Christine "Cricket" Collins lay on her stomach in Master Cho's home and struggled against her bonds. The lovely, 21-year-old blonde was clad in the performance uniform sheíd devised around her nickname: green waist-length jacket that fastened at her navel and matching green miniskirt worn over a low-cut yellow bodysuit and soft-soled, knee-high green boots. Her wide green sash-belt, usually fastened at her left hip by a circular yellow clasp with a green cricket emblem on it, had been used to bind her hands behind her back and pull her crossed ankles up into a tight hog-tie. One of Master Cho's silk sashes was tied in her mouth, reducing her protests to muffled whimpers. Cricket thought, wryly, that this was no way to treat a media super-star, with her own comic books, Saturday morning cartoon, live-action direct-to-video movies and action figure!

The annoying thing, she thought as she battled the knots and the muscle-numbing drug in her system, is that this had started out as such a normal night! She had been performing one of her martial arts demonstrations at a local competition, and had received a phone call from her old teacher, Master Cho. He asked her to come to his apartment, over the dojo, and she agreed. When she got there, however, she stopped in shock at the sight that greeted her.

Master Cho was unconscious on the ground, a heavy weighted net entangling him. His face was bruised and his lip bloody. Three men, dressed like ninjas, were searching the room. One of them noticed her and snapped his fingers, signaling his two companions. In next second, Cricket exploded into action.

The lovely blonde ran at the closest ninja and jumped at him, her legs wrapping around his neck in her trademark "Cricket kick." Her weight dragged him down, smashing his head on the floor and knocking him out. As they went down, Cricket undid the fastener on her sash. The second ninja raced forward and found the weighted end of the sash snapped into his eyes, blinding him for a second. That was all Cricket needed to roll into a handstand and kick him in the face, rendering him unconscious, as well.

Cricket leapt smoothly to her feet, gathering her sash, and turned to face the final burglar. He, however, was ready for her. He had pulled up his mask to free his mouth, and had a blowgun between his lips. A quick puff of air later, Cricket felt a tiny dart pierce her shoulder. Before she had a chance to do anything else, she dropped to the floor in a daze.

Cricket's whole body felt numb. She couldn't move, and was helpless as the ninja rolled her onto her stomach and used her own sash to tie her wrists behind her back. Then he pulled her legs up and, using the trailing ends of the sash, completed the hog-tie.

"You'll never get away with mmmmmmph!" Cricket said as he gagged her with a long scarf that was hanging on the wall. Helpless, she could only watch as he roused his two companions and fled the scene with them.

* * *

Clad in a green kimono, Cricket sipped herbal tea as Master Cho poured himself a cup. "This will help heal the body," he said. His wounds, she found, were not as bad as she had feared. The drug that was on the dart had worn off and, after a few hours of struggling, she had slipped her hands free of her bonds. Her sash was not the best material for tying someone up, and her attacker had been in a hurry. She wondered how long escape would have taken if he had rope and enough time to do the job right...

"Who were those men, Master Cho?" she asked the elderly Chinese man. "What did they want?"

Master Cho sighed. "That is why I called you," he said. "For decades, I have been the guardian of The Dragonís Claw, a mystical talisman of great power. Those men were members of the Black Lotus clan. They want to use the talisman for their own ends. I have grown too old to protect the Claw. So, just as my master passed it on to me, I must now pass it on to my greatest student: you."

Cricket was stunned. Was he serious? This sounded like the plot to one of her videos! She sipped her tea to give herself time to think. "Master Cho..."

The old man raised his hand. "I sense your hesitation, my daughter. I know you lead a life far different from mine. I know you are an American, and think such things no longer exist. But you can overcome all this. You must. It is your destiny. Wait here."

As Master Cho left the room, Cricket sat in stunned silence. She hated to admit it, but something about this strange situation felt...right. Was she nuts? Was she starting to believe too much of her own press? She wasnít REALLY a superheroine! She was just a performer trying to make a living, right?

Master Cho returned with a wooden box the size of a shoebox. He placed it on the table and lifted the lid. Nestled within was a dagger with a blade that seemed to be made of pure jade. The handle was black, and ended in a dragon claw wrapped around a blood red stone.

"This is the sacred trust I now give to you," Master Cho said. "Know that the protector of the Dragon's Claw gains skills beyond those of other mortals. This is the payment for your work. Will you accept this blessing?"

Cricket nodded. "For you, Master Cho, yes."

