Criminals are not born; they are made, or so the saying goes. To be honest, I've always seen myself as an exception to that rule. Because you see as far as my memories would serve me, I've always been this way. Even the Matron herself would attest that from the day she found me- a lost and confused little girl standing on the doorstep to her girl's home - I had that look about me. What look she was referring to I'm still not certain. As far as I can tell most little girls look the same. I would know. I've lived with eleven of them. But she was right. The Matron was always right. She just knew things about people and we just knew not to question her. That, however, didn't stop me from growing up to be... well... me.
"...she was last seen west of Rosewood. Police suspect she may be headed toward the city. If spotted please exercise caution and contact authorities immediately. Do not approach. Police advise that while she has not resorted to violence, they don't want to take any chances."
I smirked as the no-so-accurate artist rendering of my face appeared on the TV. Well they got my hair right. I would probably have to change its colour again. I ran an absent hand through my messy ponytail, my fingers catching on the various knots and tangles that had become of my stupidly dense hair. Couple that with humidity so thick that you could slice it with a butter knife and it was any wonder I hadn't just shaved it all off by now. The news reporter moved onto another topic, the rendering of my face dissolving into a segment on the Dragon Council selection. Freeing my fingers from the tangles, I felt around the sticky motel bedspread for the remote then heaved a strained sigh as I realised I was actually sitting on it. Why do remotes do that? I flicked off a TV that should have died years ago and glimpsed the radio clock on the bedside table. It blinked back at me: 8:44pm. I had planned to stick around for another few hours but now that news of me had reached here too, I knew the cops would be eager to get more patrols on the street. I had no choice but to push my timeline forward. Rolling from the bed I straightened the spread to make it look like no one had been there, then grabbed my gear and slipped out the window I'd come in through.
The evenings were quiet in this part of town. My recon had indicated it was a wealthy area full of lavish houses and retirees with more money than they had years in which to spend it. My shadow was the only thing keeping me company as I treaded pavement still warm from baking in the sun all day. The sweet scent of jasmine filled the air, bringing a temporary reprieve from the city's traditional 'garbage/car exhaust/greasy food' stench that I'd gotten to know in my travels. I followed an old brick wall that backed onto the yards of multiple wealthy townhouses. It was barely held together by crumbling bricks, tree roots and jasmine vine. On the more exposed areas layers of paint either chipped and peeled or barely covered over the messy scrawl of a teenager's spray-painted signature. How the kids here had managed to get anything on the wall was beyond me. The area was wealthy enough to afford private neighbourhood watch. I'd already spotted at least one security car cruising the streets and made a point of keeping out of sight. Still though, the neighbourhood could at least fork out the cash to pay for a new wall.
To anyone curious enough to glance my way I was just a girl in a light hoodie, walking down the street, hands in my pockets and headphones in (but no music playing, I needed my senses). Not that I had come across anyone else yet. Considering the early hour –which was way earlier than I normally work- I'd have expected more people around. More potential witnesses. But apart from handful of kids I'd spotted earlier sneaking off with a bag of fireworks, I was alone. I guess even rich retirees went to bed before nine.
The loud POP-CRACK almost made me jump into the wall. Suddenly an explosion of colour filled the moonlit sky. Blues. Reds. Greens. Purples. Fireworks. I heard the faint sound of cheering from further down the street quickly followed by the screech of tires on bitumen as the friendly neighbourhood watch spun his car in the direction of the upheaval. I took to the shadows, watching on as the car virtually flew past me down the street, the stench of burning rubber following not far behind. I took a moment to calm my racing heart. It took a lot to rattle me, fireworks happened to be high on the list of those things. Or any explosions for that matter. Don't ask.
"…five…" breathe "…four…" breathe "…three…" breathe "…two…"
I practiced my calming exercises just as the Matron had taught me, grounding myself by digging my nails into the crevices of the brick wall. Feeling the still-warm dust and dirt as it made its way under my nails. Taking in the mixed scents of road, rubber, dirt and jasmine flower. Soon enough I felt my heart rate start to drop. My stomach settled and my bones stopped rattling. My fingers stopped boring holes in the wall and I let myself relax. Releasing one last exhale, I expelled the lingering dregs of panic.
Great. Tonight was getting off to a fantastic start.
I fixed my hoodie over my head and checked in with my surroundings again. The streets were once again quiet; blissfully oblivious to my panic attack in the shadows. I noticed the faint cloud of smoke lingering over a house a couple of blocks away, drifting past the moon like a ghost. I had no doubt that the kids had made their escape before the neighbourhood watch showed up and I realised there was no better distraction I could've asked for. It was almost as though I'd planned it. Except my plans generally don't involve explosions.
