The thief watched as Tzedekiel’s arms lowered, talons flashing in the reflected light from the interrogation lamp. The detective flashed another nervous look at the massive gargoyle. The angel had been on the verge of gutting the constable after the thug had struck her. Tzedekiel didn’t even seem to realize it, his eyes flashing as they moved from the detective, to her, to the constable, and back again.
There was something deeply inherently romantic about a man willing to murder for her. He was sweet, and innocent, like a puppy. Well, possibly a dire wolf puppy. She gave him a quick look, and he crossed his arms. Chastened, or possibly just embarrassed.
“Before I continue,” she said, “Do you mind if I take a drink?”
The detective nodded. “I’ll call for some water.”
“No need,” she said, and produced a small flask. The detective and the constable both stiffened, and she saw the detective’s hand edge towards his gun. “It’s just water,” she said, smiling innocently, and took a quick sip from the flask, letting out a sigh.
“You were searched. Thoroughly.”
“A woman’s always got a couple of extra pockets on hand,” she said. Then, noting the way that the angel’s eyes had gone bright yellow, she rolled her eyes. “Hidden in my clothes. Goodness, what dirty minds.”
The thief was not a cruel woman. Not to people who hadn’t thoroughly and richly earned cruelty, at any rate. But the angel did something to provoke her. The way he judged her, the way he so obviously desired her. There was a great deal to unpack there, and she had not become a master thief by getting in touch with her feelings and engaging in an honest and open relationship with people. She straightened up, and rubbed her stomach, the bruises aching.
“Now. The night in question. Allow me to explain.” She smiled. “First, I masturbated- Oh come on, don’t get all squeamish-!”
The thief stared out at Paris. The familiar skyline. It was an unusual city, not least because of the nostalgia of the French. They only began to ease restrictions on the height of buildings in 2010, and the city viewed advancing technology as some kind of sieging enemy; one they fought with the zeal of the true fanatic. This lead to a superb view across the city, and a skyline that was all the more spectacular for its sparsity. There were perhaps ten buildings that rose above a hundred meters, and the only one that was much more than 200 meters was the Eiffel Tower. The great iron tyrant rose above its surroundings like an erect-
“Hey, I need to provide a reason WHY I was in such a mood.”
The phone rang, precisely three times, then went silent. No voicemail was left. That was her signal. She sighed, and stepped into the shower. The cold water ran down the back of her neck, and it was surprising how cold that water could be in the face of the Paris summer, making shivers run all up and down her spine. She stood under the flow for perhaps ten minutes, and briefly considered how nice a water heater would be, before stepping out into the heat of the apartment. She selected her clothing- a nonchalant pair of jeans, a light summer dress, some horribly boring underwear, and a red-haired wig. Then she set out into the night.
Each city had its own distinct spirit, and could be read best from the street level. Some cities were full of energy, fury, stress. The people walked fast and hard, with barely contained body language showing their internal rage at being so pressed from all sides. Some cities were full of decay and death. The people did not hurry because they had nowhere to be. They sometimes sat and stared, a reflection of the collapse of their homes and their lives and their futures.
The thief had other things on her mind, and so she did not pay attention at all to the way the people in Paris walked the streets. It wasn’t as though she had much interest in the people she was passing. They all lived their dull, ordinary lives, and she was content to leave them to it. She had bigger fish to fry.
The Orcus Pit Club was one of those extremely snooty clubs which made its reputation by having a gigantic line of people outside, none of whom were allowed in. The line stretched around the edge of the block, and she noted that several people had sleeping bags, meals, and a rather enterprising fellow had set up a portable toilet. The bouncer was seven feet tall, could have been Tzedekiel’s brother, and did not look anywhere near as favorably disposed to the thief. She walked past him, and into the alleyway.
A brief study. The building was apparently up to fire code. She ran up the opposite wall, and made one great leap, catching the ladder to the fire escape with both hands. She hauled herself up, arms burning until she got her toes in contact with the bottom rung. Then she began to climb it, hand over hand, until she reached the grating of the fire escape itself. A few moments later, she was on the roof. She studied the skylight for a moment, noting where the alarm was. For such a high-class club, the security there was abysmal. They hadn’t been robbed yet. She was half-tempted to give them an expensive lesson, but there would be time for that later.
