There is an art to a proper beating. Damaging enough to hurt, not so damaging that it kills the victim. The parade of padded knuckles and body blows that can leave a victim brutalized without giving a hint of how badly they’ve been beaten. The nose unbroken, the body free of bruises, the skin not contused. The art of the abusive husband. The art of the secret bully. The art of the police officer. The sequence practiced by those who must maintain an image of moral fortitude, in spite of all their deeds. If a martial art was named for that which inspired it, then surely this panoply of beatings and soul-breaking torment would be called the Upright Constable Style.
Such were the thoughts running through the young woman’s head as the police officer stepped away, the sack of oranges dangling between his fingers. The police officer’s blue cap was pulled low over his eyes. A color that didn’t show stains, that made him melt into the darkness. A cap that hid his features. Brutishly large knuckles that hadn’t been torn in the least, because the Upright Constable Style did not rely on such crude methodology. Broad shoulders. The young woman slumped onto the chair as her muscles untensed, a smile on her face, even as blood dripped down onto her teeth.
“Now, look there,” said the second man in the room. “You bit your lip. That’s no good. Don’t want any marks, do we?” He stepped forward. This man was smaller. Glasses, an affectation towards civilization. A man wearing glasses wasn’t expected to fight. To brutalize. It was vulnerability, writ on his face. He bent forward, taking out a white silk handkerchief, and dabbed it on the young woman’s lower lip. Red stains spread slowly across the white silk. “We don’t want you looking like you’ve been beaten in front of the cameras, now, do we? The Cat of Paris must be presentable.” He stood up straight.
There was a soft rustle in the darkness in the corner of the room. The two humans in the room who had not just been beaten stiffened as a pair of yellow eyes glowed brighter in the darkness. “There is no justice in the beating of prisoners.” Its voice was soft, lilting, lyrical, but deep. A distinct French accent, its diagraphs turned sibilant, like a hiss. The tail swayed in the shadow, as the creature shifted its position slightly. The officer was rigid, arms tensed, as though ready to fight, or run. The detective laughed softly, and patted the bloody handkerchief across his forehead, the thin strings of hair dampened with sweat.
“So,” said the young woman with the cut lip, her smile growing just a little bit wider. “You took my statement as a challenge, did you?”
“Please, Miss…” began the detective, an eyebrow raised as though waiting for the young woman to fill in the blank.
“Cat of Paris?” she suggested. The officer closed on her, lifting the sack of oranges. There was a scrape of talons across linoleum as the creature’s wings spread. The detective held up his hands.
“Please. This woman is a criminal whose actions have cost the people millions. Hundreds of millions. The beating is not in order to punish her, for despite Officer Jacques’ great enthusiasm, even he could not extract five hundred million euros of satisfaction from beating this girl. But if we are to track down the paintings, to make things right-” he emphasized, with all the noble civic virtue of a statesman pounding the podium- “then she must talk. She must be made to talk. If you have a way of extracting the truth…”
It stepped forward, into the light. The young woman’s heart shuddered. Perhaps seven feet tall. His face was human. Hair like strands of amethyst hung down his shoulders, glittering in the light- too stiff, too rigid to be true hair. Stone. Like the rest of him. Burning yellow eyes with slits like a goat’s. His torso- that, too, human-ish, though despite the affectation of muscles and a pleasantly V-shaped figure, no sign of manhood, no sign of being living. His arms ended in great, bestial talons, curved and carved. No nails- the fingers simply terminated in sharp points. His legs, too, ending in something more akin to a paw than a foot, talons scraping the linoleum. A long, whip-like tail swayed behind him. And the two wings, like a bat’s, folded against his back. The light hanging down from above cast unnaturally long shadows over his features, so pitch black that they absorbed all light.
“Mademoiselle,” he murmured, “I can extract the truth from you. Breathe in your lies, breathe out what has happened. But I cannot promise you will be unharmed. To examine the truth of yourself, to see who you are, your soul unvarnished, your deeds laid before you. The lives you have damaged, the people you have hurt.” He leaned forward over the table, talons pressing into the metal surface. With a soft, almost subliminal shriek, they sank into the steel. “I would encourage you to avoid such damage. I do not believe you wish to see who you are, beneath the lies. To be exposed.”
