No one, not even Cassidy herself, ever expected her to step foot into Himitus' branch of The Temple of Yewel. She never expected herself to enter any religious institution. First, she balked at metaphysical counsel; she didn't need any external hand for guidance. Her principles guided her. Second, she avoided such stark locales. They lacked the buffet of sensations she usually relished. The church only offered her the weak whiffs of candles, a musty carpet, a hard bench which numbed her behind, and the whispers of dully-dressed person. It all paled when compared to her mundane.
Nevertheless, she found her seated in one of the pews, reading the scripture, and waiting for the man she had requested. It was, unfortunately, the ideal means for accomplishing her duty as The Grandmaster of Theft.
She shared the small room with an even smaller crowd, all of whom failed to notice that they worked in the same vicinity of the noble thief. They didn't even notice that she was Cassidy Cain, the heiress to the Cain fortune and future Chair of the Cain International conglomerate. Like any decent criminal, she understood the value of disguise; she shrouded her red hair with a long caramel wig, concealed her green eyes with brown contacts and thick glasses, altered her image with makeup so her nose appeared concave and her face oval, and traded her preferred outfits for a long-sleeved pink top, denim jeans, and sneakers. She even brought along a fake ID, not that she needed it. She blended in so well that nobody took stock of her until the man she requested approached.
"Miss Athena Whitwick?" a robust voice asked.
Cassidy glanced up from the book to a lanky man with sepia-toned skin, a craggy oval face, a clipped mustache, and bald head. Then she assessed the simple yet well-kept robe he clothed himself in. Finally, she thought as her muscles loosened. Finally, she had contacted her asset. Finally, she could conclude this portion of the job.
She rose from the pew then bowed her head. "Good day to you, Mister…?"
"Gerard Turner," he said, as she knew he would – she had researched him well before entering the church. "It is a blessing to meet you. How may The Followers be of service to you?"
"Actually, I'd prefer to assist you today." She reached into her saddlebag, plucked out a cotton soft cloth which blanketed a rock-solid item, and untied the cloth, revealing a tear-shaped diamond necklace.
Gerard's brows sprung up. "It can't be! Can it!?"
"It can and it is." She held out the pendant, which glistened red under the ceiling lamp's shine. "I return Adora's Tear to your people."
"I… but… h-how did you get this?!"
"It's a family heirloom," she lied. "I recently learned what it really is thanks to that whole mess between The Grandmaster of Theft and Narcissa Richmond. I've no idea how my family got it, but whatever. It belongs here."
Gerard gawked at the pendant then shook his head. "We'll have to get it verified to prove it is the real thing. If it is, there's a five hundred thousand crown reward–"
She pushed the pendant into his hand. "I don't care about the money. Righting an injustice is a reward in and of itself."
His mouth dropped open. Then his focus flew down to the pendant and he clinched it. "Thank you…" He beamed as if he were a child receiving a gift. "You know, people like you make me confident that humanity will eventually reach Yewel's dream."
A warmth grew within her and spread all throughout her being. Savor it later, there's still much to do. She turned her lips into a weak smile and flattened her voice. "You're too kind."
"Is something the matter?"
"Not at all," she said with the same defeated tone then reeled around towards the arched door. She began to step away, but Gerard's boney hand lightly gripped her shoulder – as hoped. She bit back her smirk.
"If there's something you've done or plan to do which troubles you," he said, his voice warm, "the church is here for you."
"…Is it true that if there's something that someone wishes to get off their chest, The Followers promise absolute confidentiality about anything shared?"
"We won't betray your secrets. And I'm happy to lend my ear."
"I…" She dropped her head and sighed. "I'm really, really, really sorry, but can I have a moment?"
"Take all the time you need."
Cassidy presented the right image: she crumbled back into the pew, clasped her hands around her head, and stared at the spiral pattern which lined the carpet, as if she was thinking. Then she counted the clicks and clacks of the church's clock tower. Once the clock reached the minute marker, she poked up her head and said, "There is something I'd like to discuss, but is it alright if we do this elsewhere? In a few days from now?"