The old man smiled and pulled a golden chain from the pocket of his robe. On the chain was a jade cricket. He slipped the chain around her neck, where the cricket nestled between her breasts. "Then let this be the naming ceremony. In the annals of history, a new name is added to the protectors of the Dragon's Claw. To the names of Thunderfist Cho, Mighty Peng, Wu the Tiger and on back through 80 generations, is now added the name of The Cricket!"

* * *

The following six months had been quiet. The blonde media-star had filmed another video adventure, appeared at a few competitions and continued her daily workouts. Cricketís workouts had started to pay off, when she figured her skills had peaked. She wondered vaguely if her slow but steady progress had something to do with the Dragonís Claw. There was one thing she was SURE was due to the Claw: her insights.

Master Cho had insisted, early in Christineís training, that she start meditating daily. She still did, and found that her meditations lately had led to some interesting messages. She had recently learned that someone powerful was coming for the Dragonís Claw. The day theyíd finished work on the video, Cricket told her agent that she needed some time off. That night she drove up to her mountain cabin. Hiding was impossible; the Black Lotus clan could track her. But if there was trouble, she wanted to be away from innocent bystanders.

Cricketís senses were on the alert as she jogged on the path near her cabin. Her reverie was cut short when she heard noises coming up the path behind her. She rounded a bend, slipped into the bushes, and calmed her breathing as she waited.

"Iím telling you, it was her!" a voice said. Feet pounded down the path; it sounded like there were two people pursuing her. Well, Cricket had a surprise in store for them!

"Even if it was, sheís going to get away if we donít hurry!"

As the duo rounded the bend in the path, Cricket leapt from her hiding place. In one movement, she landed in front of her pursuers and snapped her right leg up into a vicious crescent kick. Suddenly, she stopped the momentum of the kick, her foot halting inches away from the face of a terrified-looking teenager.

"Oh, SHIT!" the pale boy whispered. He looked about 15 years old, and his hands started to shake slightly. His companion was a cute girl of about 13.

"Sorry," Cricket said as she lowered her foot. "Donít you know you shouldnít sneak up on people?"

The boy just nodded as the girl stepped forward to do the talking. "Sorry, Cricket. Iím Becky; thatís my boyfriend, Ronny. Weíre fans of yours. We were just hoping for an autograph."

"Howíd you know who I was?" Cricket asked, a bit suspicious.

Ronnie had stuffed his shaking hands into his pockets and found his voice again. "That outfit doesnít exactly give you a secret identity," he said.

Cricket looked down at herself: short yellow running shorts and a green t-shirt that had her cricket-in-a-yellow-circle emblem on the left breast. It WAS pretty obvious, at that! "Sorry," she chuckled. "I donít want to sound paranoid. You two just caught me by surprise. Iím not used to seeing people around here."

"You must not have been up here for a year, then," Becky said. "Thatís when they opened the trailer park at the other end of the lake. Weíre staying there with our folks, but got bored and went hiking."

Ronnie picked up the tale. "Yeah, we were just coming over the ridge when I saw you jog by and decided to try for the autograph. . .?"

"Sorry," Cricket said. "This outfit has no pockets! So, unless one of you has a pen..." The teenagers shook their heads. "Tell you what. I have to go, but Iíll swing by the trailer park in a day or two and bring autographed pictures for you, okay?"

When the teens agreed, Cricket began jogging back to her cabin. She expected trouble, soon. Best to distance herself from these kids and be prepared! Back at the cabin, sheíd clean up and put on her uniform. It seemed silly, but the outfit offered her plenty of freedom to move, and had the built-in "weapon" of the weighted sash. Besides, today, or tonight at the latest, sheíd be defending the Dragonís Claw. And that wasnít Christine Collinsí job, it was The Cricketís!

* * *

After dinner, Cricket began some slow katas on her front porch. Suddenly, she felt trouble. Someone hostile was coming. She prepared herself, just as two men in ninja uniforms ran from the woods towards the cabin.

With all due modesty, Cricket doubted that only two men would be sent after her. As she dodged the first man and slammed her foot deep into the solar plexus of the second, she heard two more land on the roof of the porch. Sounds in the woods indicated at least another two. Six assailants. Well, she grinned, at least it would be a good fight!

Cricket liked to work out on her porch because it gave her a chance to play with the more acrobatic moves that she used in her videos. She put that to good advantage now, working with this familiar terrain, forcing her enemies to play her game. Run from a ninja to the edge of the porch, and use the railing to launch into a backflip over him, followed by a quick blow to the head. Spring from the chair to the rafters, swing over, and drop onto a manís chest. Whip her sash around one of the potted plants, and pull it down on top of another. Cricket actually laughed as she tried to remember these moves for inclusion in her next video!

