A.N. This is something I wrote for school, but really wanted to continue with. That said, this is a series of character-based mysteries and this is the first complete story. Enjoy, and please let me know what you think!

The Case of the Thief's Theft

"Come on, don't be chicken, Arthur!"

The mocking call came from one of three boys who were standing at the edge of a river. A thin, black and orange rope was held to one side by one of the boys who hadn't spoken.

A nervous, blonde boy of about eight years stood a few feet back from the river bank. He shoved his glasses further up his nose before taking a couple hesitant steps toward his two companions. The brown-haired boy holding the rope shoved it across the water and caught it again when it flew back. The tree that the rope was attached to shivered overhead, sending leaves and tiny flowers down in a green and pink snowfall.

"Don't be scared, Arthur. Are you scared?" This time it was the young rope-holder who spoke, pulling off his nice, pressed jacket as he did so.

The frightened blonde boy, Arthur, nodded quickly. "Y-y-yes!" he squeaked.

The two other boys laughed loudly. The third boy, this one in a clean white shirt, black slacks, and a black vest that matched his hair spoke up then. "D-d-did you hear that, Jon? He's scared!"

Jon laughed again. "Oh, that's too bad. We were gonna have so much fun, weren't we, Nathe?"

Nathe let out a falsely sad sigh. "We were. But oh, well! We don't associate with cowards, do we?"

Jon shook his head. "Never with cowards."

"Stop it!" Arthur cried. "I'm not a coward! I'm not!"

The two other boys smiled at each other in triumph. Jon rolled up his sleeves and Nathe unbuttoned his vest. The dark haired boy stepped forward.

"Prove it."

From there it was only flashes: Arthur running forward and grabbing the rope, Nathe's voice telling him to hold on, more laughter, and a giant snap followed immediately by a scream. The sound of running feet, parents, policemen, lies, doctors saying it was drowning and being crushed by the tree limb at the same time. It all began to fade away as Johnny Dale awoke with a jump. Slowly, the sound of a pencil scribbling and the lively voice of his assistant chatting to an unknown person floated back to his ears, replacing the memory of the dream. It was more than a dream, though, and that was why the tired man found it so hard to return to the present. He briefly wondered how long he had been asleep, but he was not able to ponder this long, for Anna-Beth was leaning against the other side of his desk, a concerned look on her pretty face.

"You seem tired," she said softly.

Johnny raised his eyebrows with a dry smile. "I am." He sat up and pushed his thick brown hair out of his young face, making his dark brown eyes completely visible.

Anna-Beth nearly rolled her eyes. "You seem troubled," she tried again.

Johnny let out a soft chuckle. "I'm that, too."

"Want to tell me about your nightmare? Don't think I haven't noticed you've been having them a lot lately."

"You need to stop being so observant," Johnny grumbled.

"No, you need to stop sleeping in the office. Do you ever go home, Johnny?"

"Of course I do… when I can." He waited for her to say something, but Anna-Beth just watched him, waiting for him to get back on topic. "The dream was nothing, Anna. It's not worth talking about. It's nothing."

Anna-Beth smiled slightly. "Well, if you ever change your mind, I'll be here." She walked back over to her desk. Just as she sat down, the phone rang. "Right here, answering the phone."

Johnny laughed good-naturedly, though his mind was still in turmoil. Arthur Summons had died that day, and he felt he was responsible. He and his old friend had bullied him for years, and then showed him a bit of kindness just to bully him some more. It had been childish, like so many other things they had done then, but this childish act had killed someone. They found their parents and told them that they had been playing by the river when they saw something in the water. When they realized it was Arthur, they hurried home to tell them. The same story was told to the police. They were nine years old then, and no one suspected they were lying, and if they did, they never mentioned it. No one ever knew it had been the rebels of society, young, intelligent Johnny Dale and clever, troublesome Nathaniel Terrence who had ended his life.

That was why now, at age twenty-three, Johnny Dale was a detective.

"Johnny." Anna-Beth covered the mouthpiece of the phone she still held to her ear as she spoke. "This man wants to talk to you. He won't tell me his name. You want it…" she lifted her fingers from the speaker slightly, "… or should I just hang up?" Clearly the man on the other side had annoyed her somehow.

