A/N: It's the Halloween season, one of my favorites of the year. As my regular readers know, I do rather enjoy Gothic horror, so for this season I thought that I would post a few short stories set in the Ravenloft setting. I've published these online before, at the Fraternity of Shadows (an absolutely wonderful Ravenloft site), but I thought they deserved a larger audience.
~X X X~
"I-it was lying on my desk when I came to work this morning, Chief Constable."
Marcus Bretton, curator of the Martira Bay Museum of the Arts, handed over the stiff buff-colored envelope. It had been slit open, Liem Osgul noted, by a very sharp letter opener, which told him something about Bretton's precise and fastidious nature but nothing about the sender—and it was the sender Chief Constable Osgul wanted, very badly indeed.
The envelope was addressed in a neat copperplate script, in blue-black Valachani ink with a nibbed fountain pen rather than a quill. Unlike his predecessor, Osgul did not know this at a glance; he knew it because there were seven samples with identical handwriting on identical paper in the case file which had been examined by the City Constabulary's forensic investigators. Osgul took out the note inside, which was likewise predictable:
My dear Mr. Bretton,
Please be informed that I shall come for Valdano's The Sorrows of Ezra tonight at the stroke of midnight. Do not feel obligated to offer a welcome.
Yr. obt. servant,
The Moonlight Rogue
Osgul had expected it. Seven months, seven full moons, and seven thefts. Why stop? The grinning bastard was clearly enjoying his game.
~X X X~
"What's this?" Inspector Cadmon laughed. "Announcing a theft in advance? Why, the man must be mad! Who's ever heard of such a thing?"
"I know, Inspector; I could scarcely believe it myself," Sir Hawthorne said with a grin. "Still and all, I paid over ten thousand in good, hard gold for my wife's emeralds, and I'm not going to ignore any threat, no matter how insane it sounds."
"Of course, my lord. I'll assign a pair of constables to stand watch for you. If this 'Moonlight Rogue' dares to make the attempt, we'll show him the hospitality of the City Jail.
~X X X~
"What exactly is The Sorrows of Ezra, Mr. Bretton?" Osgul asked. "A painting, a sculpture?"
"A painting, Chief Constable, in oils on canvas. It's this way, in the Long Gallery."
Bretton led Osgul out of the office, down a short hallway, and up a spiral staircase to a long hall that ran across the building on the second floor. The Long Gallery was a hundred and fifty feet long at least, with skylights dotting its high, arched ceilings along the way. Two constables trailed their chief as the curator took them about two-thirds down the gallery.
"Here it is, The Sorrows of Ezra, Valdano's masterwork. It was finished just six months before the artist took his own life."
The curator went on with a number of further details about the Borcan painter's history, to which Osgul listened with only half an ear. Nor did he waste much time on the artistic content of the painting of the weeping, white-robed lady with mists and fog swirling at her feet. He was more concerned with practicalities: size, four feet by three, but subtract a foot each way if removed from the rococo, gilt wood frame. One of the skylights was just above the section of corridor where the Valdano was hung.
"So what is it worth—in money, I mean?"
"To a collector...perhaps ten thousand skulls, or more if he has a special interest in the artist or the subject."
"I see. Well worth the Rogue's time, then. He's never gone after anything worth less than five thousand. A connoisseur, our man is. Is it the most valuable piece you have?"
"Oh, no. We passed a Garcia about a dozen yards back which is worth five times this, and there are Har'Akir antiquities on display downstairs as well. Is that important?"
"Who knows? With someone like the Moonlight Rogue, who can guess why he picks anything in particular? Whatever's driving this one, it's not just about the money."
"I suppose not. I do say, it's a little thrilling, though, isn't it? To be matching one's wits with such a notorious character?"
"Not that I'd say, no."
~X X X~
"I can't believe it," Cadmon said, hurling his domino mask onto his desk. "After Lady Hawthorne's emeralds last month, we took his threat seriously, believe me. I was there at the masquerade along with four constables, disguised as servants, and he snatched Aria Norin's brooch anyway."
"How did he manage it?"
