The noblest of intentions do not excuse a crime
I remember the weight of my sins. The terrible pressure of guilt. To be aware of one’s own crimes is the most sadistic of torments. The most heavy of burdens. The most noble of quests. It was with the apple that mankind became aware. They were no longer beast, nor angel. They became responsible for themselves. They regarded it as being cast out of Paradise.
I remember drowning under the weight of the sin around me, and the way that it resonated with the sin in my own soul. This world was choking under its guilt. Wallowing in it. I could feel it in the heart of every human. That is why I broke free from the shell of stone, atop that storied, ancient cathedral where I had been set. The world called out for justice. צדק. What could I do but answer? What could I be, but one who answered such a call with justice? Terrible. Fearsome. A visage of all that terrified humans. For that was what I was. Justice was a threat.
I looked around the room. The constable stunk of guilt. He knew he should not enjoy the beating, but the erection stiffening in his pants belied what he had been taught by society. His body savored the experience of having power, of having control. It was only enhanced by the defiance of the young woman. The contradiction between what he was supposed to feel, and what he did feel- that was the essence of sin and guilt.
The detective’s guilt was harder to place. It lingered around him like a lurking cloud, a thick wave of self-hatred and self-loathing that could not be so easily tracked down to basic desires. There had been a twinge when the young woman had mentioned the department’s corruption. But that was not the whole of it. It was not simple desire for money, or blackmail held against him. There was something deeper inside of it all. A basic need for… survival.
The world had grown so tangled and complex. Motivations base and transcendent, they were all twisted. Humans were all bound by chains of guilt, shame, self-hatred. There were few exceptions. And those exceptions were not some glorious, noble sentiment. No, I had seen the humans who were without guilt, without sin, without shame. Guilt, sin, and shame were what separated men from the beasts. They were what kept the constable from brutalizing the helpless young woman like an enraged ape. What kept the detective from beating her until she broke. They trained and struggled to hold back their natural desire to be gentle, but they could not wholly succeed.
The young woman did not show a glimmer of guilt. Not a hint of sin. Not a speck of shame. No sign that she had ever believed she had done something wrong in her life.
I was not sure what stoked the silent, smoldering fury in my heart more. The idea that she was unaware of the harm that she did, that she did not care. Or that she truly believed she was righteous.
Certainty of purpose, righteousness, was a heady drug, and one that had snared more poor, foolish souls than any chemical or fleshy lust. The certainty that their purposes were greater than any number of lives. Greater than-
I slipped further into the shadows, staring. Watching as she threw out some ridiculous exaggeration. She was given to self-aggrandizement of the details, to exaggeration of her accomplishments. A frustrating habit of playing fast and loose with the truth. Made all the more frustrating by the reality: that the fabrications and the actual accomplishments were intermixed so thoroughly they could not be told apart. The dive between my wings, for example. That had been exactly as she’d described. A single instinctive feat that had taken my breath away.
Or would have, if I breathed.
I still remembered seeing her from that alleyway, as she turned towards me to sympathize. A pure and unvarnished moment, free of pretense, free of cruelty or mockery or any of the countless ways she could have rebuffed me. That single moment of utter honesty.
Damn her for that. Damn her as she damned me.
The mere thought of such blasphemy triggered a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I was collapsing. Pulling apart internally. God had deemed me unworthy. He had judged me. I did not know if the human was the cause of my fall, or the punishment, or both. All I know is that it had been love at first sight, when she had turned towards me and let the masks fall away to show me that raw compassion.
Love, for humans, is many things. It is a blessing. A means to an end. A carrot to encourage them to be fruitful and multiply. The basis for civilization, even. Humans were built incomplete, broken, and they could not survive without each other, could not continue without each other. There were built for love.
For an angel, it is nothing less than a fatal condemnation. A test which none pass. A curse. A sign that God has judged us… unworthy.
Love works for humans. Because humans have a lifespan that matches each other’s closely; At worst, perhaps a few decades of loneliness. Human love regenerates; the first cut is the deepest, but even the deepest cut can be healed, and they can find new love. It completes them.
Love carves a hole in an angel. For something that has existed for a purpose for so long to find its purpose suddenly meaningless is traumatic beyond words. And then… Bliss. The joy of love, the first breath after spending a lifetime drowning, the first bite after an eternity of hunger, the first cool drink of water after wandering a desert for forty years. The kind of joy that makes any purpose seem meaningless. The kind of joy that makes Angels neglect their duties, that makes them fall. And the entire time, knowing that God will take it away. That the mortal will die, and the one single brief moment of bliss dies with it. That all that is best, all that is joyous, is now behind you, and will never come again.