Johnny got to his feet and walked over to her desk, nodding as he went. He took the phone and held it to his ear. "Johnny Dale speaking. How can I help you, sir?"

"Come now, Jon, no need to be so formal with your old friend."

Johnny went pale and his eyes narrowed. "What do you want, Nathe?"

"I need your help, Jon."

As Johnny walked down the street with Anna-Beth gliding regally by his side, he wondered why he was doing this. A few years after the incident with Arthur, Nathaniel and Johnny had gone their separate ways. Johnny, who was constantly under attack by his conscience, had decided to study law, leading him to where he was now, owning and operating his own small detective agency. Nathaniel, who seemed more able to keep his emotions under control, never strayed from the path they were on as children. Of course, his occupation was not openly known to the public. They all thought he was a lazy, yet stylish and charming gentleman who lived off of his parent's money. Johnny, however, knew that Nathaniel had opted for another, darker profession, and his parents had cut him off in his teen years. Nathaniel had become an incredibly talented thief.

Sometimes Johnny found himself laughing at the way they had turned out. As children, they had been practically inseparable. Even as teenagers they had been good friends, even if they did not mingle with the same crowd. Johnny was quiet and studious, known only as the son of rich parents in school and the kid who found the body. Nathaniel, however, talked and charmed his way into being the king of the town. No one knew why the two were still friends, but everyone knew their past. Nathaniel and Johnny had remained friends for some time, mostly due to the fear of being alone in the knowledge of what had happened. Johnny brought up the possibility of telling the police the truth once a year or so, and Nathaniel always talked him out of it. There were times that Johnny believed, under his friends hard shell, Nathe was even more terrified than Johnny by what had happened.

It was when Nathaniel started accumulating a few rather expensive trinkets that Johnny knew something was wrong, and that whatever it was would end their friendship. Putting the clues together, he knew it had to be illegal, and so Johnny decided to put his detective skills to an early test. He started following Nathaniel around campus, watching him, following him to diners or shops or home. Their friendship crashed into the ground and disappeared forever when Johnny found Nathe stealing for the first time, from the locker of a wealthy boy at school.

It was for that reason, for the utter decimation of their friendship, that he wondered why he was going to see what Nathaniel needed his help for. Surely he didn't owe the man anything. Surely he shouldn't feel obligated to help him any way he could. He supposed that it might be the fact that they had been as close as brothers once, or that if it weren't for Nathaniel's influence, he wouldn't even have his job. He had given Johnny some money to get started, and Johnny had grudgingly accepted, trying to pretend the money wasn't stolen. But the young detective had repaid that debt soon after it was owed. They had an unspoken agreement between them, nothing more, and certainly not a friendship. Johnny would not accept high end thievery cases, as it might lead to Nathaniel, and Nathaniel would donate some cash when Johnny would have trouble paying the bills. The money had attracted some unwanted suspicions from Anna-Beth, but other than that, nothing had come of their last bond to each other. They didn't talk. They didn't go anywhere together as friends do. They never saw each other unless by complete accident, and Nathaniel certainly never contacted him and asked for help, offering to pay him for the job.

The job that Nathaniel wanted Johnny to do had actually caused the detective to laugh. Anna-Beth had looked at him oddly, taking in his worried eyes and pale complexion, added to his sudden mirth. The great thief Nathaniel had called him to investigate a theft. He wouldn't say anything more, just that he hoped he would make an exception to the 'no theft cases' rule. Johnny hadn't agreed to anything, but said he would meet with him to talk about what was going on.

Anna-Beth turned her face to look at him curiously. "Johnny… Why are we taking this case?"

Johnny sighed. Nathaniel was becoming more trouble than he was worth, and they hadn't even spoken yet. "I don't know if we are taking the case, Anna. We're just going to meet him and talk about it."

"You know what I think? I think you've met him already," she said, turning away from him again.

Johnny hesitated. "I have… met him once before."

The curiosity was clear on Anna-Beth's face, but she said nothing more until they reached the home of Nathaniel.