"Sure. But we'll need to register the meeting in our system and do a background check first. It's a safety measure. Are you okay with that?"
"Yes, that's no problem at all."
Naturally she and her crew ensured that months ago. Athena Whitwick officially appeared in the system, rented an apartment, held a job, posted on Babbler, and so on like everybody else, despite her being fiction. All it took was Cassidy planting the right documents into the registry, instructed her Grandpa to hack the government servers, and hiring a homeless woman to play the role whenever she couldn't. If whoever they hired could topple that, she'd applaud.
She acquired a piece of paper from a nearby table, jotted down a number, and handed it over. "Contact me when you're ready."
Cassidy left the building with her natural stride. Now all she had to do was ready The Crooked Warden.
Three days passed after Athena exited the church, during which Gerard turned over Adora's Tear to their high priest. Their high priest contacted their HQ, who confirmed its authenticity then whisked it off to their main temple. After that, the church hired an outside service to inspect Athena Whitwick. She passed every test.
Gerard contacted her without any worries and they made a deal to meet at Acquiro's lounge bar The Crooked Warden. When the night came, he changed into his casual wear and drove to the city.
Once Gerard pushed open the heavy door to the bar, a storm of babble struck his ears while colognes, spices, and beer assaulted his nostrils. A crowd of people packed the building; some huddled around the counter – where an attractive male bartender performed stunts – while others dined in front of the televisions mounted on the wall. Gerard traversed between the occupied booths, skimming each for Athena. She waited in none.
"Gerard Turner?" an aloof voice asked.
He spun around to a suit-clad man with light bronze skin, gray eyes, and crow-black hair which he had combed back. A pair of aviator sunglasses atop his forehead capped off his appearance.
Gerard squinted upon witnessing the man. Aside from his face appearing as smooth as marble, the man revealed nothing about himself. He wasn't particularly tall or short, muscular or thin, handsome or hideous. He just existed. And something about that prickled Gerard's stomach. Why would someone choose to appear like that?
"Gerard Turner?" the man repeated.
"Um, yes I am, sorry. And you are?"
"Here to escort you. Miss Athena is waiting in the VIP room." The man pointed towards a carpeted stairway. "You first."
With the black-suited man shadowing, Gerard hiked up the stairs. He cast a glance and forced a smile back partway through, but not a flicker of emotion surfaced on the man's face. His eyes exhibited nothing but a mechanical focus.
Upon reaching the hallway at the top, the suited man clutched onto Gerard's shoulder and said, "Wait." He passed by Gerard and positioned himself in front of the crimson padded double door which resided at the end of the corridor. "Athena has two requests before you enter. First, turn off your phone and leave it with me. You'll get it back when this is over. Second, you let me check you with this for any bugs."
He drew out a chrome block from his jacket pocket and extended an antenna from the top of the device.
"Uh, if you don't mind me asking, why all the secrecy?" Gerard asked. "Her background check didn't say anything about all this."
"She'll explain everything inside. If you get inside. I can't let you pass until this is taken care of. It's your call if you go any further or not."
Gerard peeked back at the stairs. Would anybody blame him for backing out? None of this was a part of what they agreed on nor was it too late to turn back. Then again, he had given his word. And she had given them Adora's Tear, free. And even if she hadn't, she had asked for help. What kind of priest, let alone person, would he be if he turned away?
"That's fine." Gerard removed his cellphone from his pocket. "Do what you must."
The man collected the phone, ran the device up his body from toe to head, and then studied the results. "Alright, you can enter," he decided. "Just don't try anything."
With those parting words, the man stepped to the side, out of the walkway. Gerard trudged to the door, pushed it open, and crossed the threshold.
Silence and the sweet fragrance of strawberries replaced the blather and odors of below. Bright lights showered down from the ceiling to reveal a spacious room with a coral carpet, crown-gold walls, and framed television monitors which transitioned between various artworks, none of which he recognized.
