The story so far:
The stone sat quietly in its glass cage, oblivious to its beauty and its power shining in the dim room. The tin setting held the faceted edges, dampening the knowledge and awareness bestowed upon it so that it didn’t notice its own captivity. Otherwise, it would never have allowed itself to be contained so crudely. Nor did the stone notice the gloved hand as it cut a hole in the glass cage and oh-so-carefully lifted the gem from its perch. No one noticed. Until the alarm began to screech. The gloved hand retreated with its prize as footsteps thudded into the showroom.
The figure, shrouded in black, fled the enormous, gilded room for the stairwell. One of the men pulled his weapon and aimed. He was immediately smacked in the head. “No guns in here, stupid. Craiter’ll kill you if anything gets damaged. Follow him, he can’t get far.”
The guards raced after the intruder, their speed belying their bulk. They chased him through massive, high-ceilinged display rooms filled with treasures museum curators would envy. They headed for the roof after the thief who was speeding up flight after flight, soft-soled shoes making no sound as he gained level after level.
Craiter stared at the men for a count of five. They refused to meet his gaze. Jahlil, the ex-football player, hung his head, the bleached tips of his dreadlocks brushing the shoulders of his tailored suit jacket.
Blackjack picked at a cuticle until he winced; the torn, bleeding flesh around his nail almost brought a cry to his thick lips. His first year on this island, Blackjack had tried to escape. No gambling, no drugs, no women; it was making him crazy. “It ain’t right for a man to be without everything he loves this long.” Gray had warned him not to do it. At the time, he’d felt that five years in Craiter’s service was a hell of a lot better than serving the twenty years hard time the State of California handed down against the convicted felon. When he saw the swollen, bloody mass that was the result of the man’s failed escape attempt, he wasn’t so sure.
Teddy Bear was blubbering, “We couldn’t even see him that good. He was moving so fast, like… like…” His sophomoric thoughts refused to find an adequate comparison. Silence hung in the room like a full length sable. Shimmering. Teddy turned to the last of the four men, physically the smallest of the guards, but with the presence and calm of accustomed to being in authority. “You saw him, Grey. It was crazy. He bowed and everything.”
That caught Craiter’s attention. “What?”
Encouraged, Teddy rambled on in spite of Gray’s withering look. “Yeah, we thought we had him, but he just looked at us and all we could see were his eyes and his eyes were all calm and stuff and he crossed his hands in front of him and bowed. Then knives and swords and stuff started flying and he got away.”
Gray said nothing. The wound in his shoulder throbbed, but he showed no sign of it and kept his gaze on their employer. Or rather, he kept his eyes on the wall behind Craiter’s head; it was hard for him even after four years to look at him full in the face. That eye…
He suppressed a shudder. There was a chill in the night air and it invaded even this gilded prison. He had one more year in Craiter’s service, and then he’d be free. One more year of protecting The Collection, a set of five stones rumored to give their owner special powers: long life, wealth, courage, insight, bliss.
Craiter powerful shoulders began to shake. Rusty wheezing came from deep within his chest and echoed off the walls of the darkened mansion. A laugh. A full force, better-than-abdominal-crunches, laugh. His security team looked at each other, confused. Only Gray remained still, waiting for his true response.
“I’m afraid I have bad news for you gentlemen. Tonight, you came face to face with what is known as a kunoichi. Be glad you escaped with your lives.”
So he knows, Gray thought. Gray had hoped Craiter was unfamiliar with what robbed him tonight, so he would have time to research this particular thief; he wanted to be prepared for next time. And there would be a next time. No matter how much he hated Craiter, hated how he manipulated the desperate in desperate times, he knew his freedom depended on making the Collection whole again.
“What’s a kunno-itchy? Sounds like a skin condition.” Blackjack’s attempt at humor. No one laughed.
“Kunoichi.” He sounded it out, using the Japanese pronunciation. Craiter nodded in Gray’s direction. “You know what that is?”
“A female ninja.”
Rabble roused from the group of men. “Female? That was no chick. Naw. That had to be a dude.”
If these men didn’t believe him, they would underestimate her when she returned for the remainder of the Collection, just like they did tonight. Just like he did. Any more losses and Craiter would not be understanding.
“How could you tell?” Jahlil was suspicious of anyone’s knowledge, save his own.
“The bow. In Japan, men bow differently from women. Men hold their hands like this.” He stood up straight, arms tightly against his sides. “Women cross their hands in front of their crotch. It’s a symbol of modesty.”
The men continued to argue until Craiter cleared his throat. The men looked around, but saw no sign of their warden. His voice seemed to reverberate from each of the four walls. “Find the stone. Find the girl. Bring them both to me. The stone I want in perfect condition. The girl, I don’t care.”