Focusing back on the task at hand I reached the section of wall I was looking for. A tiny black chalk marking stuck out in contrast to the white wash of the wall – made even more apparent under moonlight. The wall had been slightly pushed forward here, caught under the weight of a leaning oak tree. Its branches hung just low enough for me to use as a climbing support. I scrambled up the wall, my sneakers kicking off loose bits of brick and dirt as I climbed. Debris rained down on the footpath but I didn't take any notice as I straddled the wall and dropped into the yard below. A soft garden bed silenced my landing and I even made sure to avoid squashing the pretty flowers. Here the scene made a dramatic change from sun-baked concrete to lush garden landscape. The aromas of perfectly manicured lawn diluted the overbearing scent of jasmine. As I walked, the lawn was so spongy that my feet took a moment to sink down into it. A Japanese-style pond was ahead, inspiring a symphony of chirping crickets and frogs as I found myself transported from city to secret paradise. I felt so relaxed that could've just as easily curled up on a patch of grass and gone to sleep. It almost made me weep to think that the owner of this place was never home to appreciate it.
The main house loomed in my vision; a massive three-storey stack of blocks. It stood in darkness, devoid of inhabitants, its design going more up than it did out. In fact, with its thick concrete walls and steel balconies, it looked more like a city building than a house. The rooftop was one big balcony which I was almost certain had undisturbed views of the harbour. There was only one way to find out. There was no point in breaking into the front door when the house was armed to the teeth. It had to be. It was harbouring some seriously expensive goodies, not all of which obtained in particularly 'legal' ways. The owner, Mr. Strathfield, was supposedly a wealthy art dealer yet he had somehow managed to fall into bed with some pretty unsavoury acquaintances. He was in the business of moving stolen artworks between wealthy crime families and I had been following his 'business deals' for a while now. He mainly lurked the dark web, advertising on behalf of his clients in shady forums, so I suppose a more accurate job description was 'snivelling middle man'. Jackpot.
I recalled the recon I'd gathered over the past few nights and re-traced the path to the rooftop in my mind. Balconies encircled the house in seemingly random locations, jutting out of the concrete structure like an old Mario game, all I had to do was follow the sequence. Climbing from balcony to balcony, I was standing on the rooftop in a matter of minutes. A refreshing breeze greeted me up here, blowing my ponytail up into the air. I felt a sudden chill down my back as it teased the sweat that dripped between my shoulder blades. I was right. I could see the harbour from here. The rooftop had been set up into a casual entertaining area made evident by the shadowy forms of lawn furniture and a bbq. What I believe was a hammock flapped about in the breeze. For some reason I had expected to see a hot tub up here too but perhaps I was asking a bit much. My sneakers crunched on the fake grass (who puts fake grass on a rooftop?) as I made my way to a windowed box of an entranceway only to realise that the glass door was unlocked. I raised an eyebrow and pulled open the door, hesitant. As convenient as this was, I wasn't a fan of surprises. This door was supposed to be locked. Another chill rattled its way down my spine, this time not caused by the breeze. Dare I proceed? Or was this a sign for me to bail while I still had a chance? I decided to step inside the house but first paused in the doorway, listening out for any signs of life. I was still certain Mr. Strathfield was away.
Inside, the ugly fake grass became lush carpet. I wasn't certain of the colour of it but under moonlight it looked grey and business-like. This was where the party outside ended. A flight of stairs led me down into another common area, this one more formal than the rooftop. Expensive-looking couches formed a square shape around a giant TV and a dark, wooden box of a coffee table (this guy obviously loved his squares) occupied the centre of the space. It supported a massive vase of wilting lilies, making the living area smell sickly sweet.
Three doors connected with this room; bathroom, master bedroom and office. This was the one level of the house I knew was not monitored by an alarm.
Strangely enough, there wasn't a lot of art up here. Strange because this guy was supposedly an art dealer. His collection was probably scattered throughout the rest of the house. The armed parts. But typical of every good (or bad) shady business man I also knew he liked to keep his most lucrative treasures close. So close in fact I could see it from here. Well, I could see the safe to be precise. Hidden in plain sight you wouldn't even notice it was a safe if you weren't looking for it. Probably because the giant vase absorbed all of the attention; people's eyes were immediately drawn to the flowers. If they had been fresh, they would've been an amazing sight.