Nathaniel's home was not a small cottage, nor was it a huge mansion. In fact, it was a nice, large apartment, stylishly furnished and filled with artwork, most of it gained by ways outside the law. As Johnny raised his hand to knock on the door, he hesitated again. He should be arresting Nathaniel for theft, and lots of it, but no, he was here to help him with a problem he had with another thief! Brushing away the uncertainty he felt, Johnny let his knuckles rap the dark wooden door three times. Anna-Beth was looking around with little interest, waiting for the door to open. She didn't have to wait long.

"Jon!" Nathaniel exclaimed, throwing the door open and embracing Johnny as if their friendship had never faded. Anna-Beth's eyebrows shot up on her forehead.

"Only once before, eh?" the woman said skeptically, studying the tall, dark-haired man who so easily hugged her employer.

Nathaniel released Johnny and turned his full attention to the red-haired woman. "Miss Anna-Beth, I presume," he said, bowing his head enough that his chin length black hair covered his face. "Nathaniel Terrence, at your service." He turned back to Johnny. "You have found yourself a lovely looking lady, though I don't see why you brought her along."

Anna-Beth glared at Nathaniel. "Johnny, your friend looks the part of a scoundrel. Are you sure we should help him?"

Johnny smiled slightly. "He's always looked that way, Anna, he can't help it. And we're not here to help him, we're here to listen."

Anna-Beth let out a sigh as Nathaniel frowned and held the door open for them to enter. Johnny passed quickly through the doorway, as if he thought he would change his mind if he moved at a normal pace. Anna-Beth made sure to 'accidentally' elbow Nathaniel in the ribs as she passed. "Terribly sorry," she mumbled.

They were led to a sitting room where Nathaniel motioned to the couch and chairs in the room, telling them to make their place wherever they wanted. He seemed content to look from person to person, asking if they wanted anything to drink or if they had eaten lunch yet, but Johnny had other plans.

"So what is it you called me for, Nathaniel? You better not have made this up to get me down here for tea."

"Of course not, Jon. A few… acquaintances of mine have been having some trouble with an art thief. A couple cheap ones here and there, and then suddenly the most valuable painting in their collection is gone, and they never hear a thing again." Nathaniel paused in his speech and turned to a short stand. He crouched down before it and pulled a bulging binder filled with protective pages from a drawer. Getting back to his feet, he walked over to Johnny, leaning over the back of the chair and plopping the album into his friend's lap. He flipped casually to a page somewhere in the middle and pointed to a photo of a painting. "For me, first it was that one. Not overly expensive, but close to my heart." He smiled to show he was joking. "Then it was that one. I heard him taking it, though, and got a partial look at him, but I couldn't pick him out of a crowd." He then flipped to the very back of the book, pointing to a picture that took up the whole page. "Then he had the arrogance to come back. That was priceless."

"That's why you called me. To help you get your painting back," Johnny said, looking stiffly over his shoulder at his old companion.

"Not only to get it back. I want the rest back as well, and I want the overgrown pickpocket to be caught and locked up." Anger had seeped into Nathaniel's voice as he spoke. He leaned down to whisper to Johnny, "We have a code, Jon, amongst thieves, and by stealing from other thieves this man is breaking the code." He then backed away and strolled over to another armchair and threw himself down on it. "He is becoming a threat to society at large," he declared dramatically. "If he would break into the houses of the best, how do we know what's next?"

The act of arrogance Nathaniel had put on for Anna-Beth's benefit was a bit too good. The woman had complained about him all the way back to the office, asking questions about how Johnny could possibly have been friends with him. She also tried vehemently to convince him that they should not take the case and that they should just "leave the little rich boy to suffer." Johnny, no matter how tempting the suggestion might be, had made up his mind. He didn't know if he did it for a long lost friendship or some feeling of loyalty to his old friend, but he told himself he did it because there were others suffering at the hands of this man besides Nathaniel.

"Johnny? Jon, are you listening to me?"

The sound of his childhood nickname brought him out of his thoughts. He looked at Anna-Beth pleadingly. "Please don't call me that, Anna."

"You knew him, Johnny. And you knew him well. Why did you lie to me?"

"I thought we had parted ways a long time ago. I wasn't expecting to ever hear from him in person again."

"In person?" Anna-Beth asked, picking up on the extra words.

Johnny let out a sound of frustration. "I have to stop teaching you so well, Anna! He… helps out sometimes, when I really need it."

