them:
Unlike the first three, Euphrates is not an inherently good man. He’s a liar, a manipulator and a criminal. He’s also very intelligent and immensely resourceful. He has used his life to build a network that protects and funds him, but he hasn’t come this far without the ability to improvise on the fly when necessary. Though he isn’t an outright antagonist, he certainly is in a much more sinister classification than our three bumbling courier friends.
Hope you enjoy.
“That brings us to our spotlight item of the evening: an original Domingo Santano Flores painting, The Plight of Valerie’s Stars. Originally painted two hundred and two years ago in Flores’ hometown of Daraska on the planet Salix, this particular piece has been kept in miraculous condition despite the passing of time and travel through several Causeways. This is truly a magnificent piece that would be at home in any collection. Bidding will start at 250,000 chits.”
“Two-fifty,” a voice called out.
The painting was indeed masterfully done, one of several acclaimed works of art from one more tortured creative soul in the universe. It hadn’t been depression that had plagued Domingo Flores, however, nor was it substance abuse Domingo had been a compulsive gambler and not a very good one. In his later years, he turned to his art with a desperate passion. As soon as he could finish a piece, he sold it in hopes of staying ahead of the debts he had accrued. It worked, up until the days that it didn’t.
Valerie’s Stars was completed near the start of Flores’ decline, when his concentration and affection for art still bled into the canvas. The image of a woman rising towards the stars in a personal craft, wonder in her eyes, while two drastically different lovers stared forlornly after her was striking. It really would look good on anyone’s wall.
“Five hundred thousand,” a man growled, frustrated. Dalton Hess, early fifties. Salt-and-pepper hair and a bushy mustache that liked to store soup at the politician potlucks. He had been the first to bid on the item and now he was growing impatient, as if he had really thought no one else might want the painting.
Euphrates used his thumb to hook a loose strand of jet black hair behind his ear. “Eight hundred thousand,” he said.
His voice was a guillotine dropping on the crowd. Silence stretched out from him in every direction. Hess shifted in his seat to gape at him.
“Eight hundred thousand,” the auctioneer said. “Eight hundred, do I have eight-fifty? Eight-fifty, do I-“
“Here,” Hess croaked.
“Nine hundred,” Euphrates responded.
“One million chits!”
“One million and two.”
“One million, two hundred thousand. One million, two! Do I have one million and three? One million, three? We’ve got one million, two. Anyone? Anybody. Going once. Going twice.”
“Damn you, Destidante,” Hess snarled.
“Sold! For one million, two hundred thousand chits!”
The dinner following the auction was an immaculate affair. Two hundred tables were set up in a ballroom bigger than some houses. Servers carried trays of hors d’oeuvres worth four hundred chits apiece. Glasses were filled with exotic champagnes and brandies and were never allowed to be fully emptied.
Waiters delivered steaming platters topped with imported fruits and the choicest meats. Socialites and politicians picked at their dishes while gossiping and comparing fashions. Their disdain for each other was tucked away neatly behind a mask of politeness polished over years of forced interactions with each other.
Euphrates sipped at a glass of sparkling water while Gladys Epscot, the heiress to a chain of jewelry stores, regaled him with tales of her third husband. He nodded politely and listened, though he had nothing to contribute to her rambling. He felt no desire to escape; interacting with her was the safest discourse he could involve himself in while he waited.
Dalton Hess found him less than ten minutes later. Euphrates feigned surprise when the older man grabbed him by the elbow and he apologized to Mrs. Epscot for the interruption. When she waved him off and claimed she had taken up enough of his time, he expressed gratitude.
And as soon as she was out of earshot, the friendliness fled him and he fixed his gray eyes fully on Hess. “You’re wrinkling my suit.”
The older man released him and brushed at his own lapels nervously. “Sorry, sorry. I came to talk to you about the painting.”
“What painting? Oh, the Flores piece?”
“You know damn well I mean the Flores piece. I want it, Euphrates. It was the only item I came out here for. I’ll pay you back what you paid for it, plus thirty percent for the trouble. Just keep it safe until I can get together-“ He trailed off as Euphrates chuckled. “I’m not… I’m not joking, dammit. What’s the problem? Is thirty too low? I can offer as much as thirty-five percent, but you’re pushing me with that.”
“I’m not laughing at your offer, Dalton. It’s not that it isn’t enough. Quite the contrary. I simply found it amusing that you would offer me a thirty percent profit when I’ve already sold the thing for thirty percent of what I bought it for.”
Hess’ mouth dropped. “What? When the hell did you even find the time to sell it?”
“Oh, it was already sold. I had a private collector lined up, just waiting for me to procure it. I’ve never been much of a man for paintings, anyway. I much prefer sculptures. The margin for error in their creation is much smaller.”
