Friday, February 28, 2020

Fiction Friday: A Thief's story

A Thief’s Story

Sit down, buy me a drink. And listen.

***Don't miss out! Click read more to read the whole story***

And I start with a lie; I have many stories, this is just one of them. Maybe not the most interesting, but a good introduction. 

You want to know my most exciting story? There's a pint glass of pilsner in front of me; that's not near enough to get me to share that story. It always leaves my throat so dry.
Pint of pilsner? That will get you the introduction I just mentioned, the cursed diamond.
No, not that one. No stealing from public museums or collections. Those are off-limits; everyone has a line, and I draw mine at stealing from the public. And if you can afford my rates, you could just buy it yourself. I'm in this line of work for my entertainment, not yours.
In that sense, I've been finding more joy in recovery work than simple reassignment of ownership.
And, yes, the cursed diamond was one of those jobs. And yes, the diamond has a name. A Long, complicated one. The client took a minute to stumble through the name. I let it slip away. If you need to call it something, call it the bleeding diamond. You'll understand.
A regular client had reached out to me, had a rumor they wanted me to investigate. Huge diamond lost in some sacked castle in Eastern Europe and never heard from again. I see that smirk. Yes, it was in fucking Romania. The frontline of the war between Europe and the Turks; a lot of places got burned to the ground.
The client had found the location of the castle in an old Turkish campaign journal, which gave me enough to know where to look. Had to go off the beaten path from the usual tourist destinations. There aren't any roads leading to that part of the mountains, so I couldn't just take a car.
Thankfully, there were enough motorcycles around to get me there and out.
Out is important. Always have an exit strategy.
Long, half-overgrown paths switchbacking up into the hills. To find a castle that had been burned and abandoned for six hundred years. Do you have any idea what that does to a place? It doesn't matter what you started with, after six centuries, you're going to end up with a pile of rubble. In this case, a small hill of stone in the center of an overgrown marsh.
The baron, duke- whoever- had built the place, he'd gone in for the best defenses he could plan for. Redirected a river to surround himself with a moat. Neglect had turned it to a swamp.
Not ideal. But it pays to be prepared, I had packed an inflatable raft. Why? Always have an exit strategy, two if you can. And I've dealt with these kinds of recoveries enough to be prepared. So I inflated the raft and paddled my way across the swamp.
Now, if I were inclined to exaggerate my stories- which I never do. If I were, I would describe the swamp as silent, a deathly chill, and fog hanging over despite the August day.
It was loud, hot, and muggy. If it had been half as spooky as that, I might have made it across the swamp without the damn mosquitoes eating me alive before I dragged the boat onto the far shore.
I was finally at the castle. And not impressed. It was barely a hill, and the stone the only thing that kept it from being swallowed by the swamp surrounding it. I climbed the stone that used to be the wall, reminding myself that this place had meant something to someone once. 
Have to keep that frame of mind, keep the brain on edge. Otherwise, you start to miss things. Let details slip. Picking your way through the rubble of a building that old, easy to ignore things that matter. I walked on top of ancient walls, picturing what the place had looked like in its prime.
By the third time around, I was pretty sure I'd pinpointed where the gate had been, and the rough layout of the buildings inside the walls. I climbed down from the wall to the courtyard. The drier soil inside the walls resisted the swamp that surrounded the castles, but enough trees had taken root to turn it into a forest, displacing old paving stones as they grew.
Stories and rumors the client provided said the gem was in the church, set in the baptismal font. I could identify most of the buildings, but couldn't find the pile of rubble that would have been the chapel. On a guess, I headed to where I thought it would be, next to the central keep.
No ruins. A ramp running down to an old stone arch set in the ground. Rest of the place, not a single stone that remained on top of another, but the stone arch was intact? It was strange, but decay can work like that sometimes. Archway led to a tunnel that went below the main keep, and I followed it to find the doors to the church still hanging in their frame.
Age had darkened the doors to a corroded matte black. I scratched at the patina with a rock, revealing a line of gleaming metal to my torch. Took a step back, re-evaluating the door. Solid silver doors. If there had been patterns to them once, they were lost to corrosion. Heavy chains hung across the door, the red of rusted and brittle iron.
I was getting tetanus looking at the chain, and doubted I'd need to pull out by bolt cutters to handle it. Instead, I took a step back and kicked. The chain shattered into a cloud of rust and bouncing fragments. The door shook, screaming on ancient hinges. I kicked again, trying to force the door open the easy way. If I had to, I could blow the door. Every boom from the shaped charges came out of my budget.
No, I don't get to charge expenses.
Three hard kicks opened the complaining door enough for me to slip through. I checked the charge on my torch and stepped into the darkness.
The first thing that hit me was the smell. It was the smell of a place left alone for so long that everything has given way to dry and dust. The kind of smell that tickles your nose and throat until you cough and sip some water.
I did both, sweeping the light over the floor. White marble with faint black veins. Italian import. It matched the luxury feel for hosting a diamond the size the client described. Not a good match for the polished ivory of the bones they used to line the walls, but Carrara black vein is understated, not drawing attention from the whole mess of people's bones they used to build the place.
I know, Easter Orthodox. It shouldn't have come as a surprise.
Bones set like bricks into cement. My light traced the wall and I saw the first of the friezes, a full skeletal saint preaching to a field of skulls. The light reflected strangely from the saint's eyes, and I walked closer, sweeping my torch as I walked to reveal an image of Daniel in the lion's den.
Complete with skeletal cats. Their eyes also reflected the light strangely.
As I got close, I saw that the eyes had been set with crystals. The saints, both the unnamed preacher and Daniel, with amethyst. Clear quartz for the cats, and smoky quartz for the crowd of skulls.