"Apparently, he'd found out what costume Mr. Norin would be wearing and prepared a duplicate. Then, while the husband was busy in the card room, he danced with Mrs. Norin and palmed the brooch right off her dress. Of course, when we noticed, he'd made his escape through the card room to the back garden and we ended up trying to arrest the husband!" Cadmon looked like he wanted to spit. "Egg on our faces all around. And to top it all off, do you know what Mrs. Norin said?"
"She said, " Cadmon repeated bitterly, "that she should have known it wasn't her husband under the mask, because he'd never been half so charming."
~X X X~
"Is there any reason," Osgul asked, "why the Valdano has to be hung here?"
"Excuse me, sir?"
"I mean, is there any reason why you can't just take it off the wall, have it carried down to a storage vault and locked away?"
"Chief Constable! Is that really playing the game?"
Osgul felt the throbbing in his temples start up, the same headache he got every time the Moonlight Rogue's name crossed his desk.
"Game?" he growled. "Did you say game? Hop-scotch and tiddlywinks are games. Chess and death's-head dice are games. Ten thousand skulls' worth of museum property doesn't sound much like a game to me. Perhaps the museum trustees would have a different opinion, though. Shall we go summon them and ask if they agree with your opinion, Curator?"
Bretton quailed before the Chief Constable's glare and his barking voice. It drove him wild, the way that these people seemed to react to the Rogue's threats.
~X X X~
"I said no, Inspector, and that is that."
"But Mr. Beryon, I must urge you. The Ofuda vase would be much easier to protect if locked in your family's strongroom."
Beryon glowered at Cadmon, his hirsute brows bristling.
"Inspector, I have been challenged, openly and fairly, by this Moonlight Rogue. You say that on three previous occasions he has struck at the time indicated, passing up other valuables to take only the single item identified in his message?"
"Yes, but that doesn't change—"
"I don't expect you to understand, but this is a matter between gentlemen. Honor and pride are involved." Cadmon flushed at the implication that he possessed neither. "I have had the Ofuda vase displayed in this spot in my home for the past year and a half. To shut it up now would be to play foul, and that I will not do. If you wish to catch this Moonlight Rogue, then do so. Guard the vase where it sits and take what precautions you may—but do not expect me to comply with requests that no gentleman would consider."
~X X X~
"As a matter of fact, Chief Constable," Bretton said hesitantly, "there is a reason why the painting cannot be stored. The Valdano, along with several other works, were part of a bequest to the Museum under the will of the late Grigor Stefanson. Mr. Stefanson was a great patron of the arts, and wished to benefit the public after his death. However, the will contains a clause that should any picture be removed from display for any reason other than a good-faith need for restoration work, ownership would revert to Stefanson's heirs. His stated view was that if the public was not to see the various works, then it was better that his family get the benefit of their monetary worth. The heirs, it may be said, are badly in need of funds and quite aggressive in scrutinizing our use. So I'm afraid that having the Valdano stolen or locking it away to keep it from being stolen will end in the same result so far as the Museum is concerned."
Osgul exhaled through clenched teeth. He was sure, sure, damn it, that the Rogue had known about Stefanson's will and had picked this particular painting because of it. The bastard was far too adept at making sure he got to play his game, try his skills against the victim's security and the constabulary.
Bretton's announcement was greeted by a slow, mocking clapping of hands. They all turned to see who was there, and as soon as Osgul identified the person the hot words of protest died on his lips and instead his blood ran cold.
~X X X~
Cadmon winced at his superior's tone. The raw patch on his left cheek made his embarrassment even more obvious, as if he had gotten a head start on a blush of shame.
"The best efforts of the City Constabulary foiled by a pot of glue."
They'd gotten a look at the Rogue this time. Indeed, he'd brazenly shown himself in an entrance as theatrical as anything else about the man. His flowing silk cloak and top hat, combined with his white, full-face mask bearing the visage of a smiling harlequin, made for a striking and dramatic silhouette. They'd given chase—right into the section of hallway he'd prepared in advance. Four constables and the art gallery's docent had stuck fast. Cadmon, straining with extra effort, had pulled his foot out of one boot and as a result fallen over on his side, with the result that it had taken over an hour to extricate him from the glue.