The room waited with baited breath. The constables knuckles cracked. The detective’s temple beaded with sweat. Then a laugh filled the air, as the young woman looked up.
She was not remarkable in her appearance. Great thieves rarely were, because the essence of being a great thief was in being unnoticed. In avoiding the attention of others. Dark hair cut in a ragged style- Hell, she might have cut it herself, considering how uneven it was around the back. Brown eyes. An unremarkable woman. She laughed at the creature, and as the laugh came to an end, she was smiling. “I have faith in my righteousness.”
“All demons do,” said the detective.
“Now, now. No need to malign your partner here because I am confident in myself.” The young woman leaned back in the chair, winced for a moment, but regained her smile in record time. “Who would have known that the world’s shadows held so many strange things? I thought you were just a rumor. A myth. A fairy tale to frighten young thieves. Who knew the Devil worked for the police?”
“We have our suspicions about that. Your efficacy has been… supernatural. Surely you yourself had such help-”
“Hah!” The young woman’s laugh was harsh, her expression contemptuous. “Like the fucking Pyramids were built by aliens, because how could simple, dull humans ever be clever enough to accomplish anything? I thought monsters were a fucking myth until he came lunging at me on those rooftops!”
The accent was American, though none of the three agents of the law recognized its exact details. The Cat of Paris leaned back in the chair, wincing, shifting her shoulders, the heavy manacles clicking behind her back. The detective stepped forward, smiling. “Surely you don’t expect us to believe that. Four paintings, taken, imperfect replicas left in their place, near-perfect replicas found in the possession of the wealthy trying to flee the city with their prize, not a hint of the true ones, disappearing into the black market… All in one year.”
“Seven,” said the young woman, her smile quirked. “The other three haven’t been found yet. Sloppy on your part.”
“The true locations of the paintings. The names and identities of your accomplices, both human and otherwise. The sum and total of your ill-gotten gains. Provide these things, and there can be…” The detective smiled. “Leniency. A life in prison.” His smile vanished like a policeman’s promise. “Hold them back, and our mutual associate shall have to grow rough with you. And then…” His eyes shifted to the constable. “A tragic accident. You attempt to escape, lunge for the constable, I am forced to stop you, and a tragic accident occurs. Constable, uncuff her, would you? We want it clear that her hands were free.” His coat shifted, revealing a gun.
“No need,” said the young woman, and slipped her arms forward. The manacles rattled to the ground as she set her hands on the table, fingers interlaced, a smile on her face. The constable reached for his baton, but the detective held up a hand. The young woman didn’t even dignify the threat with a glance, her eyes on the creature. “Is this the justice you spoke of when you captured me? Is it everything you hoped it would be?”
“The one who breaks the strictures of society has no place to complain when society exacts its punishment.”
“Oh, yes,” murmured the young woman. “I certainly feel judged by society. That’s why this is performed in a dark back room, far from where anyone can see it, isn’t it?”
“Enough,” said the detective. “From the beginning.”
The young woman sighed. “Dull. The beginning is dull. Let us start from just before that last, fateful job, shall we? Let’s start from the Bosch.”
Planning is the essence of it. Preparation. The difference between a successful thief and an idiot cooling their heels in a jail cell is being able to plan, and practice. The more plans, the more paths, the better. Take the small sack of gunpowder connected to a fuse, secreted under the bench that she had passed, a week ago. Take the USB stick that a greedy janitor had slipped onto one of the computers in the security center the day before. Take the disguises she wore each and every day. Take the way she blended into a large group of tourists each time, pretending to be one of them, laughing and chatting with them as naturally as any brainless, vapid member of the general public.
And always, looming over everything like a shadow, there was luck. Some people believed that luck was everything. That luck could destroy even the greatest plan, could shatter even the greatest thief. That in the end, luck caught up with everyone. That was why most wise thieves retired, and didn’t test their luck any further. They lived modestly on their accumulated wealth for the rest of their lives, becoming just like the people they had stolen from.
That would never be her path, though. There could be no retirement for her. No end to this, except the very fatal kind. The kind of goal she had chosen was not one for wise thieves.