“You threw away eight hundred thousand chits?” the older man asked, face crimson. “For what? Just to spite me?”
“Yes.” Euphrates’ expression grew deadly serious. He stepped in and Hess flinched despite himself. “To spite you.”
An unsettling quiet sat between them. The rich and bitter moved around them, oblivious or apathetic to the attention. A waiter hovered for a moment with the intention of refilling their glasses; he thought better of it and moved on.
“Why?” Hess asked. The word sounded scratchy.
“Walk with me, Dalton.”
Without waiting for a response, Euphrates began working his way through the crowd. His water glass found its way to a cluttered tabletop and his hands to his pockets. Neither man spoke until they had left the ballroom completely and entered an elaborately furnished smoking room. Euphrates closed the door and locked it.
“Is this because I spoke against your proposal?” Hess asked softly.
“I would never accuse you of being a stupid man. Misguided but never stupid. The thing is, Dalton, if your outbursts were sporadic or only on middling issues, they would mean nothing to me. Disagreement is politics. It’s life. But the constant undermining on your part, it’s beginning to build to a crescendo that can no longer be tolerated. You’re interfering with too many of my plans.”
Hess sneered. “So you piss away a painting you know I’ve sought after for years to insult me? Petty nonsense. You’ve gone from nuisance to enemy, Destidante. That’s a mistake you’ll rue.”
Euphrates smiled. “It was to spite you, sure. More than that, though, it was to make sure I got your attention. I knew you would come to me after the auction. It gave me a chance to warn you.”
“Warn me about what?”
“Warn you that I know where your money is going besides auction houses and consolations gifts for your better half.”
Hess said nothing.
“The off-planet vacations you claim are business trips. The escorts. The shocking amount of escorts, really, considering your age and history of heart problems. It’s impressive, really. I hope to be half as virile when I reach your milestone in life.”
“I wasn’t able to confirm use of REM powder, but the rumors are there and a urine test would settle it one way or another. Even without it, the locations you’ve checked into are alone enough to paint a damning picture. You’re fond of painted pictures, right?”
“Please. My wife-“
“Dalton, I don’t give any more of a damn about your marriage than you do. That ship launched long ago but the poor woman is too kind to leave you. If your expense reports and extracurricular activities were to get out, though, you would feel it somewhere else. Somewhere more important to me.”
“My career,” Hess muttered.
“Ruined. And your supporters tarnished. Believe me when I sat it would be enough of an opportunity for me to stifle any damage control your allies might attempt.”
“…what do you want from me?”
Euphrates grinned. “Your help. Your support. Not always, of course. That wouldn’t make any sense. It would only be when I need it, when your disagreement would otherwise ruin a bigger picture. That’s what you’ve never understood: everything I do is just a piece of a larger puzzle. I don’t need you to get it. I just need you to support it when I call on you.”
Hess sank down into one of the room’s pillowed chairs. His head found its way into his hands.
“If I refuse?”
“If you refuse, Dalton, my friend, then that feeling you got in the pit of your stomach when I outbid you for The Plight of Valerie’s Stars is going to define whatever is left of your life once I’m through with it.”
A week later, Euphrates stood in his office, staring out of his window at the skippers passing by and the low-orbiters coming and going. From thirty-seven stories above ground level, he could see much of the city stretched out before him. He could make out freeways full of cars and buses and ant-like pedestrians who opted for neither as they navigated towards their destinations. Millions of lives existing, he knew, and yet naught but one merited any of his attention.
The door opened behind him. In the windows’ reflection he could make out dark purple hair and caramel skin. Nimbus Madasta. The one person who stood by him, even when she didn’t understand. The one person who challenged him. The only one he could not shake. She was a rock. She was his rock.
He was utterly and hopelessly hers, her harms reminded him as they wrapped around his waist.
“Your present was delivered this morning,” she murmured against the nape of his neck. “Pristine condition. The original?”
“Of course. I would never insult you with a reproduction.”
“I hesitate to ask what it cost.”
“And I resolutely refuse to indulge your curiosity, though I will say this: that Domingo Santano Flores was a talented man but no renaissance artist certainly helped keep things from ballooning out of control.”
“Is that what you’ve been doing in here, staring off into space? Musing on the cultural impacts of centuries-dead artists?”
“Mm? No, of course not.” He placed his hands over hers, leaning back into the warmth of her body. “I was thinking of the future and our places in it.”
Nimbus said nothing. She didn’t need to; he could feel her muscles tighten as she drew herself closer to him. Euphrates continued to look through the window, amused at how much could transpire out there when his world was contained in that single room.