The vase itself was lighter than I expected - made from cheap painted copper rather than the artefact that it was supposedly imitating - and I moved it aside with ease. Dead petals rained down over my arms and face, bringing with them the sticky pollen filled stamens. Flower testicles. Fantastic. I resisted the urge to sneeze and slid open the now revealed panel in the middle of the table. Underneath, dark wood became the unforgiving steel of a safe and a number pad. Damn. I was hoping for a dial lock. They were more common. I grunted and reached into my pocket for the LED on my phone, illuminating the space in white torch-light. I had pollen stains on my gloves. Double-damn. That stuff was impossible to get out. Keypad digits glared up at me, the numbers 1,2,6,9 faded somewhat. Well that narrowed it down considerably. Now there was only what, 5,040 possible combinations to choose from. I studied the numbers for a moment, toying with any possible connection to Mr. Strathfield himself. 1...6... no. 9...2... no. Ah! 6129. The number on his screenname. Of course. I tapped the combo into the safe and the door clicked open revealing the gleaming treasures of its bloated, metal belly. A small, intricately crafted dragon twinkled up at me and I hungrily took it into my hands. Much heavier than I had anticipated, the ornament was made of gold apparently forged from the very fire of dragons (or so the myth goes). Created centuries ago, the one of-a-kind artefact had gone missing from the archives of the Dragon Clan some fifteen years ago. Where it had been since then, I wasn't sure. Nor did I care. All I knew was that Mr. Strathfield had managed to get his hands on it a couple of months ago. He already had a buyer lined up. The pictures he'd posted online didn't do the dragon justice. The detail of craftsmanship was impeccable. Beady eyes and a roaring, fanged snarl stood frozen in time as though someone had gone and poured liquid gold over the top of an actual dragon. A very miniature dragon - it stood no wider or taller than my two hands put together. A greedy smile extended across my face as I shoved the piece into my rucksack. Then carefully closing the safe, I arranged the coffee table back to how I found it and worked my way toward the stairs to the rooftop. My work here was done.
Movement caught my eye and I froze, my head snapping around in the direction of a door that had been left slightly ajar. An unnatural darkness slipped about the office beyond. It was a figure dressed entirely in black from his bandit inspired shirt and pants to his boots, gloves and ninja-style hood and mask. It was hard to pass him off as anything other than a thief. I quickly found the shelter of a dark spot and watched him move about Mr. Strathfield's office. So that was why the rooftop door had been left unlocked. Apparently this was the place to be for thieves. The lines of his body were deceptively difficult to trace due the black cape that hung from his shoulders, reminding me of a shadow. It also meant that he could have even been a she for all I knew. I watched him circle Mr. Strathfield's desk where he risked it all and turned on a lamp. There, he located a writing pad and a sharp pencil which he held at an angle and began to scribble. No. He was colouring the whole the page, shading it without ever letting the pencil tip touch it.
I frowned. Why in the world was he doing that?
Finishing his shading, the thief then tore the page from the writing pad and held it up to the light, revealing the white indentations of whatever Mr. Strathfield had written on the page before. Genius! Satisfied, the thief folded the stolen paper and tucked it away into what looked to be a utility belt on his hips. All black. I would never have noticed he was wearing one if he hadn't pointed it out. How very Batman of him. So he was well equipped to find whatever it was he was looking for, which was information by the looks of it. He moved out of my line of sight and my body tensed as I waited for him to come back through that door. But there was no movement. Seconds ticked by with agonising slowness. Had the thief seen me? I checked the crack in the door. The lamp had since been extinguished only to be replaced by a sliver of moonlight shining through a gap in the curtains. It looked as though he'd escaped through the window. I slipped from my hiding place and into the office where darkness met the moonlight, my eyes searching the shadows cast by bookcases and pieces of office furniture. But the thief was long gone. Trailing over to the desk, I stole a peek at the writing pad that he'd tampered with, my finger tracing the faint grooves left behind by a heavy handed writer. Could I do the same and see what information the thief took? It was probably valuable.
It was the click of the door closing behind me that snapped me upright. I spun on my heels, my entire body going rigid at the dark figure who now stood over me. A pronounced Adam's apple filled my vision a second before his gloved hand reached for my face. I quickly reeled backwards but his other arm had snaked around my waist. He spun me around and pulled me back into him, holding me in a death lock. His hand smothered my mouth, filling my nose with the scent of leather.
"Shh." His whisper sent an involuntary chill down my spine. "Stay still and I won't hur- oof!"
My swift elbow to his gut emptied the air from his lungs. The thief doubled over and I quickly reeled from his grip, getting as much distance between us as I could. My body took on a defensive stance as the figure snapped from his bewilderment. He straightened, his masked eyes taking in every inch of my body in the moonlight. Something dawned in them. A moment of... familiarity... Then in a quick motion he snatched my rucksack from my hands and bolted for the door.
"Oh no you don't!"
I sprinted on after him. Hitting the floor, I kicked his feet out from under him and sent my rucksack flying. He fell face first into the carpet but was back on his feet in the time it took for me to get to mine. I flew at him with a series of sweeping punches aimed at knocking him back down again but in fluid motion he countered them, his arms quickly locking with mine and rendering my attack useless. Shocked, I reeled backwards out of his reach, my heart racing and my muscles already seizing from lack of practice. He came at me with the force of a storm, his jump kick snapping me in the chest and sending me tumbling backwards into a chair. The air knocked out of me, I could do nothing but watch him turn and bolt, fortunately forgetting to take my rucksack with him.
By the time I reached rooftop he was gone.