Anna-Beth was silent for a moment as she thought. Then she looked at him in shock. "The money!"

Johnny nodded.

"Why? He doesn't seem the type to care for old loyalties. Why would he send you so much money to help with your business?"

Johnny shook his head. "Nathaniel is a confusing man, Anna. I've known him all my life and I still have trouble keeping up. Not all is as it seems with him."

Anna-Beth raised an eyebrow in question. "Oh really? So he's not a big-headed toddler who can't get a job so he just asks mommy and daddy for money? He isn't spoiled and rich and arrogant? He doesn't think he's above everyone?" Her voice rose as she spoke. She was getting into another rant about how obnoxious the man was and was powerless to stop herself.

Johnny interrupted her, a brief feeling of defensiveness coming over him. "If you must know, Anna, his parents cut him off when we were fifteen. Practically disowned him. He knows he's not above everyone else and he has been through far more than you, so I'd watch out about calling him juvenile names." He was annoyed that he still felt the need to defend Nathaniel, even from his new friend who he thought he liked far more. "I'm sorry, Anna. It's just been hard seeing him again. Let's just… get on this case so we can get it over with."

So they reviewed everything he had told them and studied the three clues Nathaniel had been able to give them: a partial sketch of the man's face, which left much unknown, a scrap of heavy fabric, and the phone number of another victim.

Late into the night, Johnny stared at the sketch, his mind only half focused on what he was doing. The only distinguishing feature that could possibly be of help was a small scar in the shape of a crescent moon on the back of the thief's neck. However, the usefulness of the fact was small, as they couldn't go around lifting the hair of every man in town to find it. The sketch showed the eyes only as shadows and the nose and mouth were enveloped by the darkness as well. The only thing visible besides the scar was an angular jaw and an ear that stuck out slightly. He knew from Nathaniel's description that the man did not have blonde hair. In short, the sketch let them know that the man could be almost anyone.

The other clues were slightly more helpful. The fabric was a thick piece of velvet that could be one of three things: a scrap of the cloth he carried the painting in, a piece of a jacket or cloak that was torn off, or yet another sign of his arrogance. Johnny knew that some thieves liked to leave small things behind to tell the world who had pulled the theft off, such as a card with a code name on it or small figurines. Nathaniel preferred to leave a white rose, finding the irony of the symbol amusing. Perhaps this new thief left a piece of velvet.

That was where the last clue came in handy. Johnny could call the number and find out if the velvet scrap had turned up there as well. If it had, he could answer that question easily, but at the same time, he would have less to go on. Looking at the time shown on the pocket watch sitting on his desk, Johnny decided he had better wait until the morning to call.

Anthony Browning


As Johnny Dale dialed the number, he remembered what Nathaniel had told him when Anna-Beth made a run for the door. "Tell him Nathe gave you the number," he had said, clapping Johnny on the back in farewell.

The ringing went on for a moment before a gruff voice said, "Hello? Who is this?"

Taking a moment to roll his eyes at the man's manners, Johnny said, "Hello, this is Johnny Dale…"

"The detective? What do you want? I didn't do nothing," the voice snarled.

"Um… Nathe gave me your number to talk to you about a robbery…" Johnny whispered, glancing nervously at Anna-Beth's desk, where she was looking up phone numbers for fabric stores that sold high quality velvet in the worn phonebook.

"Oh, that's what you want. Well, you can come see the mess he made anytime. Just call first, eh?" The voice on the other end of the phone had calmed down by now.

"Thank you, sir. I'd like to ask you a question, first, though. Did you happen to find black velvet after the last theft?"

"Velvet? No, I don't think so… Why?"

"In… another victim's house we found a piece of black velvet. The owner spotted him leaving so he didn't have time to clean up."

"I didn't find any velvet. I found three missing paintings and mud on my windowsill. Don't know if that tells you anything."

"Hm. Don't move anything more than you have already. I'll be calling you." Johnny heard a click on the other end, and once again rolled his eyes. "Thieves," he complained, hanging up the phone.

"What was that?" Anna-Beth asked, looking up from her work.

"Nothing. What did you find?" Johnny asked, propping his head up on his hand.

"There are six fabric stores in town, and two of them sound promising. Velvet Curtains and Black Velvet Styles."

