The Moral of the Story
His name was Chaz Ashley, he was twelve years old, and he was a thief. He'd started out as a pickpocket, and while he was still short and boyish enough to pass for a little kid, he was starting to fill out, so he'd switched over to breaking and entering before he got slow enough to be caught.
Chaz was still a kid, though, despite his criminal life, and he liked now and again to do kid things. Not that he'd have admitted it, even to himself.
His pocket laden with ill-gotten gains one afternoon, Chaz decided to do something he'd been meaning to for a long time. He visited the home of Jovan the Seer.
Jovan was an old, graybearded man who wore a long robe and covered his balding head with a cloth skullcap. For the right price, he claimed to be able to look into the world of the dead, speak with those departed, and cause the spirits to reveal facts about the past, present, and future.
The seer looked down sternly at Chaz when the boy entered his shop.
"What business do you have here, child?"
"I want to hire you," Chaz said. "I can pay!" He held out a meseta-filled drawstring pouch.
Jovan's eyebrows rose.
"Can you indeed? And why would one so young want to trifle with the shades of those who have passed beyond?"
Chaz chose his lie with care. Part of him—most of him, if he was honest with himself—just thought it would be cool to talk to spirits, but he had a more practical reason, too.
"I'm a servant of Phil Brendon," Chaz named the town's richest merchant. "A couple other boys and I, we stumbled across Mr. Brendon's secret savings and we were playing with it—it was our pirate treasure. Only..." He looked down at his shoes, playing the embarassed and worried kid to the hilt. "Only we buried it, you know, so we could follow a treasure map back to it, and we forgot where! We've got to find it, Mr. Jovan, or he'll kill us when he finds out it's gone!"
"I see." Jovan stroked his bread, his face impassive. "And you wish for me to ask the spirits to guide you to these secret savings?"
"That's right!" Chaz had broken into Brendon's house two weeks ago, but hadn't been able to find the man's cache before being chased off by the watchdog. A little supernatural help couldn't hurt.
"Very well, then. Come this way, my young friend."
He swept aside a heavy curtain with one long-fingered hand and shoved Chaz into a back room. This room was windowless and quite dark, lit only by a single oil lamp hanging from the ceiling. The lamp hung over a small circular table covered by a shimmering silk cloth in reds and golds, the same colors as the carpet. Five chairs surrounded the table, and the only other items of furniture were two large wooden cabinets against the back wall.
"Be seated," Jovan invited, drawing out a chair. Chaz sat. "Now, as to the matter of payment, the fee will be fifty meseta. Payable in advance, of course."
Of course, Chaz groused mentally, though he'd have done the same thing in Jovan's position. "Always get the money up front" was one of the key principles of the young thief's life. He opened the pouch and reluctantly counted out the fee. Jovan swept up the coins with a speed and dexterity that would have suited a good pickpocket.
"Wait here while I secure this money," he told Chaz, "and then I shall summon the spirits for you." Jovan's eyes narrowed, and he looked sharply at the boy. "Be very careful that you do not touch anything." He then turned and swept out.
Chaz took all of seventeen seconds to start squirming in his chair. Patience was not his strong suit. Poking around in corners and cupboards was an inherent part of the personality of adventure-minded boys, and as for thieves, it was part of the job description. The chance to learn what the seer kept in his cabinets was simply too good to resist. In a flash, he was out of the chair, his hand on the latch. He opened the door slowly, carefully, so as not to make a sound.
The face did not so much emerge as it exploded at him, glowing a sickly greenish-white. The skin seemed to be drawn tightly over the bones; the jaw, cheekbones, and brow ridges were prominent, like a skull's. The eyes were black pits, holes into which a soul might slip and fall forever. The mouth, open in a silent snarl, was characterized by long, jutting fangs.
Screaming, Chaz jumped back, away from the horror, but fear made him clumsy. His foot slipped, and the back of his head struck the edge of the table when he fell. Blackness claimed him.
Jovan entered the room a moment later and surveyed the scene. He checked the boy, and found he was only stunned by the blow.
"I knew the little wretch was a thief," he muttered. "Thinking to fool me with that story about secret savings!"
Jovan pushed the phosphorescent mask back into the cabinet, folding the retractable arm and closing the doors. During a seance he could control it and any number of other trick devices with buttons and foot pedals, but if triggered manually he had to retract it the same way.
"Well, at least he got his money's worth of thrills," the seer remarked as he took Chaz's unconscious body by the ankles so he could drag him out to the alley behind the house. "And, just maybe it will teach him not to open cabinets in other people's houses without permission!"