She peered down into the crowded room. Thirty feet to the floor. She checked to either side, and found a balcony nearby. She dropped down through the window, catching the frame, and redirecting herself sideways, landing on the empty balcony, a smile on her face as she scanned the floor below. Nobody had looked up. People never looked up. Humans were plains-apes, after all. The instinct to scan the forest canopy above had been lost with gripping feet.
She leaned forward for a moment, and stared. Part of her- a very, very small part- was jealous of all of those people there, living simple lives. They were not like her. They did not have to do what she did. They did not have a purpose that burned them. She was sorry for them, and envied them, both at the same time. But not for very long. She had more important things to do.
“You have been quiet for some time. You dropped onto the balcony. Then what?”
The thief shook her head softly. “Sorry. Lost in my own thoughts. My contact was a Mister Victor Lustig- and if you believe that was his real name, then you are even less intelligent than I expected.”
She slipped down silently to the ground floor, approaching the table from behind. The old man seated at the table was watching the door intently. She rested a hand on his shoulder. “Hello, Victor.”
The man, once he had regained control of his breathing, glared up at her. “Heiress. Was that entirely necessary, sneaking up on me?”
“I like to remind you what your boss pays me for.” She smiled, and slid into the seat across from the man, accepting a small glass of red wine. “So. Pluto has come through with the payment for the last job?” Victor nodded. “Then see to it that the appropriate payments are made, and the money distributed in the usual manner.”
“Again?” The man asked, an eyebrow raised. “None to-”
“None,” she said, firmly. “The Raft of the Medusa.”
“I fear that my employer has… reconsidered, somewhat. He will pay you, but for another piece. Lisbon, a piece-”
“He’s changed his mind? What on earth for?”
“The police have advance warning of your attack. Security has been increased heavily. It would be a waste of a valuable asset-”
“I am not an asset,” said the thief, her tone suddenly silken and deadly. “I am not a tool, no matter how much your employer may pay for that delusion of control. You know I do not need the money. I am going to retrieve the Raft of the Medusa. I expect to be paid well for it.”
“It’s…” The man groaned. “Please, Heiress, be sensible. It does not make any difference-”
“It makes all the difference in the world. Do you think I do this for the money, or for your employer?” She looked aside, and grinned. “I do it to thumb my nose at those in power, and to reveal what an illusion their control is. I’ve been prepared for things to go south on this job since I first came up with it. I will be hitting it tonight. You will be ensure that it is picked up from where I leave it.”
The low throb of the techno music reverberated through the dance hall, reflected away from the booths by some clever engineer’s proprietary designs, and Victor sweated. “If you are caught…”
“You will not support me. Dear Victor, do you think I ever expected anything else?”
“If you are caught, my employer will likely try to have you killed. So that you cannot be used against him. There are people pursuing you. People against whom loyalty, a code, is no protection. You have attracted the attention of Gods, Heiress.”
“Gods, the rich,” she said, a hand waved airily, a look of absolute boredom on her face. “They’re all just the same, Victor. Money is not power. Divinity is not power. They are just illusions.”
“Hm. Good luck, Heiress.” The man stood up, and scanned the room. “I will escort you-”
She disappeared while he was distracted.
She stood on the rooftops a short time later, scanning the skyline of Paris once again. The sun was setting, and it outlined Notre Dame nicely from where she stood. Her toes projected over the edge of the rooftop, dangling above the street far below. She set a hand on her hip, staring at the people down below.
“Doesn’t do to look down on people so much,” said Van Gogh, eying the massive canvas. “You just had to go for one of the largest paintings in the damn place, didn’t you? You’re never going to sneak this thing out. It’ll be a miracle if you can get it out without turning it into an extremely expensive pile of paint and shredded canvas.”
“This isn’t going to be one of my subtle performances. I’m going big.”
“You know…” Van Gogh went quiet for a second. “I was surprised when you didn’t disappear in Madrid. Surprised you got out alive. After facing up against a devil.”
“He wasn’t a devil,” said the thief, and smiled. “He was rather charming, really. Sweet. Idealistic. A bit of a naïve type. He really thought he was doing good.” She sighed. “But the bad girl always likes the good boy, doesn’t she? Convinced she can change him… What a stereotype.”