Johnny smiled. "Well, that sounds a bit obvious, doesn't it?"

"I agree, but we can't rule it out. Shall I get started on them?" Anna-Beth got to her feet and picked up her coat.

"Yes. Here, take this. It isn't much help, but maybe if they'd actually seen him they would know." Johnny held the sketch out to her.

Anna-Beth nodded and set out to talk to the shop owners.

Not long after Anna-Beth left, Johnny found himself in a state of suspicion. He knew that Nathaniel was good at what he did, and that made him wonder… If the villain could break into Nathe's house three times and steal a painting each time, especially one Johnny was sure Nathaniel would have under extreme protection, then why was it that he was so messy? He had been seen, he had left behind something for them to follow, and he had left signs of his entry in another house. The more he thought about it, the more certain he became. The man wanted them to have these things. The question was, should they use them to find him anyway, or would that mean letting the thief get away?

When Anna-Beth returned and told him that she had found out that a man had bought a whole lot of black velvet from Black Velvet Styles, Johnny's belief hardened.

"Anna, I think he's toying with us," Johnny said slowly to his assistant.

The young woman sighed. "I thought it felt too obvious. But how do we know he's not just… not very bright."

"If he were merely clumsy, he never would have made it out of Nathaniel's with a cent."

Anna-Beth's face darkened. "Oh? And why would you say that? He didn't seem too bright, either, if you ask me."

Johnny thought quickly, hating having to lie to her. "Nathaniel is… paranoid. He's always been terrified of someone breaking in."

Anna-Beth studied him for a moment before deciding to let it drop. "The shop owners said they sold the velvet two weeks ago, and that's when the first house was robbed, right?" At Johnny's nod, she continued. "He said he couldn't tell if it was the man in the sketch. He said he didn't remember anything about him except a scar on the back of his neck when he was looking at some fabric on a low shelf."

Johnny smiled. "I think that was the only thing he didn't mean to give us. I think he was only going to leave the velvet at Nikolai's. I don't believe he meant to be seen, and I don't think he knows we know about the scar."

"Yes, and a lot of good it does us. He wouldn't even have to hide it to make it so we couldn't see it."

"Did he know where the man went? Did he take an address?" Johnny asked with little hope.

"No, but Johnny… he did have something else. When I mentioned your name, he told me the man had left a letter, and had paid him to keep it until he could get it to you." The young woman pulled a thin envelope from her purse and held it out to him.

Johnny took it and felt the blood drain from his face when he saw his name scrawled across the front. He opened it carefully, almost as if he expected the man to jump out of the envelope when it was opened. This, of course, did not happen. There was no letter within, but rather a small piece of black velvet with a note attached to the back. It said:

Greetings, Mr. Dale. Congradulations on finding that charming store,

but perhaps next time you should go yourself. We may even meet in person!

In Great Anticipation,

The Darkness

"What does it say?" Anna-Beth asked. When Johnny read it aloud, she frowned deeply. "How is it he knew you would send me?"

Johnny only shook his head.

That evening, Johnny called Anthony Browning again, and told him he was going to drop in. To his surprise and annoyance, Nathaniel was there when he arrived. He had the suspicion that Browning had called Nathaniel to make sure he could trust the detective and Nathe had told him to contact him when he called back.

The mud on the windowsill was dry by the time he got to it, but Johnny couldn't see anything overly helpful in it. The most he could say was he had been around dirt during the rain. Johnny thought harder on this. It hadn't rained in two weeks, and the robbery had taken place just two nights ago. "A river?" he mumbled. "Or a garden. Or a watered lawn." He shook his head. It could still be so many places! Turning his head to look at Nathaniel and Anthony (Anna-Beth had opted to stay at the office), he asked one of them to bring him something to wash the mud away with. He thought he saw something black beneath the thickest part. Taking the rag offered to him, he scrubbed the dirt away, slowly revealing writing.

"He wrote on my house!" Anthony exclaimed, outraged.

Nathaniel bent closer to the windowsill. "What does it say?"

Johnny moved to the side a bit so Nathaniel could see.

What keen eyes you

have, Detective.

Just on the other side of the words was an arrow pointing across the street to an old, run-down building. Johnny got to his feet.