Suddenly, however, a new player entered the fray: a large man, with a long black ponytail, clad in a ninja-like body suit, complemented by a blood-red vest and a black lacquered mask over the top half of his face. There was a black lotus on the breast of the vest, and Cricket knew as soon as she saw him that he had to be the leader. He carried a black 5-foot staff topped with a carved lotus.

The man swung his staff at Cricket, but she easily sidestepped and swung one of the ninjaís into the way, letting him take the blow. "I know what youíre after," Cricket said, "and you canít have it. So, why donít you boys just go home and give it a rest?"

This enraged the leader, who jumped into the fight full-force. He was good, very good. Cricket soon found herself more on the defense than she had been since the fight began. She began to concentrate a bit more on the ninjas; she had to eliminate them so she could focus on their boss. Then, without warning, the manís staff blew a cloud of gas from the lotus top. Cricket recognized the feeling, it was the same drug they had shot her with at Master Choís! In gas form, it took longer to work. Cricket was able to leap at the man and strike him twice before she collapsed to the ground.

"Take her inside," the man said calmly. "Bind her, and then find me the Dragonís Claw!"

* * *

Cricket tugged on her bonds, but didnít expect much. She had been tugging for almost 30 minutes, after all. She remembered wondering how the ninja back at Master Choís would have done under the right circumstances. She wasnít too happy, that she knew.

The heroineís wrists were crossed and tied behind her back. Ropes encircled her upper chest, and an anchor rope connected her wrists to these restraints. Another anchor went from her wrists down to her knees, which were also tied together. Her ankles had been crossed before being lashed together. All in all, she was pretty uncomfortable, even given the fact that she had been laid on the sofa in the main room, surrounded by her trophies, and the plaques and weapons hanging on the walls. From the other rooms, she could hear things being turned over, and men cursing.

The leader of the group, Lotus Master, walked into the room carrying the wooden box. His lips were pressed thin, and his eyes blazed with anger behind the mask. "The dagger is not in the box," he said.

"Really? Imagine that! Well, you know us blondes, always forgetting something. . ."

Lotus Master slammed the box onto the table, then breathed deeply. "Do not test me, girl." His voice softened. "You fought well. Well enough that my men will be. . .punished for their failure to subdue you. But you must see that youíve lost. Give me the Dragonís Claw and I will let you live."

"Iíd love to help," Cricket said, "really, I would. But I have this thing about duty and honor and all that. I just couldnít betray my masterís trust that way."

"Then your suffering will be exquisite," he replied. "And once Iíve eliminated you and found the Claw, your master will die."

"Iím not that easy to kill," Cricket said. "And Master Cho would be even harder!"

"We shall just have to see, wonít we?" Lotus Master knelt next to the sofa. "Iíll give you one last chance. The only reason I have to keep you alive is to show me where the dagger is. If you wonít do that, I may as well have you killed!"

"Ah, but then youíd NEVER find the dagger." Cricket smiled smugly, obviously thinking they were at a standoff.

Lotus Master grabbed her hair. "The dagger is nigh indestructible, girl! If I canít find it by searching, Iíll burn this cabin to the ground and sift through the ashes until I find it!"

Cricketís eyes grew hard. "Then start burning. Because Iím not going to tell you where the dagger is!"

With a roar of anger, Lotus Master stuffed a hard white ball into Cricketís mouth. He tied a scarf over her lips, holding the ball in place, and wrapped a rope around her head to secure it further. "If you wonít say what I want to hear, then you wonít talk at all! Bot, Chow, get in here!"

Lotus Master walked over to meet the two ninjas who answered his summons. They spoke in hushed tones for a few moments, then the ninjas advanced towards the couch. One grabbed Cricketís legs, the other her shoulders, and they carried her towards the door.

Lotus Master bowed as they went past. "Farewell, Cricket Collins. You were a noble opponent."

* * *

The sun was just setting when the ninjas took Cricket to the dock and dumped her into the boat. Wordlessly, one of them untied the boat, drained some of the gas and started the motor. His partner, meanwhile, drilled a small hole in the front of the boat. They engaged the motor, aimed the boat into the lake, and jumped back onto the dock.

The boat sailed across the lake quickly. The water seeped in through the small hole. Cricket thought a worse fate would be hard to imagine. The water would slowly chill her as the night grew colder. And this was just the long, drawn-out prelude to her drowning when the boat sank beneath the lake entirely. At itsí deepest, the lake was over 700 feet deep. Her body would never be found.