“There are forces in this world which cannot be changed. Devils pursue sinners. The rich brutalize the poor. You cannot fight the nature of the world.”
“You can’t beat the nature of the world,” said the thief. “You can’t ‘win’. But you can put off losing another day. I can absolutely fight the nature of the world.” She smiled. “Now what the hell are you up to, Van Gogh? You’re just the forger. You don’t have to worry about this stuff.”
“I’d feel fucking awful if you went off and got yourself killed! You’re a damned girl! You’ve got a long, long life ahead of you, if you don’t blow it all out of some kind of psychotic pride!” The woman glared at her, putting a last few touches on the canvas, carefully placing a maker’s mark on the back. “It’s just a damned shame, seeing someone with so much potential, just… so eager to die.”
“Yeah, well, don’t worry about it. I’m not going to die here.” The thief grinned, as she rolled up the canvas. “Time to deliver this to a worthwhile patsy.”
“Never feel guilty about that, either?” asked Van Gogh. “What am I saying. You, feel guilty?”
“Guilt’s a way for people to make you control yourself without them having to do any work. I don’t feel guilty about a thing,” said the thief.
“You have access to unusual equipment. Devices you could not possibly have the equipment and technology to make, devices that did not possess any obvious tells as to the true creator. The virus you used to take down the computer system at the Museo del Prada, the device you used to incapacitate the patrols in the Louvre… Who did you get these from?”
Tesla sat in the chair across from her, fingers intertwined, a frown on his face. “You must realize, of course- this is not going to affect all of them. It’s going to be unpredictable who it does and doesn’t affect. Some people take it like a champion, others get put into a nightmarish other world, and absolutely no one enjoys it. This is going to make them see monsters.”
“It’ll nice not to be the only one,” she murmured, as she studied the canisters. A variant on a smoke grenade, but with an additional touch. The goggles and face mask would protect her from the effects, largely. “These won’t damage the paintings?”
“Not directly. Though I have no idea why it matters. I thought your whole gig was this anarchist ‘smash the capitalist image of wealth through possession’ thing. Seems like collateral damage is your bag.”
“You can shave a sheep many times, but you can only skin it once.” She grinned. “I always feel it’s wise to leave myself work in the future. And the other thing?”
He handed her the printout and the small flask of water. “Our Lady of Perpetual Secular Humanism was the easiest to get you ordained in. What the hell do you need holy water with, anyway?”
She read out the small prayer, which was so blandly inoffensive it almost offended her, and breathed over the flask. “Call it backup.”
The detective frowned at the flask, and shot an alarmed look at Tzedekiel.
“I already tried it,” said the thief, and she sighed. “So either I’m not a person of true faith in the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Secular Humanism, or Tzedekiel there is not a demon.” She paused for a moment, and shook her head. “Oh, don’t give me that hangdog look, it was a reasonable question.”
“I am not giving any look,” said Tzedekiel, turning his head away quickly.
The thief smiled. It was more fun than she’d thought, getting a reaction out of a man of stone. The detective was growing visibly restless, though, which was making the constable agitated. In the name of preserving vital organs for what was to come, she cleared her throat and continued. “The night. Access was fairly easy- the nightclub was a warm-up for that. Of course, stealing a painting approximately the size of a tarp from under the nose of a bunch of guards without them noticing is a bit impossible, even for me. So, I decided to skip the ‘without them noticing’ part.”
Datura is evil.
This is an unusual claim to make about a plant, and even more unusual when it’s made by drug enthusiasts, who would sooner call their own mothers evil than accuse a plant of malfeasance.
In the grand school of hallucinogens, there are psychedelics, dissociatives, and deliriants. Deliriants tend to be the nastiest variety of high, with effects like memory loss and severe self-harm. In the concentrations that would spread through the ventilation systems, the tender whiffs of smoke, this would have a less severe effect. Of course, that was part of the point. Just enough to make it hard for them to tell apart fantasy and reality. They were waiting for some terrifying, possibly supernatural creature. This would help the thief meet their expectations.