As always, the Moonlight Rogue had gotten clean away. The gallery's cleaning staff was said to have laughed long and hard at the sight of the cluster of constables' boots left behind.
~X X X~
"Tasya Veron," Osgul said, fighting to keep his voice flat and even.
"You know this woman, Chief Constable?" Bretton asked.
"Kargat," Osgul said. Bretton's rubicund face went ash-pale in an instant at the mention of the feared organization, and both of Osgul's constables shifted nervously in their places. The witch probably enjoyed that.
"Very good, Chief Constable. I'm so happy that you remember me," Veron said. Her smile was as bright as an innocent maiden greeting a long time-friend, and her voice as cold and menacing as the hiss of an adder.
She was an attractive woman, but Osgul found it impossible to think of her in that way; if he saw beauty in her at all it was the beauty of an object, a prized piece of statuary or a masterwork of a longsword. Certainly he had no urge to run his hands through the curling chestnut hair or kiss the full, sensual mouth. The word Kargat alone was enough to chill any romantic thoughts.
Osgul believed Veron was highly ranked among the Martira Bay offices of that fearsome organization, but he could not be sure—Darkon's secret police was no more inclined to share their organizational structure than they were anything else about themselves. While the Constabulary enforced the laws of the Baroness of Martira Bay, the Kargat answered only to Darkon's sovereign, the Wizard-King Azalin. They acted in his name, with the authority so granted.
"What is your errand here, Mistress Veron?"
"Why, the same as yours, Chief Constable. To stop the notorious Moonlight Rogue and put and end to his spree of crime. Thus far, your constables seem unable to do the job."
Osgul flushed with emotion. Was this, he wondered, how Inspector Cadmon had felt three months ago? Helpless, ashamed, and furious all at once, without any way to express those feelings but to swallow them like a bitter draught?
~X X X~
"Five!" Osgul barked, slamming his fist on the desk. "Five months! Five thefts, regular as clockwork, and what do you have to show for it? Nothing!"
Cadmon flinched before his superior's vitriol.
"The arrogant bastard puts down with pen and ink where and when he'll strike and what he intends to take. It's as good as a formal invitation to the constabulary. And what do you have to show for it? Five failures! Five valuable items stolen! Five times the City Constabulary left standing around with stupid looks on our faces!"
"You can't feel any worse about it than me, sir," the Inspector said bitterly.
"That isn't the point, Cadmon," Osgul snapped. "This isn't about how you feel. The Baroness's law is being flouted. No, worse than that; it's being laughed at, openly and publicly. The man in the street thinks it's all a big joke! The Moonlight Rogue is a hero to them, a bandit who tweaks the noses of the rich and powerful and laughs at the law! They cheer him on, and look forward to the latest story of his exploits! You've gone and given him everything he's wanted."
Osgul sighed heavily.
"We can't have this any more, Cadmon. I'm taking over this case; I have to. You've failed me. What's more, you've failed in the worst possible way. Cases go unsolved now and again, we both know and accept that, but to bring humiliation on the constabulary and the law in this way is impossible. Clear out your desk. You've been demoted back to an ordinary constable."
Shock and sudden fear froze Cadmon for an instant as his mind tried to grasp the reality of what had happened.
"Sir, you...that can't..." He had a family, a wife, a child, another on the way. He needed an officer's added wage to support them, to pay the rent on their home, to buy decent food and clothes. Everything he'd worked for these past twelve years was tumbling down around his ears.
"You're damned lucky you weren't drummed out entirely!" Osgul shouted in sudden anger. "When people point and laugh at the constabulary, do you think the Baroness will tolerate it?"
Cadmon couldn't deny it. Perhaps it was unjust, but there was risk as well as reward with a high-profile case.
"Look at it this way: in a few weeks I'll count myself lucky if I'm allowed to share a beat with you if I can't make an end to the business. The higher up the ladder, the farther the fall."
~X X X~
"Please, go on with your planning, Chief Constable," Veron said airily. "I'm all ears to hear what clever schemes you've concocted this time to thwart the Moonlight Rogue. Who knows? Some of them might even work."