Among those who were loyal or passive, the response was dissolution. Destruction of memory, of anima, of self. Not to be reunited with the mortal- There was no afterlife for us- but to cease to feel pain. A quiet acceptance of one’s fate, one’s punishment. Accepting the death sentence. Sometimes they even described it as something more benign. A retirement. An easing of one’s tasks, a few decades of happiness, and then oblivion. I didn’t believe that for a second, but it was a nice thought.
And then there was the other path. The path of rebellion. The Left-Hand Path.
I had always believed that if I ever found myself punished, I would be different. I would not fall or dissolve, but accept it. I am an embodiment of justice. Surely if anyone should be able to understand the reason, the need for it, it would be me. I would accept any punishment. Make any sacrifice. Live an eternity alone, suffer if it meant that it would be just, if it was right.
But I didn’t know what crime I had committed.
“Of course,” said thief, flashing a mocking grin at the constable, “I had to fool a few pathetic cops, but that’s hardly worth mentioning?”
Why her? Why this madwoman- Perhaps sociopathic, perhaps completely unable to understand what she cost me. Arrogant to the point of hubris. Competent. Magnificent.
I loved her.
“You still haven’t told us your name, thief,” said the detective.
“Does it really matter?” the thief asked, rolling her eyes. “Can’t we just forget about that part?”
“I have her name. I’ll share it with you after the interrogation, detective. Please, focus.” I leaned back against the wall. The detective turned, an eyebrow raised.
“How did you manage that?”
“I read it in her heart,” I said.
I studied the building from half a dozen angles. Perhaps a trap- a futile effort, considering the power I commanded. I could walk unscathed through the fireball of a nuclear weapon. Probably. Maybe. I hadn’t tested it, but I was meant to be an inviolate creature, something beyond petty physical concerns.
Well, I was fairly certain the thief wasn’t the kind of woman who would nuke Valencia to try to kill me. I waited until the moon had risen high, and climbed with absolute silence up the side of the building, a gray shadow on gray walls, my own stony form nearly impossible to follow. I did not breathe, did not grow bored, did not need to ease aching muscles. I slid up the wall like a patch of dusk, and opened my eyes. They did not glow unless I chose. Unless I wanted to intimidate. Or… in certain other situations.
The small rooftop garden held a table. It was small, Japanese-style, wooden, with a pair of large cushions sitting across from one another. A small, thoughtful touch for someone waiting for a creature that could not, in any kind of reasonable circumstances, sit on a normal chair. The thief sat at one of them, lighting a candle over a small meal. My fist tightened, and the stone crunched softly between my talons. The thief looked up, and gave me her best grin. “I’m glad you came. How long do we have until the police arrive?”
“I did not alert them. I suspected this might be a trap, and did not want to put them in harm’s way.” An ache. Not a whole truth. It did not cut into me like a lie might, but it still hurt.
“Well, it doesn’t matter, I’ll talk to you for a few minutes. I’ll know if they’re coming.”
“Really,” I said, eyes narrowed. “Informants? Trip-wires?”
“Call it friends in low places,” she said, smiling warmly. “Please. I didn’t know what you like, but I put together a little bread and cheese. I even got a bottle of wine.” She held it out to me, the corkscrew wound into the cork. “I tried opening it, but…”
I gently took hold, and pulled, my attention focused on the bottle. Ready for a trap. Ready for anything. What I got was a rather harsh scent of vinegar and tannins. I winced, setting the bottle down. “This is swill.”
“Really? The fellow at the wine shop said it’d be perfect for a night with a gentleman caller.”
“I suspect he presumed you would be too busy with your gentleman caller to ever get around to drinking it. I do not drink anything, and even I can tell that this is wretched. Don’t you know anything about wine?”
Her cheeks flushed slightly at that, and she crossed her arms, looking to the side. My heart suddenly melted just a bit. “I can crack every lock ever invented, I’m capable of scaling a sheer wall barehanded, and I was able to outrun you while stone drunk. Besides, men are intimidated by a woman who knows more about that kind of thing than them.”
“I’m intimidated by this wine,” I said softly, placing it down, staring at her for a moment. “But it is more thought and concern than I have been shown in an almost unthinkably long time. This is not enough for a bribe- no amount ever could be.” I paused for a moment. “But it is enough for a few minutes of truce.”
“Oh, good. I’d have hated to have to trigger the plastic explosive.”
I stiffened. “You’ve wired this building to explode?” My head began racing. At any moment-
“No, I was just fucking with you.” She grinned at me. “You take yourself kind of seriously, don’t you?”