Cricketís deep blue eyes peered through the gathering gloom to search the boat for some way to free herself; she was a good swimmer and could easily make it to shore if she wasnít trussed up like this! Sadly, there was nothing; Cricket seldom used the boat, so there was no need to keep anything in it. She tried to rub the gag off against the edge of the boat, but to no avail. Then she tried to pick at her bonds with the oar-cocks, but that just seemed to make the ropes tighter. It was hopeless!

After forty-five minutes, the motor ran out of gas, and the boat drifted. By this point, water filled perhaps a quarter of the boat. Cricket was soaked, chilled and filled with despair. There seemed to be little hope of escape.

Suddenly, a head popped over the edge of the boat. It took a second for Cricket to recognize Ronny! He was quickly followed by Becky.

"Oh, geez, Cricket, weíre sorry," Ronny said. "We didnít know you were filming a video out here!"

"MMMMMMM! MMMMM hmmmmmm!" Cricket squealed, shaking her head.

"Ronny," Becky said, "I think sheís really in trouble!" Cricket nodded wildly.

"Geez," Ronny said. He started to climb into the boat, then stopped. "Cricket, could you, uh, close your eyes? Becky and me, we were kinda, skinny dipping, and. . ."

Cricket nodded and grinned under her gag as she closed her eyes. She heard a wet thump and felt Ronnyís wet fingers struggling with the knots. It was hard work, but he slowly loosened the knots. Finally, Cricket was able to wriggle free of the ropes and dive into the water.

"Thanks, guys. Now, show me the closest way to shore, and then I have some people I need to teach a lesson to. . ."

* * *

Cricket had dried off by the time she had returned to her cabin. She quickly snuck in through a back window and began to move silently through the building, catching the ninjas by surprise and eliminating them one by one. She knew that keeping her cool would be to her advantage, but when she saw the mess they had left in their search, she was angry enough to enjoy pounding them into unconsciousness.

Soon, only Lotus Master was left. Cricket couldnít resist making a grand entrance, so she slid down the banister into the living room, dropping to the floor and rolling to within a few feet of her opponent.

"Iíve already taken care of your men," she told him, "and you obviously havenít found the dagger yet. So just give it up and weíll call it a draw, okay?"

"Damn you, girl, I will NOT be denied!" Lotus Master snatched up his staff, intent on using the gas to bring Cricket under control again. But she whipped her sash around the staff and wrenched it from his hands before he could fire the gas.

"If you want to fight," she said grimly, "letís do it without the toys."

"Fine. I have NEVER been bested in unarmed combat." The villain took up a combat stance.

"Yeah, but you never fought me, either."

The two slowly circled each other for a few minutes. Then the Lotus Master kicked at Cricket, and the fight began in earnest. The combat that ensued was one of epic proportions. Lotus Master had strength and size on his side, but Cricketís speed and agility balanced that out. He was fighting on unfamiliar territory, but her ordeal in the boat had left her tired. To an observer, their clash had the beauty of a dance, as they met in a flurry of well-placed blows and kicks, then backed away for a quick breather before the next engagement.

After 20 minutes, both combatants were bruised and battered, and neither was any closer to victory. They faced off, facing each other, breathing heavy.

"You are superb," Lotus Master said. "Defeating you will be a victory WORTH winning! Too bad for you this isnít some tournament, when time will run out!"

Cricket listened for a second, then grinned. "Sorry, time just ran out!"

The sirens she had heard grew louder. "You bitch! You summoned help?"

"I thought it might even things out after I had to battle you AND six of your ninjas!" Cricket snapped. "Now, give it up!"

Lotus Master turned, ran, and dove out the window. Cricket tried to follow, but his dark outfit melded into the night too easily. He was gone.

The local sheriff bought Cricketís story of criminals seeking "protection" money when he arrived. He took the six ninjas into custody, then asked Cricket to come to the station tomorrow to fill out some paperwork. The girl agreed and, after the officer left, collapsed on her couch.

"Looks like the vacationís over," she mused. "Tomorrow Iíll visit Ronny and Becky with the autographs I promised, then visit the sheriffís office, and then back to the city. I might as well start packing. . .and this goes first!"

Cricket got up and took a sword off the wall. As she pulled it from the scabbard, however, she revealed it to be the Dragonís Claw dagger! She ripped the black electricianís tape off of the red gem in the hilt and placed it into the box. "Lucky for me Lotus Master apparently never read ĎThe Purloined Letter.í Me, I like the idea of hiding something in plain sight!" She closed the box and carried it upstairs to be packed with her other belongings.