No bother. She had long since made peace with that fate. She chatted companionably in German with the tourist as the large group of backpackers made their way through the Museo del Prado, her hair cut short, a blonde wig resting on her head, hooked under her ears to ensure it didn’t come off without a very violent pull.
This was one of a half-dozen plans that she had set up. If the virus didn’t hit at the right time, knocking out the camera’s power at the source, she had other options. A small thermal charge on the camera’s cable. Worst comes to worst, the EMP device currently lodged under a desk near the security center. The point was not to get away without anyone knowing that a thief had been in the city in the first place, though sometimes she did. The point was the spectacle. Spectacle made people edgy. It gave them pressure from the higher-ups to perform, to find what was wrong and to fix it as quickly as they could.
Thus, the immaculately made replica currently sitting in the yacht out on the bay. A famous art collector owned that yacht, and did not know a thing about the painting, a legal time-bomb waiting to cripple him. If that seemed unfair, it was worth noting that the man had made his fortune through his great grandfather’s stake in the Dutch rubber trade. His lawyers would likely get him off with a financial slap on the wrist. But it would hurt him. Some small fraction of the hurt he’d done to others.
The thief watched as the light on the bottom of the camera flickered red. There was an explosion. Not loud, but in this modern age of terrorism, people were prone to panic. The other patrons began to scream, rushing about blindly, pushing and shoving, trying to get away from the terrifying noise, and the sulfur scent of gunpowder. Of course, it wouldn’t have done more than scorch the eyebrows of someone staring it in the face; The young woman had no interest in killing anyone. But a little temporary panic, on a relatively quiet day, when the crowds were not large enough to become murderous- That was the trick.
It could all go wrong, if luck were against her. But that, too, was something she refused to accept. The people streamed away, and she moved in a sequence she had practiced a hundred times, day after day, until her arms ached.
The fake appeared from under her arm, snapping out, the cracks where it folded disappearing. Her jacket flared out, just for a moment, while everyone else was looking away. The painting was huge. But she could conceal it.
She caught a glimpse of a shadow, in some far corner of the museum. A room full of statuary. For a moment, she thought she saw one of the statues looking at her. But the thief did not pause. She felt no guilt, no shame, none of the tell-tale concerns that would mark her out to anyone watching as someone who had done something wrong. Just another panicked member of the crowd in a large jacket. She swept down the stairs along with the rest of the crowd as police gathered, instructing everyone to move calmly.
They would discover that the painting she’d placed up was a fake within a matter of hours, at most. Hieronymus Bosch’s Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things was, after all, a piece of great value. Though it was not agreed on as Bosch’s work, her client had been willing to pay dearly for it. A shadowy art collector who liked attention almost as much as they liked art pieces being held in public, where everyone could see them.
The streets of Madrid were crowded, but she knew how to walk them without being intercepted. The jacket held tight, but not too tight. The dropoff point was a mere block or two from the museum. The painting was left under her jacket, and as she walked out, two men walked past her wearing the uniform of a moving service. Neither of them would remember her face, their memories too clouded by money. They would take the painting from there, and spirit it out of the city before anyone discovered its absence.
That evening, she sat in the small café, and smiled. “Another easy one.”
“Easy,” said her companion. An older woman, was one of the young thief’s constant partners, an amateur artist-
“Her name,” said the detective, his eyes narrowed.
“Be reasonable. I will not be giving you the names of my compatriots. For one thing, they did not share their real names. I always simply referred to her as… Van Gogh.” The young woman smiled. “May I continue?”
Van Gogh was an amateur artist. She entered heartfelt original pieces in galleries, in contests, even doing commercial work. She was relentless in her attempts to garner publicity, and the universe proved equally relentless in its refusal to provide it to her. Her art hung in small-time cafes, on the walls of dear friends, forever in the backs of galleries until they asked her to take them away, lest the owner have them burnt. Critics reactions were nigh-unified. The woman simply lacked a voice of her own; always more imitator than innovator.
Van Gogh and the thief could spend all night laughing together about that. The two of them sat with a bottle of sweet red port, across from one another, as they enjoyed the night. The bar was empty; an unpopular bar, run by Van Gogh’s son. They were the only ones drinking there, keeping the place afloat. It was one of the places they could discuss business.