The projected paintings weren't the only thing he didn't recognize. He also couldn't recognize the lady who lounged opposite the entrance in one of the beige club chairs that furnished the room.
Gerard's breath stopped and his mouth moistened as he gawked at her. She was as much a work as the paintings: she possessed clear creamy skin; a well-formed bosom; a diamond-shaped face; longbow lips; a long, straight nose; cat-like jade eyes; and lush ruby-red locks, which she had fashioned in a princess cut, that flowed over her slender shoulders and down her back. Whoever she was, she had to have some Maluzi blood. It was the only way to explain her exotic look.
Her outfit, in contrast to her looks, conformed more with other Heimillians. Like her ally, she boasted a panther-black suit, hers showcasing a choker necklace, long-sleeved jacket, knee-length skirt, stockings, and heels. The sole articles of her presentation which weren't black were her swan-white blouse, cherry-red tie, and her lips and trimmed fingernails which she had decorated a light shade of pink. The ensemble melded with her lithe figure as well as two interlocking puzzle pieces would one another.
"Good evening, Mister Turner, and thank you for coming," she said, her voice smooth and articulate. "I offer my sincerest apologies for the cloak and dagger routine. My circumstances force me to tread with caution. May I interest you in a drink? I can conjure up whatever concoction you desire, so long as it's non-alcoholic."
"You're… not Athena Whitwick…" he observed. She had a grace about her now. She sat with perfect posture, one leg crossed over the other, her hands folded on her lap. She wore a smile that could disarm an army.
"I am, depending on how you perceive things. Athena Whitwick is one of the guises I assume whenever I've fieldwork which requires anonymity."
"Then who are you really? And what do you want?"
She tilted her head and propped her chin against her palm. "You don't already know? Peculiar…" Her lips bent into a tiny grin. "I suppose that has its benefits as well. At any rate, my name is Cassidy Cain. I am heiress to the Cain fortune and all which lies within its reach."
Gerard's eyes widened. How could he have not recognized her? Sure, he wasn't the most pop culture sensitive person, but even he knew her name and reputation. Socialite, high-stakes gambler, globe trotter, philanthropist – those words and more described the things she took part in.
"As for what I seek," Cassidy continued, "I've been forthright from the onset. I wish to speak with you in private and the church failed at offering me the same solace as this bar. Would you please take a seat?"
She beckoned Gerard in, but he remained still, his legs locked. How could he just walk in and sit down with her of all people? How could he go any further without knowing what was going on?
"W-why did you need to disguise yourself?" he forced out.
"Anonymity," she said playfully, "as I stated twenty seconds ago."
"But why? What's so different about this than anything else you do?"
A hand shoved against Gerard's back, thrusting him in. Gerard stumbled forward, caught himself, and then twisted around to spot the black-suited man drawing the double doors shut. They came together with a clunk.
Cassidy sighed. "I apologize, he can be… protective."
Gerard looped back to Cassidy, who pinched the bridge of her nose.
"Well, I pay him to protect me, so I suppose I shouldn't complain. Regardless, the seat is still on the table, so to speak." She gestured towards the armchair across from her. "I assure you it's more comfortable than standing in the doorway."
Gerard swallowed hard. He couldn't allow himself to be intimidated. She hadn't even actually done anything worth being intimidated by yet, beyond the secrecy – which she must have had a good explanation for. He just had to go along with things and see how things went.
He advanced into the room and eased into the seat. Its soft cushion absorbed him the second he touched it.
"See?" she asked. "I told you so."
"Y-yes, you did," he said as his back sank deeper into the chair. "So, uh, before we begin, is there anything you prefer I call you?"
"Seeing as my name is Cassidy, I believe that should suffice." She leaned in closer. Her lips edged into a smirk. Her voice sank to a whisper. "Or perhaps you can call me The Grandmaster of Theft. It's no less valid."
Gerard's mouth gaped and he did a double take. "Y-y-you're kidding, right? I mean, you're…you're still just a kid!"
