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Authors: Kirsten Miller

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How to Lead a Life of Crime

BOOK: How to Lead a Life of Crime
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An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.


How to Lead a Life of Crime




Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Young Readers Group

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Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England



Copyright © 2013 Kirsten Miller


ISBN 978-1-101-60411-3


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available



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Title Page








































The MANDEL ACADEMY Course Catalog



y father never wasted his wisdom on me. But on the rare occasions when my family found itself in one room, and my father had emptied the drink in his hand, he would sometimes offer a piece of advice to my brother.

“In this world, Jude, there are only the weak and the strong,” he liked to say—and no matter how much Scotch was in him, he never slurred his words. “If you’re born weak, you need to suffer before you grow strong. And those of us who are strong should fight every day to avoid growing weak. Never show mercy to anyone who refuses to suffer or fight. They’re inferior beasts, and the world would be better without them.”

By the time he finished, his gaze would have settled on me. That was my cue to leave the room as quickly as possible. If I was lucky, I’d make it out of the door in time.

I thought my father was a monster. And he is. But that doesn’t mean he was totally wrong.

• • •

I can see the truth from where I’m standing now: in a darkened doorway that’s been used as a urinal by every drunk on the block. The stench doesn’t bother me that much anymore. It’s surprising what you grow used to. But after two hours of watching, the cold has finally seeped into my bones. This is the first winter I’ve spent outdoors, and I’m still learning how to survive in the wild. Most of the time, I’d force myself to stay put and endure the discomfort. But no one with a pocket worth picking has passed by my hiding spot, and I was just getting ready to call it a night.

Then a small group of girls began spilling out of an otherwise empty bar across Clinton Street. They’re the kind of females my father would call
. When I first heard him say it, I thought he meant
Jane Does
. Girls so bland and desperate to blend in that it’s almost impossible to tell them apart. But now I suspect that my father meant
. Big-eyed creatures with vacant expressions. The sort that travel in herds and don’t always have enough sense to run when they should.

These particular girls have downed so many drinks that they couldn’t flee if they felt the urge. I’m choosing my mark when one of the few cabs working on Christmas Eve turns down the street. Four giggling females pile in. When the taxi pulls away, I’m pleased to see that one of the does has been left behind. I don’t think she notices that her friends have abandoned her. Her eyes are closed, and she’s blissfully swapping spit with a man she just met.

That’s only a hunch, of course. But I doubt she’s ever laid eyes on loverboy during daylight hours. The sight of him would be enough to spook the dumbest of does. He’s at least ten years older, and he comes from one of the boroughs where bodybuilding and hair gel never go out of style. But this isn’t some Guido who took a wrong turn on his way to the nightclub. This guy’s slick-looking and sober. He’s a professional—the sort who always knows what he’s doing. I’d bet he’s dangerous. He might even be deadly. And she’s drunk enough to find him irresistible.

I know what he sees in her, too. He sees a rich girl who won’t say no. He sees pricey jewelry and a handbag whose contents could pay all of his bills for the next three months. At best, he’ll leave her somewhere on Christmas morning with a bad memory and a blistering case of herpes. The worst that could happen depends on the limits of loverboy’s imagination.

I cross the street and make my move. I don’t hurry, and I don’t try to hide. I just keep my face turned away from the security cameras mounted outside the bar. The girl’s body is pressed against loverboy, and her handbag is resting against the small of her back. The zipper is open. If she just paid for drinks, then her wallet’s on top. It’s easy—too easy. I require more of a challenge. My left hand dips into her bag as I pass by. As soon as my fingers find what they’re after, I purposely bump her.

She’s too drunk to notice, but loverboy catches on quick.

“What the . . .” he growls as I stroll down the sidewalk with the girl’s wallet clutched in my hand.

“Yes?” I wait until I’m half a block away before I turn—just beyond the cameras’ range. I see him push the girl to one side. She stumbles and bounces off a wall. He’s an unnaturally large and angry specimen. I’d love to ask which steroids he uses.

“Give me the wallet, you faggot!”

“Faggot?” I grin and give him a saucy wink. “I never knew ’roid rage made you

As he charges toward me, I quickly tuck the wallet into the waistband of my jeans. I’ll need both hands free in a moment. When the man realizes I’m not going anywhere, he stops and laughs.

“You should’ve run.” What he means is that he’s going to enjoy what happens next. The girl giggles nervously in the distance.

“We’ll see about that.”

His fist hits the side of my face with the force of a wrecking ball. The pain blinds me for a second or two. I can feel blood oozing from a gash in my cheekbone. I know I’m going to need stitches, so I don’t bother trying to wipe it away. When my sight returns, I can see that he’s surprised I’m still standing. I’m not surprised at all. One of the first things I ever learned was how to take a punch.

“I think you can do better than that. How about a mulligan?” I ask. He doesn’t understand. “A
, you douchebag.”

The fist only grazes my temple this time. I’ve unnerved him.

“Nice try,” I say. “My turn.”

I feel his nose break with my first punch. He falls shortly after the fourth. My right hand is slick, and the air reeks of blood. When I look up, I find the girl frozen in place. Her big doe eyes don’t even blink.

“Call him an ambulance,” I say. “Then find a cab and get the hell out of here.”

“You took all my money,” she says, her voice both a whisper and a whine.

“Then you’ll just have to walk,” I tell her.

• • •

I never set out to be a thief. I suppose I once had something grander in mind. But when you live on the streets, you find out that your career options are limited. You can be one of the kids who disappear with the strangers who cruise through every night. You can sell the stuff that helps those kids forget what they’ve seen. Or you can be a thief. If those choices don’t suit you, you can always be dead.