It was hard to justify hurting cops, for her. Granted, these men were being paid to prop up the rule of harsh men, and were being employed to save a handful of very rich people from taking a loss that would barely hurt them, but she didn’t consider them real people. You didn’t beat a dog for barking or shitting on the floor- hrngh!
“My buddy was raving because of that damned stuff,” growled the constable, his eyes narrowed, as the thief straightened up again, glaring at him.
“Yeah, but that’s not why you’re beating me. Not really. And we both know it.”
Tzedekiel stepped forward, a clawed hand wrapping around the man’s wrist as he raised it again. “I am going to kill you if you beat an unarmed prisoner one more time,” he hissed, softly, his eyes glowing like beacons. “Your friend is stable, and will be fine, if plagued by unpleasant nightmares. She could have done much worse, and did not, because she had control. Learn from her example. Allow your punishments to fit the crime.”
The detective opened his mouth, and closed it as the foglight eyes turned towards him. The thief smiled. “Where was I- ah, yes. The police.”
“I swear to god,” said one of the guards, peeking over his shoulder every few seconds at the window, “I saw something out there.”
“The Cat’s not going to hit this place. It was an anonymous tip. The only reason we’re here is because those Parthenocorp insurance goons chipped in for the overtime. Just relax, and enjoy your easy money.” Their French was immaculate, and so was the thief’s. She watched as the small traces of smoke slowly descended through the air. It had been flowing for close to an hour now. The twitchiness was no doubt part of it, and the nervous guard once again stepped in front of the window.
“Could swear,” he muttered, even as the other guard moved to join him. The thief dropped into the room, landing and rolling soundlessly in her dark clothing, coming back onto her feet, already moving.
The glass shattered behind her, and the two men began howling in abject terror. Bright yellow light flashed over her back, as the terrible eyes swept the room.
She didn’t look back. She didn’t hesitate. She simply rose, and sprinted.
The mask wasn’t keeping the datura out entirely. She could feel the lingering tinge of its effects with each ragged breath she took. The evil growing around her. But it was beneath her. She had run through this museum a hundred times in her mind, and the twisting darkness lurking in the corners were not enough to disrupt her memory. She had practiced. She was the greatest thief in the world, and she would outrun the Devil.
Most people, they went through this period, growing up, where they realized they would die. To say they ‘came to terms with it’ was a bit unrealistic, considering that most people just ignored it. They deluded themselves, they told themselves it would be a long time away, or that it wouldn’t happen to them. They put it off. The thief, she’d never even considered that she might someday die. She was too damn good at what she did.
The demon chasing behind her was a refutation of everything she’d believed. It could have taken her at any time if it wanted to. It was holding itself back, for reasons she didn’t quite understand. Reasons she had no interest in understanding. If the Devil didn’t chase her with everything he had, then he could never hope to catch her.
She burst into the room. Half a dozen guards were standing before the Raft of the Medusa. They took one look at her, and the thing behind her, and fled screaming their heads off. She smiled. Nothing like an accomplice.
“Oh, don’t blame him,” said the thief, smiling at the detective. “It was for the best. I might have had to hurt someone if he wasn’t so terrifying. Besides, he actually caught me, didn’t he?”
The knife flicked out. She wasn’t even quite sure how she managed to make the four slashes at the edges of the painting- the thing was colossal. All she knew is that one moment, she had the knife out, and the next, she had the painting rolled up in her arms. She turned, and saw the Devil. She blew him a kiss, and turned to study the room. The route down to the catacombs would be too long, and too full of straightaways. The police were panicking outside, and were liable to take a shot at anything that came through a window.
It would have to be the roof.
She made for the stairs, juking and weaving around displays, between knots of terrified guards, as the cracking of stone filled the air behind her. She leapt up the stairs three at a time, the painting clutched under one arm, the great roll bouncing with each move. The stone walls of the Louvre flashed beside her as she hit the fire exit. She didn’t bother disabling it. The bells rang in the distance as she burst out onto the roof. And then, she was surrounded by Paris.
The city of lights. Her stomach twisted. Was it beautiful, or terrible? All those lights, all those lives, living them in such small ways. Unaware of the great dramas that played out around them all the time. Nothing more than a bedrock for those stories to stand on, the small people who made all the great things possible. Never aware that they were being trod on. She would never want to be one of them.