“You really managed to get them both into place, eh, Lupin?” She shook her head. “A piece that big, and you didn’t just cut it out of the frame?”
“Wouldn’t be worth as much,” said the thief, a smile on her face. “Besides, I didn’t need to.”
“Braggart. Your overconfidence will be your undoing.”
“It’s only a weakness if it does not match one’s skill.” She winked, as she poured a little more wine into the bottle. “You can cash the check, now.” There wasn’t a check. It was more of what you might call a Caiman Islands bank account. But the language amused the thief.
“Hnnn. You know, an artist should never do the work before they are paid,” Van Gogh said, giving the thief a baleful glance, silver hairs dancing in the warm, low light of the room.
“You know why I do it.” She smiled, winked, and stood up.
She paused a moment, and turned her head back towards the artist. The old woman opened her mouth, and closed it, repeating the act a few times. “Van Gogh,” Lupin said, finally, rolling her eyes. “The night is young, and so am I. I wanted to go out and have a nice time before I leave Madrid forever.”
“There is a story,” Van Gogh said, and narrowed her eyes. “And don’t rush me. This is a difficult thing to speak of. More a rumor… A legend… Perhaps even a myth-”
“Oh for god’s sakes!” said the detective, his calm breaking.
“Yes, that’s what I said!” said the young woman.
“Is this build-up truly necessary?” asked the creature, who had returned to the corner, pacing nervously. The young woman’s eyes turned towards him, and she smiled.
“Every word is important. I hope you’re paying attention.” She cleared her throat almost just long enough to make the constable smack her in the teeth, and then continued.
“A creature. A demon, who follows those who have done wrong, and brings them to justice. Those who consider themselves… beyond the law. A devil. Perhaps even The Devil.”
A long, slow moment passed through the dim, wine-soaked cafe. The wind blew, rustling the shutters on their loose hinges, a cold wind for such a warm night. Then the thief broke out into laughter, raucous and loud, slapping her leg. After a few moments she sat straight again, blinking away tears, still snickering ferociously as she grinned at the old artist. “Really, Van Gogh? A boogeyman?” She flicked a hand dismissively. “In the world full of genocide, murder, tyranny, inequity, there’s a special boogeyman just for art thieves who don’t hurt anyone? Come now, Van Gogh. You really think that such things exist?”
“The world is strange, Lupin. Far stranger than you might suspect. You remember that cult in New York, last year?”
“Biological weapons,” she said, rolling her eyes. “A dirty bomb. Nutjobs, but that doesn’t give them special powers. The world doesn’t need monsters, or demons, or ghosts, to be a terrible and oppressive place.” She was quiet for a moment, her face falling. “All it needs are people, believing that their greed and excess are worth more than their fellow’s lives. To blame it on the supernatural is unnecessary. And frankly redundant.”
“This is not a metaphor,” Van Gogh hissed. “The church-bells have not rung since you entered the city. He is after you. The Devil walks the streets.”
The thief smiled, and gave a quick bow. “There is no need for a Devil. Humanity fills the role nicely. Have a fine night, Van Gogh.”
It would be redundant to say that thieves are superstitious. Humans are superstitious. They need a reason, and any will do-
“If I had wanted a philosophy lecture, ‘Lupin’,” said the detective, his eyes narrowed, “I would be in a university, not interrogating you.”
The young woman paused for a moment, her eyes drifting across the room to the creature’s. She met those stark, yellow eyes unflinchingly, one leg crossed over the other. “You know, it is a curious thing, the theft of art. I didn’t tell you some of the details when we first met, did I? Very few stolen pieces are ever recovered. The police departments’ focus on art theft is… Well, disappointing, to say the least. It is, after all, a victimless crime.”
“Drug use is a victimless crime. Prostitution, perhaps, is a victimless crime. The theft of cultural icons worth millions of dollars is a crime against nations-” began the detective, and he stopped as the young woman’s eyes fixed on him.
“I have had this discussion more times than I can count. What I am curious about is what- or, I suppose I should say, who- provoked this great manhunt. How valuable, exactly, was the Seven Deadly Sins that your department received such generous… gifts, to aid in catching me?”
“We’re the one asking questions here,” said the detective, as another bead of sweat appeared on his temple.