She snickered as she melted back into the cushion. "I am by no means a child. In fact, I turn twenty in two months."
"That's still young to be a thief like The Grandmaster! Or a thief at all."
"If we're to go by statistics, my criminality shouldn't come as a surprise. It's far more common with those my age than it is older sorts. That and of my social standing, what with the lack thereof repercussions. Regardless, if you don't believe me, answer me this: What do I have to gain from sharing that with you if I am not The Grandmaster of Theft? I'm a busy person as is and I don't possess the time to play random pranks on priests."
Gerard took her in as if she was an abstract painting. Although everything she said made sense, it didn't add up. The Grandmaster wouldn't just up and admit that she's The Grandmaster. It wasn't a very thief-like thing to do. Or was it? It's not like he knew her or how she thought. And the confessional did protect her from any danger, so it wasn't as if she had any reason to lie. "But…how?" he asked. "How can you possibly be a master thief?"
"I thank you for your compliment, but I don't consider myself a master. The Grandmaster of Theft is merely a title I conceived as a means of psychological warfare. As the saying goes, reputation precedes."
"That doesn't answer the question."
"That is where you're mistaken. It answers part of the equation. People perceive me as a master criminal, which in turn enables me to perform in ways I otherwise might not. If there is one thing I've learned well, it's that perception is power."
"Can't that only go so far, though?" he asked. "Sooner or later you have to actually do something to back it up."
"This is true. It helps that I'm fortunate in ways that extend beyond my, well, fortune. For instance, the man who escorted you here is one of my accomplices. His name is Augustus Wynn. Should you ever speak with him again, please address him as Wynn and Wynn alone. He's not particularly fond of being referred to by his first name. Anyway, on the surface, he's my bodyguard and chauffeur. In the criminal underworld, there are numerous names for what he does: heavy, muscle, hitter, enforcer, troubleshooter. You can select whichever you prefer. The task is ultimately the same."
Gerard's stomach turned and his toes curled. So, he's a thug, he thought, but couldn't bring himself to say. Although rumors said that The Grandmaster didn't harm innocents, better safe than sorry.
"But why do you do it?" he asked. "How…"
The shiver that slivered up his spine dissuaded him from asking how she could stomach to hurt people as she did.
Cassidy frowned. "How…?"
His heart hammered, harder and harder and harder. He had to choose his words carefully. "I just don't understand how you can bring yourself to do this."
She placed her hand to her jaw, closed her eyes, and hummed to herself. "Mr. Turner, if you don't mind me asking, why are you a priest? Why did you join The Followers?"
Gerard blinked. Why was she asking that of all things? "To help people, of course."
"Then we have that in common. I too wish to help others. What's more, I possess the power to help others. I possess the power to make a difference which others cannot. And what's the point of possessing this power if I fail to actually utilize it?"
"But why must you be a criminal to do that? How does being a criminal help anyone? If you want to help people, there are other options out there. Especially for someone like you."
Her lips puckered. Had he hit a nerve?
If he had, she didn't show it for long. Instead she curled her lips back into a smile and asked, "How familiar are you with The Osion Purge?"
His brows rocketed up. He was, of course, familiar. What Follower wasn't? It was one of the blackest marks in their history, a purge of their people.
"What about it?" he asked.
"Are you familiar with how your people's beliefs in the sanctity of human life came into conflict with King Gregory's mandatory military draft? And all that resulted in?"
He clenched his teeth together then forced out "yes."
"Then I needn't go on about how Gregory outlawed the worship of Yewel, how he had your people slaughtered, your temple ransacked, and how the survivors fled? Or the aftermath? Oh! Have you read The Exodus of Tai Emmons? That one, in particular, caught my–"
"Stop! I don't need to hear anymore…"
The story, the tale of the priestess who fled Osion with all thirty pendants and her family then sold five off to smugglers, left a sour taste in his mouth even when he told it.
"I won't disagree that there are other options available to me," Cassidy went on, unflustered. "I was born lucky. Powerful. However, the same sadly cannot be said for those I aid. Case in point, how well were your people fairing at retrieving Adora's Tear without me? How accommodating was the Heimillis government?"