She was standing on the edge of the roof, staring down at the glass pyramid. Lit from within. It glittered beautifully, and she breathed in.
“Please step away from the ledge.”
The voice was very soft, very gentle. Those yellow eyes glowed softly as he stood, perhaps twenty feet away from her. She turned towards him, and smiled, resting her hand on the fabric-covered structure just to her left, the painting folded under her other arm. “Well, well. Tzedekiel. We really must stop meeting like this.”
“I don’t want you to die,” Tzedekiel said. “Please. If you die-”
“What? You have some prohibition against the death of innocents? Because if so-”
“You’re not an innocent. I don’t know if you’re evil or just self-righteous, but you’re too capable, too aware, to ever get away with calling yourself an innocent.”
“So why not?” She stood, perched on the edge, just her toes remaining on the building. Her balance was exquisite, even with the lingering Datura in her. The creature’s stony frame took a step forward, and she didn’t do anything. Another step. “Why do you fear for my life?”
The creature was silent for a moment. “I love you.”
“Really? Then why not let me go.”
“Because I have my duty.”
“Ah. Then you do not truly love me. Love is a priority above anything else. The willingness to break any duty, any word- that’s true love. And it’s a rare, fleeting, and destructive thing indeed.”
She regretted it, the moment she said it, when she saw how he reacted. Clawed fingers went to his chest, a look of utter pain on his face. “If I let you go, simply because of my feelings for you… If I ignored your crimes, if I allowed a simple desire to override the need for wrongs to be righted… What would love be worth, if that was what it wrought?”
“So that’s why you want to know my reasons,” she said, very softly. “The most basic desire of all. Nobody wants to believe that the one they love is evil, wrong, sinful. They will seek any reason, any excuse, to justify their lover’s behavior. I could tell you anything, any lie, and you would believe it. I could give you the flimsiest of Freudian tragedies, and you would seize on it.” She smiled. “You want so badly to believe that I am worth loving, in order to justify your love. You’ll take anything I give you. But I don’t give. I take.”
“Don’t step back. Humans can’t fly. They just fall.” Tzedekiel took a step towards her. She smiled.
“We can’t fly. That’s true. But we can fall well.”
She stepped backwards. And as Tzedekiel let out a scream of horrified anguish, she pulled the hang glider that she had stashed atop the building with her, out into the currents of air, and began to glide.
A really good hang-glider could carry someone hundreds of kilometers, riding thermals and soaring across the countryside. The hang-glider she had stashed there- the work of Tesla, Victor Lustig’s contacts putting it in place- was not that good. It would carry her perhaps a kilometer or two. That was more than enough. She soared across the river Seine, out onto the streets of Paris, towards a rooftop. She grinned to herself, the roll of the painting still tucked under her arm, and dropped it at the prearranged location, letting it land in a dumpster, before angling towards her landing point, the night a complete success. She never heard Tzedekiel coming.
He struck her like a falcon attacking a pigeon. Those massive stone wings swept back, he fell from the air claws first, hitting her when she was about five feet above the ground. The hang glider tore, crumbled, and she fell, hit the ground, rolled, tried to bounce to her feet, and found herself pinned. One of those massive stone talons around her waist, encircling it, pinning her down. The other one around her throat. Almost tender, not quite placing enough pressure to actually cut off her ability to speak or breathe, but more than enough to pin her like a butterfly.
His terrible yellow eyes glowed down at her, full of fury.
“Well, shit,” she said.
“And, well, that more or less covers it, doesn’t it?” she said, smiling cheerfully.
The detective slowly rubbed his brow. “You seem to have rather missed most of the most salient question. Is the painting where you left it?”
“Oh, I doubt it. Pluto’s men work very quickly. Sorry I didn’t leave a fake in the gallery for you to find and make you feel clever; you rather forced my hand. And as for the money…” She smiled mysteriously. “A girl has to have some secrets, doesn’t she?”
The constable’s fists tightened, and the detective looked aside sharply, eyebrows raising. Then, he smiled. “Well, we have both been stalling. You, buying time for your associates to get away. And we have been waiting for… a specialist. Who has just arrived. Thank goodness.” He looked over at Tzedekiel, his eyes narrowed. “She will, I imagine, be quite interested to hear the revelations of tonight. Love? Really?”