"I'll go with you," said Nathaniel.

Johnny didn't bother arguing, but began making his way to the other house. He hardly heard Nathaniel walking behind him, but he knew he was there. Johnny twisted the knob on the old door, and then moved aside. Nathaniel stepped up and picked the lock.

The inside of the building was in the same state of disrepair as the ouside. The floor was dirty, the air was full of dust, the furniture was faded and torn, and the walls were crumbling. There was only one thing out of place in this dump.

There were six valuable paintings leaning against whatever sturdy faces were available. "Why did he lead us to them. Why keep the worthless ones?"

Johnny sighed. "Souvenirs. This wasn't about paintings. This was all a game."

Nathaniel was obviously angry. "He was playing with us?"

Johnny shook his head. "He still is." Johnny pulled a note from the top of one of the paintings. It was attached to a piece of black velvet.

Well met, Johnny Dale! I look forward

to a long and happy friendship!

Always There,

The Darkness

"Well met," Johnny repeated.

Nathaniel had gotten his most valuable painting back, as well as one other. Anthony Browning had also been given two of the three that were stolen, including the most expensive. The two thieves assured Johnny that the last two would find their owner as well, as Nathaniel had asked Johnny not to involve the police in this one. Johnny had the feeling Nathaniel was planning some form of revenge, and hoped his old friend didn't do anything drastic. As for Anthony, he wouldn't be able to enjoy the return of his art for long.

Anna-Beth had been pestering him about why they weren't telling the authorities about the stolen or recovered paintings. Johnny knew he couldn't tell the woman that it was because Nathaniel had asked him not to; she was already too suspiscious of him. So he told her that he had found many stolen paintings at Nathaniel's contanct's home. It was the truth, and as a practicer of the law, Johnny felt it was his responsibility to report it. He didn't report Nathaniel, though, and he still could not understand why.

The only other loose end was The Darkness. They had searched the old building three times over trying to find anything that may help them find him. The place was spotless, and Johnny had never understood just how simple this game had been until then. The Darkness was like a father teaching his children how to play a board game; he was the only one who knew all the rules, he had the experience, and he went easy on them the first time around. Johnny knew he would have to break the rules of the game to win it, and he found himself both looking forward to and dreading the next match.

"I gave you resources."

Johnny jumped and looked up at the person who had spoken. It was Nathaniel. Johnny looked at him in confusion. He was sure he had locked the door… He opened his mouth to demand how he got into his office when Nathaniel inturrupted him.

"I gave you my trust that if I gave you the resources to find this 'Darkness,' you would not have those resources locked up. How on earth am I supposed to keep myself alive now? They'll think I'm a traitor." By the end of the sentence, Nathaniel's voice was full of calm anger.

Johnny sighed and rubbed his head. It was a week after the theft by The Darkness, and Johnny was surprised Nathaniel hadn't come by before then. He had been jumping at the slightest sounds the whole week. "I'm a detective, Nathaniel. That man's house was filled with stolen paintings, stolen jewelry. Honestly, Nathe, I think even the doormat was stolen! What was I supposed to do? Let him go? It doesn't work that way. When we find a criminal and have proof, we turn them in and they go to jail."

"So that is how it's going to be now, then," Nathaniel said, the anger replaced by a small sadness.

"It is," Johnny said with false confidence.

Nathaniel watched Johnny's face for a moment before nodding and turning on his heel to stride to the door.

Johnny's eyes slid closed, knowing he couldn't leave it at that. "And Nathe!" he called. He opened his eyes to see his friend had stopped with his hand reaching for the knob. "Don't let me catch you."

A small smile appeared on Nathaniel's lips and as he turned his head to face his old friend, it stretched into a mischievous grin. "You can count on that, Jon." With a laugh, he was gone from the room.

Johnny looked around his small office. "And so it begins," he said to himself with a dry smile and a slow shake of the head. Now, Johnny Dale had a nemesis, an opponent who had already outwitted him once. He had an enemy, and a friendly enemy, and he had a friend. But he also had one other thing, sitting before him on his desk. He had a note, and the note was attached to a dark piece of velvet.

Sleep well, Detective. Tomorrow's going to be a BIG day.

Sweet Dreams,

The Darkness