I settled slowly down on the couch, my legs crossed, my expression unmoving. Thanks more to the rigid nature of my body than any particular ability to stay calm. The woman was… vexing. Unpredictable. If one could take the fundamental, piercing nature of nails running down a chalkboard, that hair-raising screaming sensation, and transform it into an aria, that would go a long way to describing what she was like. That impossible combination of aggravation and allure. It scraped me raw.
“Your eyes are glowing. Is something wrong?”
I shook my head, the flames dousing. “No.”
“Do your eyes glow when you’re aroused?” she asked, quirking the corner of her smile, mocking me.
“I am an angel. We do not procreate. We do not mate.”
“Never?” she asked, with a touch of genuine disappointment in her voice. Then she held up a hand, shading her eyes from the sudden flare of yellow torchlight. “My, that’s very bright.”
“You said that you wanted to discuss your reasons,” I said, stiffening my back, fighting down the glare of embarrassment, the emotions flowing through me viciously for a moment. She was… dangerous. A tempter. A corruptor. She believed she was truly righteous, and such people were invariably dangerous. More so if they were right. “You said you had reasons. I wish to understand them.”
She stared at me for a few seconds, and sighed. “I was mocking you. I was- Well, angels probably don’t have ‘fun’,” she said, and paused a moment, giving me a look.
“Not as such,” I admitted.
“What does it matter what my reasons are? Really?” She smiled. “It is the delusion of men to want to save women, to want to own them by providing for them. You own what you can protect, that sort of thing. Maybe you’re hoping that I have some tragic backstory? A father in prison? A little sister who just needs so much medicine, and it keeps getting more expensive because of unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies? Maybe someone is blackmailing me, forcing me to do this? It would make things so much better if I was innocent, wouldn’t it? I’d be just a victim to be saved, rather than a sinner.”
“I can’t believe that,” I said, my balance regained, as I studied her. My eyes ran down her knuckles, her skin. Not scarred. “I think that if your father was in prison, you’d have him out already. If you had a little sister and she was sick, you’d have already gotten her the best treatment money could buy. And I don’t think anyone mortal could catch you, if you did not want to be caught.” I was quiet for a moment. “Those are motives of love. Trading your life for someone close to you. You don’t strike me as the kind who loves.”
“Is there a little bitterness in that?” she asked, a smirk quirking her lips again as she poured a glass of wine for herself, taking a piece of cheese.
“Just the impressions and the suspicions. And a bit of your profile that the taskforce has put together. Most of it terribly vague. They thought you were a man, among other things.”
“Really?” She smirked. “And they gave me the ‘Cat of Paris’ sobriquet anyway? Now that’s petty. Not love, then. How about hedonism? Perhaps I’m an adrenaline junkie? Maybe I like the finer things in life, and live far beyond my means? Perhaps I’m simply an arrogant piece of shit?” She smiled, and took a sip of the wine, and spat it out on the floor. “God almighty, you were right, that is swill.”
“Don’t take his name in vain,” I said, quite automatically. She stared at me for a second, and then laughed, an expression of genuine pleasure. “It is profane, and lessens the word, and yourself, to speak so carelessly. And mocking me for it does not help.”
She smiled, and pressed her palms together, bowing her head. “I’m sorry for laughing. That was just extremely sweet. You’re very earnest, aren’t you? It’s charming.”
I shook my head. “Hedonism. Greed. Self-aggrandizement. Possible, considering the excessiveness of your performances. That card you left on the painting, the extremes of your behavior… Certainly, you might be prone to such excesses. But you plan too much for it. Your repeated successes are beyond the level of any amount of luck. And I would know if you were aided by something less than human.”
“Really?” she asked, smirking. “People like me can be ‘aided’, hmmm? And you can see that?”
“Yes. Your soul would show the connection. I can see your soul.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I don’t believe in souls.”
“That is immaterial. You have one. Your beliefs do not factor in.”
“Really,” she said, her head tilted to the side. Then she smiled. “Then what am I thinking?”
“That is not a soul. That’s the mind. The moment. The mind is to the soul as a photograph of a river is the river itself. And I can see it in you.”
“What do you think of it?”
“It’s very… pure,” I said.
“Oh, well, thank you.”
“That’s not a good thing. It’s pure like the springs in Chernobyl are pure. It’s pure like Death Valley is pure. Pure like a killing frost. It’s the kind of purity you get when there’s just one thing, because nothing else can survive that purity.” I stared at her for a moment, and my eyes dropped to the ground. I did not tell her what that purity inspired in me. “You are right. I do want to save you. That is what I was made for. That is the purpose of me. To save people. I am Tzedekiel, the justice that is mercy, and forgiveness. I want to know why you do this, because at the heart of every crime is another crime. I want to save you because I am an angel. I could never own you. Not in any sense that matters.”