Her words transported him back to nearly a year ago, back to sitting in front of his computer, watching the video reporting on how things ended. The page read "Case Ends in A Shocking Turn of Events: Narcissa Richmond KEEPS Adora's Tear!"
He clasped onto his desk and squeezed. She hadn't even actually won the case! She just stalled until the statute of limitations for retrieval was up! If she didn't have her money and lawyers, they would have had Adora's Tear back!
But she did have them. They had lost.
Narcissa stepped into the cameras and he scowled. She practically looked like a villainess out of a campy television show. She sported an oversized verdant green floppy hat and matching fur coat which complimented her long wavy hair which she had dyed a wine-red at that time. Around her neck dangled Adora's Tear. It too complimented her appearance, as if it belonged there.
He slumped back into his desk chair. Their relic – something which Yewel gave humanity as a symbol of peace, as something which would remind people what violence lead to – had become a mere accessory for some celebrity. Adora's soul must have been screaming.
"I'm willing to cut a deal with The Followers," Narcissa said, "if you can get five hundred thousand crowns. Get five hundred thousand and I'll sell it to you."
A jolt burst through him and he leaned forward to the screen. She was obviously extorting them, but it was better than nothing!
Sadly, nothing was all she offered.
It took them months – months of donations, months of giving up their own money, months of fundraising – but they assembled the money as requested. However, when it came time for the exchange, Narcissa had only one thing to say:
"You know, after thinking about it, I'm finding that I'm more attached to this than I thought. It's going to take more money if I'm going to sell. How about you get a million crowns? We can talk then."
Waves of agony beat one after another behind the back of Gerard's eyelid upon hearing that. She had done it again. Yet again she had screwed them over. It was pointless. All of it was pointless! After all, what was to stop her from doing it again, from moving the goalposts again and again? She owned Adora's Tear. She could do whatever she wanted with it!
His shoulders drooped. She could do whatever she wanted with it…
The worst wasn't just the fact that she could. It was the lack of repercussions. She had used them, their faith, for the sake of sustaining her spotlight. And nothing bad happened. Her web series got more ratings! She made money from the notoriety! Her career continued unscathed! It was as if nobody else cared who she was, what she said, what she did. Of course, it meant that her soul would remain trapped in the reincarnation cycle instead of ascending to join Yewel, but that was a faint comfort in the here and now. He shouldn't have cared – the material world was a test which they had to overcome – but he did. Despite all his training to detach himself, he still cared.
"Mr. Turner?" Cassidy asked. "How well did you fare without me?"
Gerard averted his gaze. She obviously just wanted him to acknowledge her methods and goodness. But he couldn't do that. He believed in pacifism, that hate and forcing one's will on another was wrong no matter what. That's even why Adora's Tear came into existence; the gems were created when Yewel crystallized the bloody tears of Adora, the first follower and spreader of his findings studying humanity, into thirty unbreakable stones after her murder. By stealing Adora's Tear from Narcissa, Cassidy had violated the very ideals it stood for.
But...she still had done something. She had acted when nobody else did. She didn't let Narcissa get away with things. She had made him happy by returning things. How could he not, at the very least, acknowledge that? How could he not feel some measure of gratitude, despite everything else?
Silence filled the room until Cassidy spoke with a bitter tone.
"I've found that doing what's conventionally considered good – being friendly, adhering to the laws, showing mercy, telling the truth – is not always enough to ensure that the right things occur. Sometimes the only options people are left with are to either yield to these tormentors, to allow them to prosper in spite of why they're prospering, or to do something 'bad' to remedy the unjust state of affairs. It's when predicaments such as these arise that we become a factor. We're 'the villains' so people like you don't have to."
He who walks the path of a thief, no matter their reason, taints both their soul and the world, he recalled from Alucin Elua – the writings of Yewels, but couldn't say. After all, he understood her.
