Marianne picked up the phone on the first ring, like she’d been waiting for Vicky’s call.
“You’re American?” she asked right away.
“Yes, does that matter?” asked Vicky.
“It does, but I’m not entirely sure why.”
Vicky contemplated why she’d even called. She’d chosen Nico to continue whatever life this was, by her side. Nothing would sway her at this point. But Marianne seemed intent on answering questions that no one asked.
“You Americans are eternally trying to find where you came from, discover your past. But in France, we’ve lived with ours for thousands of years, we can’t escape it. When we know too much, we refrain from talking about it. And if we don’t talk about it for long enough, we start to forget. The next generation doesn’t find it mysterious or captivating. Just done. Over. They want to live in the now. We all want to live our lives without the burden of our ancestors’ follies.”
Vicky cut in. “You mean the Arbogasts, right? Or whatever your family was, whoever they were? Nico doesn’t seem to even know.”
“So, this I can tell you. He does know, by the way. My brother knows more than he lets on. Our grandmother, we called her Mamama, she was born, lived and died Ofira Arbogast. That’s all she ever was. There’s no further mystery to discover, no hidden roots to dig up. Ours was the family that St Kell saved. We were the helpless, the family spawned from thieves. My great grandfather stole a car from Kaiser Wilhelm in 1919 and that’s how we came to St Kell. To hide. It was outside of the walls of the city back then.”
Vicky interrupted again to insert the result of her own research to the matter. “I thought Lanvin was arrested in Paris. I found an article in the archives of the New York Times.”
“That was so the French authorities could save face. Lanvin was some other guy they wanted for some other indiscretion so they pinned it on him. They never recovered the car though. I think it did end up in St Kell somewhere, probably with my great-grandfather behind the wheel…
“The thing is, Nico is obsessed with too much from the past. There were these aniconic patterns that he found in a muslim mosque, patterns that he thought described the world. It started as a simple classic pattern, but to him it became building blocks for a greater order or something. He got lost in those tiles, those thoughts.”
“Well, his religion seems very important to him. I think it’s normal to get lost in what you believe in.”
Marianne let out an audible sigh. “That’s just it though. It’s not his religion. I converted before I married and I know what I believe. Nico didn’t convert, he doesn’t go to mosque, he just picks and chooses whatever he wants from Islam, whatever he thinks he understands.”
“Well, he’s more of an Islamic scholar then. I admire his dedication, even if it is unconventional.”
“The term ‘Islamic Scholar’ is an oxymoron, Ms. Victoria. To study the teachings is to believe, to know. It’s not about learning. My brother denies that he’s from the tribe of Israel and that’s the only reason he tries for understanding with Islam. He doesn’t realize he’s living and breathing the very tenant of Judaism, the persistent doubt. I’m a believer in Allah, in Muhammad’s teaching, peace be upon him. But Nico has too many questions. He’s still wandering through the desert and it makes him dangerous.”
Vicky paused before speaking. “This doesn’t change anything for me. He’s an incredible person, Marianne. This doesn’t make him dangerous, it makes him alive. I’ve never felt complete like I do with him. I met your brother, maybe two months ago? But I’ve known him for much longer, I don’t know how to explain it.”
“Ms. Victoria, Nico wants to be a savior, or a martyr, something with more meaning to him than a sheltered soul. Maybe he’s found a kindred spirit in you, someone who needs validation too. He’s invented a pattern, a complexity, that isn’t there. You need to be extremely careful with him. Nico’s been off the radar for the last year. He’s supposed to be at his assigned site. The thing is, it’s a court order; he’s a criminal as long as he’s at large. His case worker there says he hasn’t checked in. The order could be enforced if he doesn’t comply. He could go to prison, Ms. Victoria.” Vicky couldn’t help smiling at the thought of such a minor move to the other side of the wall as Marianne continued.
“He sent my husband a disturbing message a few days ago. He was referencing an ayah from Surah al-Baqarah, one that talks about going from darkness into the light. I’m sure you’re not familiar, but al-Baqarah is the chapter of the Koran about slaughtering a cow. I don’t know what he means, Ms. Victoria, but part of it makes more sense to me now. He said he has a new American to slay the bull. I don’t know what he’s gotten you into, but it’s very important that he sees his case worker at Berges de l’Ain. Even if he’s not living there, you must understand that Nico has serious problems.”
“What’s Berges de l’Ain?” Vicky couldn’t help asking.
“That’s where they put someone like my brother who has nowhere else to go. He went there after getting in trouble, after a few weeks on the street. It was about that damned car. He said my husband was a thief. Because he thinks stealing that car is in his blood somehow, that the responsibility is his. But instead he calls Mehmet a thief, just to cleanse himself.”
“What does he think Mehmet stole?”
It took a few seconds of empty space for her to respond. “Mehmet was really into cars when he was a boy. He collected about 50 die-cast models. When Nico told him about the Mercedes-that’s the car that was stolen-he thinks that Mehmet found the car before him and stole the engine.”
“Why would he do that?”