“Are you?” asked Lupin, and then raised her hands as the constable raised his fists. “Now, now! Just being cheeky.”
This club was substantially more crowded. Its owner had received an unexpected hit of luck, a gift of cash sufficient to pay off his lingering business loans, and was celebrating with a round of free drinks. His life’s savings had been invested in the place, and now, at last, he was beginning to get his head above water. Everyone was happy to take advantage of the largesse.
It was the difference, really, between the rich and the poor. When the rich acquired money, they kept it. When the poor acquired money, they spent it. There was no fortune so great it could not be spent; There was no life so worthless that it could not acquire wealth. It all came down to the people. It didn’t matter how money was distributed, how it was given out. The Rich, those who tended to be Rich, would get Richer; the Poor would get Poorer. Granted, that was less true, now. There were those who were clever enough to ensure that their fortunes would be locked up, that they would never be spent by their children, that the rich would stay rich. Forever.
The only way to break that cycle, that chain, was with chaos. And even then, it only disrupted the chain for a short time. You couldn’t fight the nature of the world. All you could do was buy a reprieve.
“The painting was discovered to be a fake by Museo del Prado security guards when one noticed a hinge on the frame. The reverse had been inscribed with a message- a statement to the police. ‘You would have to make a deal with the Devil to catch me.’ Another in the series of daring daylight robberies by a thief that Interpol has called ‘The Cat of-‘”
She stood up, and walked, somewhat unsteadily, towards the stairwell, the Spanish newscaster’s voice fading behind her. They’d gotten her message, which was enough. She knew the roof of the building was open, but no one was out tonight. She stepped into the warm night air and chose an edge looking out over an empty alleyway, and got herself in the mood for a good brooding, hooking her thumbs into her pants as her bladder complained.
The yellow eyes flared in the night, and she froze. There weren’t many lights above the level of the buildings in this part of Madrid. The streets were bright, and the rooftops dark enough that it was difficult to see what lurked on them. But the yellow eyes stood out. Three, perhaps four buildings away. They bobbed slightly, and then rose into the air. A leap, the thief realized. A leap like a hunting cat of horrific power and speed. She spun the world through her head, judging distances, trajectories. She was too far from the door down into the club. Her eyes dropped. There was an open dumpster just beneath her. Thank god she’d not had a chance to relieve her bladder yet.
As the dark creature scythed down through the night, she stepped off the edge. She heard the whisper of claws, the swish of a tail, and a hissed curse as she plummeted down. She struck the trash, bending to the side, heels, ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, spreading the impact out. Her left side tingled, numb for a moment from the impact, but she forced herself up and out of the dumpster, landing on the stone on her feet, already moving. She sprinted to the left, away from the chain link fence, towards the open street.
The creature dropped from above, nails gouging three long lines in perfect parallel down the brick face, as church bells rang in the distance. It landed hard, on heavy not-feet. It straightened slowly, those glowing golden eyes like the flare atop a lighthouse, casting out, and digging into her soul. The kind of gaze that could paralyze a woman prone to guilt, one prone to believing in divine judgement. The creature’s wings flared, and it stepped forward, claws reaching out to seize hold of the sinner, and deliver her unto hell.
The thief had never stopped moving. She charged the creature at an angle, and as the wings flared, she hit the wall, feet finding only momentary purchase- but long enough. She climbed just high enough, pulling her legs in, and then kicked off- over the creature’s head and between its wings. Those foglight eyes widened momentarily, blazing, as she hit the ground beyond it, and rolled past the tail in a single smooth movement, shoulder grinding into the sodden pavement for a moment. Then she was up, and out, into the streetlights warm glow.
It wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough, she knew, even as she ran for the street. The creature was far too fast, and the way it moved seemed tireless. She had had a long day, and had drunk more than a bit, and she did not know what the hell she was dealing with. So when she slumped down several blocks later, panting for breath, as people weaved around her on the sidewalks, she was prepared for the cold embrace of stone talons. They failed to materialize.
She slowly stood up, noting a distinct absence of noises she would expect- Stone grinding, people screaming, shocked faces, all of those things that should naturally come from a terrifying monster crashing through a crowded city street. She straightened, and looked over her shoulder. No sign there. Then she looked left, into the alley.