“If it were really love,” said the angel, his yellow eyes flashing, “would I have brought her here?”
The detective’s response was cut off, as the door opened.
“You’re a fucking vampire, aren’t you?” asked the thief.
The woman rolled her bright, piercing eyes. “How on earth did you guess?” she asked, sauntering into the room. She wore a black dress that flattered an already to-die-for figure, and her fingernails were about an inch long each. The thief did not normally believe in stereotypes, but this woman could be wearing a cape, cackling with a Romanian accent, and obsessively counting grains of rice, and it would be no more obvious. “Detective.” The vampire smiled as she looked over at Tzedekiel. “It’s really disappointing when someone can’t do their job because of… personal distractions.”
“Sofia,” said the angel, his own slitted eyes narrowed.
“And the Cat herself!” The vampire took a seat at the interrogation desk, across from the thief. “You’ve led us on a merry little chase! Do you know how much you’ve cost my… employer?” She smiled. “Between the loss of the paintings, the searches for them, the insurance payouts, the drop in art market values, all of the rest, we’re talking billions. I mean, I’m a little bit impressed! All that money.” She slowly studied the thief. “You could have at least sprung for a little plastic surgery. Maybe even just some better clothes.”
“Wow, so your interrogation method is to come in and be catty at me until I beg for mercy?” asked the thief, and was pleased to hear the detective and the constable hastily suppressing a snicker. Sofia simply smiled.
“No. I’ve got a much better way. See… Okay, I’ve been bad in the past, too. Now, I’m making up for what I’ve done. I’m on the straight and narrow. Working for the good guys. Not doing any harm. Lucky for you, too.” She gave the constable a fierce grin. “That’s the thing, Cat. You don’t mind if I call you Cat, do you?”
“I mean, it’s not like I could stop you. Better than my real name, anyway.”
“Ahhh, I know that feeling. Alright. So, in the old days, I would have driven you insane with fear. Torn your mind apart, left you a gibbering wreck. I could do that kind of thing. Still can, in fact! But the thing is, here- I got caught. And I was forced to swear an oath. By this smart-ass fat-ass cunt. Her and her…” She shivered momentarily, her eyes becoming haunted, and the thief, had she been a moron, might almost have felt sympathy for the vampire. “Anyway. She gave me this fucking contract. If I didn’t sign it- poof. I was dead. So I had to do good. Be good. Not hurt anyone. And that would include driving you absolutely bugfuck. So I had to change.” She chuckled. “It’s amazing what you can accomplish without hurting people. Not directly, anyway. The consequences of you spilling your guts, well, that’s another matter.”
“I’m good at resisting interrogations,” said the thief, sweetly.
“Oh, I bet. That’s the thing, though, about magic. About the kinds of things I can do. You can’t get good at dealing with them, because you never expected them in the first place. I bet you’re full of inhibitions. All these nasty little impulses that you keep so tightly wired down that you come across as scarier, less human, than me and Tzedekiel here. So, I wonder. What would happen if all of those inhibitions, all of those walls you put up, all of your resistance, just… disappeared?” She eyed the thief. “I bet you’re the kind of person who never drinks, right? Well, this’ll work a bit like that. Removing every last one of your inhibitions. All the little things that keep you from exposing yourself. It’s embarrassing, humiliating, degrading- but it won’t hurt you. It’s the secrets you’ve kept that will hurt you.” She smiled.
“That sounds like a bit of a cheat,” said the thief, still blithe, though her nails were tensed against the chair’s arms.
“That’s life. Now…”
Sofia breathed out, slowly. Black mist curled out, and wrapped around the thief. She tried to hold her breath, but sooner or later, she had to open her mouth, and then-
“Nothing was happening. The thief smirked, and said ‘Well, that’s not quite as effective as you said, is it?’ She paused a moment, her eyes turning to Tzedekiel, noting the growing look of horror on his face, and the grin spreading across the detective’s face, and then she realized, oh shit, oh FUCK, she couldn’t stop, she was saying everything out loud-!”