His skin tremored. He understood her. He understood the unspoken frustration which underscored her words, the annoyance brought from seeing the traditionally good things fail. He understood something someone like him shouldn't have anymore, something he shouldn't have felt, something he should have – had to distance himself from, for the good of his soul.
"I'm sorry, but I don't think there's anything I can do for you." Gerard rose to his feet and his regard flew to the door. Just a few steps and he'd be away from her siren song.
"That's where you're wrong, Mr. Turner," Cassidy said, her voice smooth once more. "In fact, I'm in need of your assistance in particular. There's a role I wish for you to assume in my present operation."
He hastened to the door. "I will not be an accomplice to any crimes."
"I'm not asking you to. Quite the opposite: I wish for you to convince me to not commit a crime."
He faltered, said "Wh-what?", then spun back around.
"I once read that sometimes the best approach to overcoming a problem is to introduce someone who possesses an alternate perspective, who thinks differently from those already embroiled. They might possess an idea which would have otherwise gone unnoticed. I've such a dilemma and you see the world in a way I do not. Ergo, you might possess the answer I seek. So, would you be so kind as to help me?"
Her eyes, in contrast to her self-assured aura, pled for him to stay.
Gerard swallowed back a lump. He couldn't leave now. Not when she was genuinely trying to do good, even if her methods were suspect.
"I'll need to know what the crime is first," he said.
She sealed her eyes, took a deep breath, then answered:
"You're planning to murder someone?!"
Her smile broadened. "Although we are on a private level, I'd be grateful if you didn't shout such things," she said with a hint of venom.
Gerard's heart thudded. He couldn't blame her, though. That wasn't exactly something anyone would want to broadcast to the public.
"And for the record," she continued, "I've yet to actually plan the deed. I'm simply entertaining the idea."
"What's there to even think about? Why would you think about it?"
"There's this… calling them a person is generous, but it'll suffice. I recently encountered a person who has forced me to contemplate taking their life. It's perplexing, to say the least. On one hand, I rather not kill anyone. These lives we lead are, to the best of my knowledge, all we have and will ever have. To take a life is to take everything and that's a theft I'm not exactly comfortable with."
"Then how can you even consider killing someone?"
"…Because there are some things in this world which cannot and should not be tolerated or absolved." Her nails, which bit into her chair's arms, betrayed her otherwise composed outer shell. "Before I continue, allow me to make one thing clear: I will punish this person for what they've done. That is not open to debate. Do not squander my time with any attempts to persuade me otherwise or try to interfere with my operations. While I've no desire to harm you, I'll do what I must should you force my hand. Do you understand?"
Gerard's legs jellied. Her voice was as sweet as ever, her face as serene as when she welcomed him. If she was bluffing, how would he know? Even if she was, she didn't seem the type of person worth testing.
"I guess it's a good thing you're trying to think of alternatives to murder at least… I'll do my duty as a priest." He returned to the chair. "So who is it you want to kill? And why?"
"You're going to wind up raising all sorts of questions if I simply tell you who they are and what they've done. What's more, I rather you understand why I feel as I do before you pass judgment. If I'm to do this any justice, I'll have to share with you all the details surrounding my latest job from the beginning."
Author's Notes & Questionnaire
Welcome to The Confessions of Cassidy Cain, the first novel in The Grandmaster of Theft caper series! Thank you for reading the prologue.
As you'll notice, I leave questions that I am curious about at the bottom of each chapter. The reason I ask them is because it provides answers I use for revisions. The story is in its present state not just because of my imagination and research, but because of feedback. If you don't wish to answer questions, that's fine! All I ask for is a simple comment telling me your response. You don't even need to sign up!
Did this prologue draw you in? If so, what did it for you?
What is your first impression of Cassidy Cain? Wynn? Gerard Turner? Narcissa?
Thoughts on how I introduced Adora's Tear?
What information do you want to learn right now from the coming story?
Thoughts on the prose & pacing?
Is there anything you found confusing?
Any questions, comments, compliments, criticisms, or so forth?