“To sell, I guess. It was rare and valuable, some sort of special system. I don’t know, Mehmet knows what it is, but he didn’t take it. He’s never even seen the car. He doesn’t believe it even exists. Nico thinks he snuck underground somehow, found the car and removed the whole engine to sell on the black market. As a little kid. I mean, this is the kind of person you’re dealing with, Miss. He thinks my husband betrayed him. Nico…he took a dull axe to Mehmet’s hand one day. For punishment. He almost lost it, lost his hand. Maybe it would have been better if he did. After four surgeries, he still can’t move most of the fingers on his left hand. He had to stop playing guitar. He nearly lost his job because he practically lived at the clinic. I’m sorry, I’ve said too much, but you should really just stay away from him. They only let him off because Mehmet wouldn’t press charges. They sent him to Berges de l’Ain and he’s supposed to follow the program. Change his colors. You need to help him get back there, Ms. Victoria. It’s the best for both of you, you need to believe me. You need to leave him there.”
Something carried Vicky through another week. She felt quartered, tied and ready to be pulled in too many directions as soon as the horses were spooked. Seven days after what had already seemed like the end of time, she was next to the Vicki, another adopted sister to carry her along. Nico was with her, so were Nils and Carl. The sum of their parts made her feel whole enough to mask the panic reflecting off the walls of the dungeon Nico called the Unterkeller. The false Dr. Enders, whose name now seemed irrelevant, explained the process, the sedation and the moment they’d power up the Vicki to do something heavy, although no one was quite sure what it was.
Nils pulled a small rectangle from his pocket, then passed it to Nico. For all his disdain of the young man, he pressed it tenderly into his hand, like a father would palm a son his pocket money. Nico warily unfolded the paper next to Vicky as they sat on the floor of the underground shrine to the universe. There was a pen and ink drawing of some type of apparatus on it that Vicky didn’t recognize, but Nils’ words cast light onto the page.
“I’m the one who took this from your family, Nico. It’s the American; I made this sketch when I first laid eyes on it. See, we found the Kaiser’s car when excavating for our prison. Your grandmother came to see me when we started digging; she knew what we would find and she wanted to make a deal. She needed to forget what her father had done and she longed to keep her home in St Kell, even if it meant living next to my prison. The house did belong to her, to the Arbogasts, but she had nothing to prove it, no papers. Ofira agreed to give me this motor-the American-to keep her house. It was a beautiful piece of equipment, a sleeve-valve engine created by Charles Knight. He was from the States, hence the name. The American was what made the Kaiser’s Mercedes purr. That’s what your great grandfather wanted; that’s what he stole. I got 200,000 francs for it in the eighties, but it was worth more than that. I really should have saved it.
“Well, Ofira gave us permission to wall off her sub-basement and use the site. Your grandmother gave us rights to expand our property below, but she also transferred the home into a trust that I own. I guess it was a bit of a deception on my part. But we had a deal. As long as she was alive the house would be hers to live in. When she passed, it would become property of the prison. I know that you always thought you would get something for it, but what you didn’t realize is that I already own it. I don’t have to give you a penny for what’s already mine. That’s why your sister has been struggling with the paperwork for so long, Nico. It will never be yours. But I know that old car is still parked on the other side of that wall, Nico, less it’s beating heart. Less the engine, but still there, smiting a dead Kaiser for your forefathers. It will soon be buried in dirt for the foundations of my nursery. For what it’s worth, I want you to understand that I know who you truly are. I know what I’ve taken from you is not just. I’m prepared to finance the white house on the river for you if you decide that’s your destiny. From my own pocket, Nico. You need to be sure that this is how you want to continue, with this relative stranger into the unknown. You need to know that you have an alternative, that you have a home. I apologize that I tried so long to take that away from you. But it was all for this. For this project, Nicolas Arbogast. You can still back out of this. It was meant for Laney, not for you.”
Nico took Vicky’s hand in his, still unaccustomed to hearing her former name. His palm was rough and calloused, both dry and warm to the touch. “I made my choice,” he said, although it seemed to be directed at the machine more than the man. Vicky’s body grew immobile from the sedative Carl Enders had given to both, but she positioned her hand in Nico’s, weaving her fingers into his so that the two would remain clasped, even in the absence of muscular will. To let go of him now would be a life without purpose.
Her body was still, but her mind began racing in messy orbits around a central truth. Vicky suddenly knew that the bomb was no longer in Nico’s childhood bedroom. She knew why he burned cars as confidently as she knew what was slowly catching fire on the other side of the wall, readying for a spectacular explosion. He had practiced this, infused it with more meaning each time he lit a match. The burning would turn to melting and heat the potential energy until it could no longer be contained by the 1919 Mercedes Knight. The wall would blow loudly enough to destroy ears before they could detect the soundwaves of the explosion. The Vicki and the determined force of curiosity in the Unterkeller would cease to exist. The Vicki’s lights were blinking methodically and the heaviness of her eyelids couldn’t block the pattern of light. Nico was too late. The machine was already on.