Osgul swallowed the bile that rose in his throat. That was how people like the Kargat worked. They picked and picked, prodding a man because he had no choice but to take it, forcing him to stew in the knowledge of their power over him. And if he lost his temper, reacted as if he had a shred of pride left, they wouldn't respect him for standing on his dignity. No, Veron and her ilk would crush him like a bug for his temerity, for daring to stand up for himself.
He wondered if there was anyone, excepting Azalin Rex himself, who could make the Kargat crawl as they did to others.
Veron's eyes narrowed.
"I'm serious, Chief Constable. Go on with your planning. I believe Mr. Bretton had just finished telling us why he can't just lock up the Valdano until tomorrow?"
Osgul was frozen a moment longer with helpless rage, then sighed and did at last what all good soldiers—and all slaves—did. He followed orders.
"Mr. Bretton, would the terms of the will at least allow you to move the painting to a different display location?"
"What? Oh, oh, yes, that would be quite possible."
"Good. That's something, at least. If this bastard thinks that we're playing some kind of game then at least we don't have to play by his rules. This room has too many points of entry with those skylights along with the doors at either end. Is there anyplace better? Smaller, with as few doors and windows as possible?"
Bretton's gaze kept flickering from Osgul back to Veron.
"The Chief Constable has asked you a question, Mr. Bretton," she said. "Perhaps you could trouble yourself to answer it?"
Bretton quivered, as well he might, but managed to compose himself long enough to provide an answer.
"The Iseley Room might suit."
"Then let's go take a look at it," Osgul remarked.
~X X X~
"T-ten thousand skulls?" Lorne Havers quivered as he stared at the imperious dowager.
"That is the accepted value of Amadon's 'Bloom of the Rose,' is it not?"
"I graciously lent that sculpture to you for the purpose of the Havers Gallery's gala event. You were a friend of my late husband, so I thought the kindness appropriate. But surely you are not going to claim that you never agreed to give the Amadon back, are you?"
"No, no, of course it was to be returned, but I don't have it to give back."
"I'm aware of that. The Moonlight Rogue's latest theft is all over town. I do not, however, intend to suffer from your lack of security. I lent you the Amadon and it was stolen from your gallery while in your custody. Either return the sculpture or compensate me with its value in money. The law will support me in this."
"But I don't have ten thousand! The gallery is mortgaged to the hilt! The gala was to be my chance to attract buyers, but because of the theft it had to be postponed."
"Mr. Havers, I am not interested in excuses. If you do not want to end up in debtor's prison, then I suggest you pay me."
She left him then, left him to bury his face in his hands and weep over the ruin of his life.
~X X X~
"Yes, this will be much better," Osgul decided, looking around the Iseley Room. It was a medium-sized room paneled in dark wood, with a low ceiling, vaguely like a parlor or study in a manor house. Potted plants in marble vases stood in each corner, adding color to the room. There were two tall windows set in one wall, to the left-hand side of the entry door. It could have been considerably worse as a defensible point, Osgul thought, especially since the windows and doors were on adjoining rather than opposite walls, so it was possible for guards in the room to watch all points of entry at once.
"All right, then," he announced. "Here's what we'll do. Mr. Bretton, have the Valdano brought here and hung on that wall, there." He pointed to the spot in question, which was occupied by a painting of roughly the same size. "Then take that one upstairs and put it where the Valdano is now."
"But, Chief Constable, this is only a Corbeil. It does not belong in the Long Gallery."
Osgul ground his teeth.
"Mr. Bretton, do I look like a man who is concerned with the artistic implications of the museum displays?"
"T-then why not just store the Corbeil until tomorrow?"
"Bait, Mr. Bretton," Veron spoke up. "Our dear Chief Constable is setting a trap for the Moonlight Rogue and a blank spot on the wall is not going to lure even the most inept of thieves."
"Oh. Oh! Yes, I see, now."
"How nice for you. Haslett, go with Mr. Bretton and make sure everything gets done," Osgul ordered.
"Yes, sir," the constable said sharply.