My eyes drifted across her soul again.
It was pure. And terrible. And beautiful. A thing of absolute will. She had the kind of soul you might find in either a genocidal dictator, or the very best class of saint. And that was the problem, wasn’t it? There were no hooks of love, no signs of places where her heart met others. She was free of attachments. Free of connections. She wore a mask, even around those who she treated as comrades.
A truly skilled liar could hide that emptiness. They could keep a true self on hand to show to any friend they care, pretending to be there for them to discover. They could string along a human. They could fool them. But she could not fool me as to what was truly inside of her. I did not know what she was. But I knew that she had exposed herself, showing me a brief flash of who she truly was.
“How intimate. And here you are, peeking at my animus, without showing me a thing. How impolite.” She winked cheerfully, leaning back in her chair, popping a piece of bread and cheese into her mouth. She chewed for a few moments, and then put a foot up on the table. Boot-clad. She did not dress like someone who wanted to impress anyone. “Now, are you going to have some bread and cheese or what?”
“Does it not bother you?” I asked, my eyes turned away. “Being… the way you are.”
“What, you’d feel more comfortable if I was more emotional? If I showed more vulnerability?” She smirked. “Come on. I wouldn’t be nearly as interesting then, would I.”
“You’re going to die,” I said, quite simply.
“We’re all going to die.”
“I mean soon.”
“So do I.” She smiled again.
“You’re an idealogue,” I said softly. “You’re doing this for a cause. Some grand point. That’s my guess. Why? What are you trying to prove?”
“Does it really matter? It doesn’t change what I’m doing. Would it change what you have to do? Would it change the nature of your justice? Because that’s the thing about constables, about cops, about all those law-abiding people. It doesn’t matter whether the law is just, or fair. It just matters that they’re the rules. That they’re predictable. That they’re what someone said was right. They color inside the lines. And they don’t want things to change, even if that means everything decays.” She stood up. “Anyway. I have another heist to plan.”
“Wait,” I said, standing up. I paused for a moment, and looked away. “Run away with me.”
“What?” she asked, an eyebrow raised, smirking at me. “Seriously?”
“Yes. Just… leave. Disappear from this life. End it here. There are people after you, but you can outrun them. Disappear. Live a happy life.”
“We all die, Tzedekiel. Now or in a few decades. Life is like money: It’s no damn use unless you spend it.” She turned towards me, then, a curious expression on her face. “You said you’re an angel. You look like a gargoyle.”
“It is my form in this world. Part of my purpose. I bear this crude form as penance for my choices.”
“So… there really are angels?”
“I am not sure about that,” I confessed. “It is often hard to tell. But I act as though there is.”
“What about the rest? Vampires, werewolves, fairies, pixies. Do they all exist?”
“And are they the reason that the world is the way it is?”
I considered the question for a moment, and then shook my head. “No. The world is the way it is because of humans. The good, the bad. It is humanity who has a choice. This is the world you make for yourselves.”
She nodded silently. Then she grinned. “I fucking knew it. That’s the best thing I could have heard.”
“You’re happy to hear that this… suffering, this sin, this guilt, it’s human in origin? That there’s nothing you can fight to make things right? That this is how humans are?”
“Yeah. Because that means that we’re responsible for it. And that means we can change it.” She paused a moment, and stared at me. “Now I’ve got a question about you. About your reasons. Why are you pursuing me? Who, exactly, am I hurting?”
“The theft of art… The theft of anything hurts people. The common people, whose world is made smaller when those pieces of art are taken away from them. The people who devote their lives to sharing that work with others. The people who made that art in the first place.”
“The only people who know the difference between the fakes and the real thing are those with enough money to purchase them. The painting has the same power, regardless of whether it’s the genuine thing or a copy. The beauty, the truth, all of that- it’s a placebo effect. The painting doesn’t matter to them, not really.”
“You don’t think much of people, do you?” I asked.
She turned away from me, and walked towards the stairs. “I’ll see you in Paris.”
I watched her go, standing on the rooftop. Then I bent forward, and plucked up a piece of cheese. I ate it slowly, thoughtfully, and noted it was quite tasty. I let an hour pass. And then two. Then I bent forward, and with one finger, I began to carve in the roof. An elaborate, complex pattern. It would have to be perfect, or it would not work. Thankfully, my memory was unfailing. I put the finishing touches on the ancient Roman sigil.