Two yellow eyes glowed there, a figure visible just inside the shadows, arms crossed. She smiled. “What’s the matter, shy?”
“I can wait,” said a surprisingly charming man’s voice, thick with a warm French accent.
“Well! What do you know? The Devil is a man. A lot of men would have claimed otherwise, but what did they know?” She looked both ways down the street. People were avoiding her, as they always avoided those who spoke to themselves on crowded city streets without having the decency to wear a Bluetooth headset. “And the Devil doesn’t like the attention of others.”
“I am patient, thief. Patient beyond reason, beyond words. There is more than enough time. I will wait for when you become overly comfortable, when you are no longer prepared for me. At that time, I will strike. I will take you. And deliver you to justice.”
“Really? And who is Justice?” The thief asked, a smirk quirking her lips. She turned away. “I’ll see you again. But you’ll never catch me, Devil. I have committed no sins.”
The young woman leaned back in her chair. The detective frowned, mopping his brow again. His eyes turned towards the creature in the corner. “And that was the end of your first encounter?”
The creature was quiet, and in the absence of response the young woman chuckled. “Yes. The first, and I thought, the last. I eluded him quite effectively, until recently. Let me see… after that… Ah, yes, it would have been the gala…”
She noticed the way Tzedekiel- the creature- looked away from her as she spoke. Hurt by the effort of the lie, even a lie of omission. And her memory returned to the warm Madrid night even as she continued spinning the tale down another loop of half-truth.
“I am not The Devil.”
The words drifted out of the alley, soft, almost lilting. The thief stopped, and turned to stare into that darkness, meeting the creature’s eyes. There was a certain hurt there, a pain that she might not have noticed if she did not look very closely indeed.
“I’m not even a devil.”
“I apologize,” she said, and meant it. “I was being dramatic, it’s been a difficult night.” She bowed her head in a show of contrition, and then looked over his figure, bat-winged and taloned. “What do you consider yourself?”
“I am an angel.”
There were many things she could have said to that. A mocking answer, a sarcastic roll of the eyes, a reminder that every devil was once an angel… But while she could be a bitch, she had never yet been one to a hurt young man. Instead, she let her eyes drift. The crystalline purple hair, hanging around his large and surprisingly soft eyes. The wings. “Yes,” she said finally, nodding softly. “I think I could see that. Why do you pursue me, angel?”
“You have done wrong. You have broken the law.”
“Not always the same thing.” She smiled. “Do you pursue all those who break the law?”
“It is what I am. All that I am. All I can ever be.” He crossed her arms. “I am made for a purpose. My name is the heart of that. It is what defines me. You take. You are the arm of greed, of grasping. Taking that which is not yours, that which others have earned, and giving it to those who would lock it away. You live off the largesse of society, you parasitize it, and you encourage the parasitic excesses of others. You destroy, in order to perpetuate your own life. How do you think that what you do can be just?”
“I have tried justifying myself,” the young thief said, and smiled. “People were never interested in listening. They were never interested in understanding. They told me what I did was wrong, regardless. I have moved beyond concerning myself with the beliefs of those who have already made up their mind. I have no interest in the arrogant justifications of an angel.”
“I could be convinced,” he said, and that alone was a statement that rocked her on her heels. The angel looked up. “You do not feel like a sinner, even though you are surrounded by those who do. I do not smell the taint of guilt or shame on you. That is rare. But not unknown. You might be deluded. You might be arrogant. You might believe your actions are utterly righteous. That is why I want to hear your reasons.”
“Do you?” she asked, a laconic smile spreading across her face. “Then meet me. Tomorrow night, in, let us say, Valencia. I will tell you my reasons. And you, I have no doubt, will have a trap waiting for me. I will break free of it.”
“I…” He was quiet for a moment. “I have to alert my handlers. To let them know. I cannot let you escape.”
“I would never ask you to,” she said, a smile on her face. “But I will never be caught. One day, 14 Carrerde la Blanqueria. I’ll meet you on the roof at midnight.” She let a smile spread across her lips. “What’s your name?”
“I…” He was silent for a moment. “Tzedekiel. The Justice of God.”
She nodded slowly, and smiled. “Tzedekiel. I am looking forward to meeting you again.” Then she turned, and vanished into the crowds.