"Jesso," he addressed the other constable, "get back to the City Jail and bring up Lieutenant Wayes, Sergeant Grove, and five constables." He'd leave four armed guards protecting the Valdano with instructions not to leave the Iseley Room regardless of any distraction the Rogue might arrange. Treachery and stealth were a thief's stock-in-trade; the thing to do was make him compete on the level of brute force if he wanted the painting.
That, though, was only if he managed to get past what Osgul had planned for him in the Long Gallery. Let him get out of that snare, if he could.
~X X X~
"It was a week past rent-day," the old beldame of a landlady said. "I came up to tell him he could pay me in full or get out! Two months behind, now. I've been patient, haven't I? I knew he was out of work, gave him extra time, didn't I?"
"I'm sure you've been the soul of patience," Constable Veen said dryly. The hag seemed to be doing her cringing best to deny any responsibility for what lay within. "However, we are not. Open the door."
She hastened to comply, fumbling to fit her key to the lock, but got the door open at the last.
It was a cheerless garret, with cheap, well-used furniture that was old without being antique. A single small statue of Ezra made the only personal touch. It looked lost and forlorn in the gray, bleak room.
Veen found it a fitting milieu for the suicide.
The tenant had been an old man, nearly seventy, with thinning hair and a fringe of white beard. The cut in his left wrist was deep, that on the right wrist less so, since the hand that had made it had already been wounded. The blood made for the only brightness, the only color in the room.
"He looks familiar," Veen's partner, Nalis, remarked with surprise. "I've seen him somewhere before."
Nalis snapped her fingers sharply.
"I remember, now. He was Avahn Jolstead's valet. I saw him when we investigated the Moonlight Rogue's fifth crime. Jolstead thought this fellow had given the Rogue information about the location of his hidden safe. He was the only servant to know where it was concealed behind a panel in the bedroom."
"Like a thief couldn't find that."
"That's what Cadmon said, but Jolstead had already sacked the valet without a character." She looked down at the corpse sadly. "At his age, and with no references, he must have been unable to find a new post."
"And when the money ran out..."
The constables glanced at one another, the down at the open clasp-knife still cradled in the corpse's fingers.
~X X X~
"There's nothing worse than guard duty on a night when you think something might happen," muttered Constable Jamison, fingering the hilt of his sword. "You have to keep your eyes open, your mind focused, always at attention. Hours of it, the dull, boring sameness—yet knowing that at some point you'll have to leap into action, and that if you let your mind drift, that's when it'll be too late."
"Don't be such a worrier," said Haslett. "We won't even see any action tonight. The only question is whether the Chief Constable and the men he's got upstairs will bring in the Rogue or not."
"Jamison's right," snapped Lieutenant Wayes. "It's our job to make sure the Rogue doesn't get the painting. The worm's been clever enough to escape traps before. We're here as a second level of defense."
The first tolling chime of a tower clock striking midnight from two blocks away could be heard.
"That's it, then," Wayes said. "He always comes at midnight like his notes brag. Keep a sharp eye out."
"Lieutenant..." Jamison began, then sniffed experimentally at the air. "Do you smell something funny?"
Wayes sniffed too. Yes, he could smell something, a sharp scent, acrid.
"What is that? It almost—"
He never finished the thought; his head swam and then darkness claimed him. The three constables likewise slumped to the floor, so his audience wouldn't have heard him in any case.
~X X X~
The man who called himself the Moonlight Rogue chuckled behind his mask as he saw the slumbering forms of the four men laid out in their drugged slumber. How predictable was a constable's mind! He'd been sure they'd move the painting to a more defensible location, and nearly as sure they'd pick the Iseley Room as best fitting the criteria. That was why he'd planted his little surprise there when he'd left his note for the curator: time-fused capsules of an anesthetic gas. When an acid ate its way through a plug—a process that would take a known time—the drug was released.
Of course, he thought as he listened to the chiming clock, down-to-the-minute timing wasn't possible, but the gas was effective for as long as an hour. That it had incapacitated the guards precisely at midnight was only one more of the strokes of good luck that had blessed him.
But now—to work!