Of course I was doing the math! So much dedication and work for a buried chapel. Creepy luxury in every inch of the place. Figuring out the logistics of goth tourism wasn't my job. If I wanted to, it could wait until I was back in my hotel room.
Why tourism? As much as it might have cost back when that place was built, the gems weren't worth much on their own. Not like the gem that was supposed to be the centerpiece of the chapel. I walked along the wall, trying to match the scenes with parables and stories.
Some of this was to ignore the pews, crafted from spines and rib cages, presumably from the people whose femurs lined the walls. I paused at the sixth frieze, a man kneeling next to a bear's skeleton, his hands on the creature's paw, swinging my light to look around me and took my first look at the pulpit.
A pile of polished skulls, the eyes reflecting smoky black and red crystals set into the eyes.
When you agree to do jobs like this, there's something that needs to be done as a first step. Before you step out the door, you need to take your imagination and not just leave it at home. No, you need to lock it in a box, shove it under your bed, then lose the key. If you don't, it will find inopportune moments to sneak up and whisper.
And even that doesn't always work, because the bastard was painting me a picture I couldn't shake: a withered old priest shouting hellfire in Latin behind that pulpit of skulls.
I firmly reminded my imagination it wasn't welcome and hurried to the front of the church. I had a job to do here, and it wasn't sightseeing and adding new pages to my catalog of nightmares. I climbed the stairs up to the pulpit, rib cages that creaked under my feet.
I paused at the top of the stairs, anesthetizing my imagination, sticking a gag in its mouth, and shoving it in the bottom of my bag. I was working.
I stepped back from the pulpit, following a vein of black running through the stone and winding back along the floor to the wall where it climbed up a marble cross set in relief against the back wall. My light traced the vein, stopping when I saw the spike driven through skeletal feet.
Of course. With all of these saints, how could they not have the Christ in bone? Wire as fine as hair held the bones together. And in the center of the skeletal savior's chest was a diamond as big as a man's heart.
But it didn't match the description from the client. The size was right, but the gem was supposed to be so bright a red that it could be mistaken for ruby. This was a flawless white that glittered in the light.
A small detail, but it wouldn't have been the first time a client has gotten details wrong. Another night when I'm thirsty, I'll tell you about the cubit problem. Not tonight. I'm not even finished with this story. Unless you want me to stop? Bones and skeletal saints too much for you?
No? Still curious? Ah, you want to know, if the gem was wired in, how I got it down.
It wasn't wired in, but resting on a nearly invisible wire shelf. I stepped closer and stumbled over a set of steps that I hadn't seen. Smoothly work, they had been hidden from the ground, and hard to spot until you were on top of them. A cheap magic trick; Priest must have seemed to climb on air to reach the gem.
There was no audience now, but I'm never above cheap imitation if it gets me what I want. I focused on my balance as I climbed; the stairs had been cut as a strange angle. At the top of the short stairs, I leaned slightly, fingers coming to lift the treasure out of the housing. It shifts as I touch it-
And here I lose track of things. Without being able to explain how I got there, I'm now standing over the baptismal font, knife in my right hand, left sleeve rolled up. I remembered the image of the priest screaming in Latin and cursed my imagination.
Because it hadn't been creative enough.
I was shouting words I didn't understand, a prisoner behind my own eyes. The knife slid across my palm. The blood poured from the wound, faster than it should have, running down my fingers and dripping into the font. As each drop splattered against the stone, it drew itself together and rushed towards the gem set into the center.
The diamond seemed to drink the blood, the color shifted with each drop until it reached a vibrant red.
The knife moved again, tracing the veins from my palm up to my wrist. The pain was a distant thing, a bad connection on an old phone.
I could also feel my throat. Whatever madness I'd been saying, it had been as loud as I could shout it.
Two points of pain. That was… well, not good, but maybe enough to locate good on a map. When you need to find something, it helps to have three points of information. In the world, that's latitude, longitude, altitude.
Throat. Palm. I just needed a third point. I focused on the pinky finger of the hand holding the knife. Trying to feel my way back to my body, along the nerves.
My finger moved. Just a little, but the movement brought with it the feeling of the handle. I gripped tighter, feeling from one finger to the next as the knife readied itself over my wrist.
Twitch, squeeze.
Twitch, squeeze.
Twitch, squeeze.
Twitch, squeeze.
The knife moved.
Release! I forced my fingers to open as the tip of the knife touches skin. Driving force lost, it tips and tumbled to the floor. I feel more control return.
"Fuck." The first words out of my throat, and I can feel my throat ripped raw.
And still, I heard the chanting. The noise scrapped against my ears, and I started to imagine I could make sense of the words.
"Undying Kingdom"
"Eternal Master"
Phrases that always make me check what explosives I brought on a job. I wished I'd brought something other than my door-breakers.
Something had fallen into the font. It rolled its way down the walls of the font like tar, blood red. I looked up, finally realizing I'd dropped my torch and wondering where the light was coming from.
I looked up, meeting the gaze of countless eyes glowing in the darkness. They flickered like starlight, revealing glimpses of the ceiling and what had been painted? Installed? Imprisoned?
No idea. But if you want to see a sanitized version, one less likely to haunt your nightmares, you can look it up yourself. Solomon's Grimoire, Index Diabolica, take your pick.
I looked away from the figures, their mouths moving in worship and stripped off my jacket, scooping the gem up and jumping to the floor. I scrambled to the door, the lights dimming as the chanting increased in volume. I saw something on the inside of the door in the dying light.
A seal.
Maybe it was just my imagination whispering, but I felt hot breath on my next as I bolted for the door. Scratching sounds behind me as I pressed myself between the doors and tugged at the handle. The screaming of the doors hinges drown out the chanting as the door slid slowly closed, and in the silence, after finishing, I slumped against the frame.
I needed to have words with my client.

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