She appeared without preamble or effect. Between one second and the next, empty space became a woman, wisps of shadow curling off of her clothes and her hair. Black-haired, slender, reminiscent of a bird of prey or some gothic heroine, eyes yellow, skin pale as bone. She frowned. “You found her?”
“I am afraid I was late, Sofia,” I said, deliberately not bowing my head. “She was here. She is no longer.”
“Hmmm. Inefficient, Tzedekiel. Sloppy. You are not as legend would have you.” She sighed, and shot me a look. “I find myself mourning that angels can fall so far.”
“I do not care.”
She made a sound of moderate displeasure, and turned towards the bread and cheese. She studied the candles for a moment, and the wine. She frowned at the bottle, and shook her head, tsking. Then she started down the stairs. I did not know exactly what she was following, but she stopped at a door, studying it silently. She sniffed the air, and pressed the door open with her fingers, the lock grinding through the wall as it was forced open without apparent damage. She entered the small studio apartment, and I followed.
It was cheap. Unadorned. A single mattress with no sheets and a single pillow. Many documents- pictures of the museum, disguises. Just large bags of brown rice and lentils in the cupboards, a single iron pot on a small hotplate. There was no hint of personal touch. No television, no books. Not even a single piece of art on the walls. It was empty.
“The law is absolute,” said Sofia, her hands on her hips as she stared around the room. “You know why she is dangerous, don’t you?”
“She is disruptive,” I said, my head bowed. “She brings chaos. Tears down the established order. Makes people question the things they hold dear. She is pure, and that which is pure is always seductive, because it is simple.”
“Yes.” Sofia smiled. “You understand why she must be caught, don’t you?”
“I do,” I said softly. “She disrupts the world.”
“Humans are so simple,” said Sofia, and sighed. “They want simple lives. Easy lives. They are sinners, one and all. They want to be given things, rather than to strive nobly for them. They wish the gods to solve all of their problems, and they will accept any god who offers that to them. They are greedy, and careless, and gluttonous.” She shook her head slowly. “They do not understand the gifts they are offered. They squander them. You can feel it in them, can’t you? The sin.”
“Yes,” I said, quite simply, still staring at Sofia’s back.
“We need to find her, Tzedekiel. We need to find her, and bring her to heel. A human like this could disrupt everything. We need to be prepared. For… everything.” She sighed. “There are more and more humans like this. Freaks. Firebrands. They could set fire to it all. Destroy the plan. They don’t understand how much good the world does them, they don’t understand how fragile it all is. All they can focus on is how much more they want. Greedy. Always consuming more. They cannot sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Too busy clinging to their small pleasures.” She shook her head. “How can you stand them?”
I didn’t answer. Sofia turned towards me, her eyes flashing.
“Tzedekiel. She wasn’t here when you arrived, was she? She got away from you.” Her eyes narrowed. “You didn’t let her go, did you?”
“Of course not, Sofia,” I said, and my essence writhed in agony at the lie, the falsehood, that I had just spoken. Not even an evasion, a full untruth. Nails of white fire dragged through my soul. They did not hurt nearly so much as betraying the thief would have.
“Very well. We shall need to be prepared for her next target. To capture her there. To learn all that she knows. We must keep her from doing any more harm.”
“To the law,” I said.
“Yes, of course. To the law,” said Sofia.
I wondered if it hurt her to lie, like it hurt me. But it probably did not. For all I knew, she wasn’t lying. For all I knew, she was doing this for the right reasons.
For all I knew, she didn’t even understand the difference between the law and her owner’s will. That owner whose soul was just as pure, in its own way, as the thief’s. Just as dangerous. She held the dark-haired woman before me in thrall. The owls, after all, were not what they seemed.
I had to find her in Paris.
“Enough!” said the detective, glaring. “Your story goes in circles. The night in question. How did you subvert the Louvre’s security? How did you break into that room? How did you manage to evade our patrols, and how the hell did the…” His eyes flickered up to me. “How were you apprehended? And where is the money?”
“Money, money, money,” said the thief, a smile spreading across her lips. “That’s all you can think about, isn’t it? It’s all that matters to you. That’s such a common ailment, isn’- hoogh!”
She was bent forward around the blow, the heavy thud of the oranges filling the air as they struck her in the stomach. The constable raised the sack again, and the detective held up a hand. “I don’t enjoy having him hurt you, mademoiselle. But you give us little choice. We need that information.”
She lifted her head, and met my eyes, grinning. “Is this enough, yet? Have you heard everything you need to do something? Is this the justice you said was waiting for me?”
I looked away, unable to meet her eyes.