He smashed the window glass, reached in, and turned the lock. He then slid the window up and crept inside. The painting was bulky, and would be hard to carry away as is, but he could fix that. He took out a sharp blade and with deft, sure strokes excised the canvas from the frame. He then rolled the canvas up, inserted it into a rigid tube, and slung the tube across his back on a strap. Then it was back out the window and up the rope to the museum roof.
He laughed again when he regained the roof. Another victory for the Moonlight Rogue! It was heady stuff, another win at the game between himself and the law. His only real regret was that it had all been over so quickly. An extended chase, a trap to spring, that always got his blood moving.
"Ah, well," he said aloud, "it isn't my fault that they went and set a trap for me in the wrong room." He unhooked his climbing-rope and wound it around his waist for easy transport.
"Of course it is."
A hand like iron fell on his shoulder, the nails cutting through the cape and the leather beneath to jab at flesh. It spun him away from the street, and a blow was delivered to his sternum that knocked him, gasping and choking, to the slightly canting, red-tiled roof of the museum. His chest throbbed where he'd been struck as if his attacker had used a cudgel or leaded cane, which made it all the more shocking to see not an armed guard or constable but a pretty, chestnut-haired woman who'd have been an ornament to any ballroom.
"My dear," he said urbanely, "you seem to have me at a disadvantage."
"That was my intent," replied the woman.
She was next to him, then, though he'd barely seen her move. With a flick of her hand his mask was torn away.
"I think I know that face," she said, tapping her full lower lip with a fingernail in a parody of a thoughtful mien. A pink tongue emerged and flicked away the traces of blood left from when she'd clawed his shoulder. "Sir Val'Kainen's youngest boy, I believe."
Aric Val'Kainen struggled to keep his composure. His heart was racing, pounding against the sore muscles of his chest as if it would burst from within. And yet, he was thrilled as well. This was the first time he'd ever had hands laid on him, and now his identity exposed. The game had reached new heights. He just had to play it out, as he always had.
He managed to put his most dazzling smile on his face. "At your service, milady. Might I have the honor of your own name as well?"
"Tasya Veron," she replied with an impish grin, and then her face went hard as stone. "Kargat."
She pulled him to his feet, then pivoted and pinned him against a chimney with her hand on his chest. Her strength was enormous, unnatural; magic was obviously involved.
"Bad enough," she said, leaning in so the breath from her words tickled his ear, "that you are a thief. Worse for you that you openly mock King Azalin's law while so doing, turning the City Constabulary into the clowns and buffoons in your own little Harlequinade. Buffoons they may be, but they mean order and law to the herd and you foment rebellion by making them seem stupid."
Her voice was soft, like a lover's, but with a cruel harshness to it that chilled him.
"Worst of all, though, is that you are a nobleman of Darkon. Your very existence stands for order. Your fancy education, your pretty clothes, your comfortable life that gives rise to the boredom your antics seek to slake, they were all purchased with that duty—and you have Not. Kept. Faith."
With a sudden, convulsive movement, Veron's hand punched forward, fingers piercing leather and flesh, tearing through ribs and sternum. Aric's scream gagged on the rush of blood filling his throat. She could sense he was still alive as she lifted him, turned, and hurled his body away, but the spark of life had faded before Aric crashed into one of the skylights overlooking the Long Gallery and plunged through with a shower of glass. Maybe Osgul could at least make sure the corpse didn't get away.
A moment later the roof was empty but for the moonlight and the soft whisper of a bat's wings flitting away.
~X X X~
A/N: I enjoy a good caper story as much as the next guy, but I've never been fond of the "Gentleman Rogue" genre—the Raffles or Arsene Lupin type of character who steals from the rich and sticks the profits in their own pockets. In presenting the Rogue as a hero, the usual contrast is to compare them to their victims: arrogant fat-cats who deserve what they get, or else "sporting gentlemen" who consider it a game between property owner and crook. What never gets considered is the "peripheral costs" the Rogue inflicts on society, so I thought that I would explore that issue on the way to the end...and of course Ravenloft was the perfect place to put it, since the exploits of a thief would never be an innocent game in the Demiplane of Dread...