I was on a Greyhound traveling up I-95 when I discovered the gift that would save my life. I’d spent my last dime on the bus fare. My stomach was empty, and I had no way to fill it. I passed out somewhere around Charleston and woke three states later only to slip back into oblivion. Even the fear of being found unconscious and shipped right back to military school couldn’t keep me alert. Outside of DC, I emerged from a dream with my eyes on a backpack. Its owner was snoring in the seat beside me. My fingers knew exactly what they were looking for, and they found it crumpled up inside the front pouch of his bag. The twenty-dollar bill that proved to be my salvation.

By the end of the journey, I realized I could spot an unguarded handbag from yards away. I could detect the faint outline of an iPhone in the pocket of a winter coat. No Birkin bag or fanny pack was safe from my fingers. I could rob any man blind with a quick bump and a flick of my wrist. That’s when I decided to call myself Flick. I didn’t want to remember the name I was given. And seven months later, I’m still waiting for the day when I can finally forget where I got it.

I’ve been living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan since spring. I didn’t plan to stay here for more than one night. I hopped off that bus with a picture in my head and found that the slum I was seeking no longer existed. I’d spent my childhood imagining burnt-out buildings, roving gangs, and urban decay. I’d heard my father fill my brother’s ears with tales of drug dealers, hustlers, and men hardened by misery. It never occurred to me that thirty years had passed since my father left the neighborhood that he always claimed had made him a man. In his absence, the heroin-shooting galleries received a fresh coat of paint, and artists started displaying their work on the walls. The junkies were kicked out to make room for the hipsters. The dive bars started serving tapas and wine. Block by block, the jungle was chopped down and cleared away. When I finally rolled into town, all that was left behind was a pasture.

Even I knew there were places in this city that hadn’t been tamed. Neighborhoods where people have every reason to be scared of the dark. I was planning to search for just such a spot until my little brother, Jude, convinced me to stay.

• • •

As usual, he brought me a dream of the past. In this one, I was eight years old and Jude was seven. It was the third time our mother tried to disappear. I don’t recall much about that particular trip or how long we were gone. I don’t even know where we went. The house where she hid us was little more than a three-room hut. It sat on the edge of a town surrounded by desert. Our neighbors closed their curtains to keep out the heat while they scurried from one pocket of air-conditioning to the next. Every day, Jude and I waited inside for the sun to head west. Then we set out to explore. Our mother warned us to watch for snakes, but we never even heard so much as one rattle. There was nothing out there but rocks, sand, and silence. For the first time, I felt safe.

Late one afternoon, a thunderstorm rolled in and stuck around until evening. That night, a strange bleating drowned out the noise from the television set. My brother thought it sounded like sheep were being slaughtered in the backyard of our house. Our mother told us to stay indoors, but Jude and I got our hands on some flashlights and went to investigate. There were no sheep, of course. Just thousands of toads that had crawled out of the mud. They’d never learned to be frightened of humans, and we had to step carefully as they hopped around our ankles. When we shined our lights on the puddles, we saw that every tiny pool was alive with their spawn.

Jude and I stayed up half the night, making plans for our miniature army. The next morning, I rushed to my window, hoping that some of the eggs had hatched. The toads were gone, and a murder of crows had descended on the desert. I couldn’t remember having seen a single bird in the sky. Now hundreds of them stood like black-clad mourners at the edge of the puddles. I wasn’t sure what was happening until a beast flew past with a string of eggs dangling from its beak. I sprinted outside, armed with a soup ladle and every bowl that my mother had stacked in the cupboards. I filled the vessels with water and eggs and carried the sloshing contents back to the safety of our shack.

Jude found me in the kitchen, searching for a place on the narrow counter for my latest batch of orphans. “What’s going on?” He laughed.

“Look outside! You’ve got to help me save the baby toads!” Watching the dream ten years later, I winced at the shrillness of my little boy voice. “Get the broom! You can beat the crows away while I work.”

Jude stood at the kitchen door and observed the carnage. “They’re eating their breakfast,” he said. “We can chase them away, but they’ll just come back. That’s what they’re supposed to do.”

“What do you mean?” My heart was still pounding.

“Forget it.” Jude tried to undo the damage with a flash of his impish smile. “Let’s go kick some bird butt.”

He spent the rest of the morning pleading with me to go back outside, but I’d already seen that my efforts were pointless. I never checked on the eggs again. A few days later, when I heard the sound of a car pulling up in our driveway, I stayed in front of the television, watching cartoons. While my mother wailed, Jude ran outside to greet our father. He must have been as terrified as we were. But Jude always understood things. He knew that where there is prey, there will always be predators. And by the time our family was back home in Connecticut, I’d learned my lesson. There’s no point in hiding. No place can ever be safe.

• • •

The first night I spent on the Lower East Side, I woke around eleven at night to the sound of drunken laughter. I’d scaled the fence of a construction zone and lain down for a nap on the third floor of a concrete box that was rising up amid the old tenements. I wanted to be ready for the next stage of my journey. But my dream of the desert drained what little was left of my energy. I knew it was Jude’s way of warning me not to go any farther. And when I opened my eyes, I saw how close I’d come to rolling over the edge of the unfinished building. I sat up and let my legs dangle in the open air while I tried to figure out why my brother thought I should stay. That’s when I saw them on the sidewalk below me. Well-heeled tourists filing out of a luxury hotel just down the street. Kids from Manhattan’s finest families stumbling from one bar to the next. Slick young professionals with freshly filled wallets who were too busy texting each other to notice the predators mingling among them. And I suddenly knew I was where I should be.

I came to the Lower East Side hoping to suffer enough to grow strong. I didn’t stay because the pickings are easy. I’m still here because the competition is suitably dangerous. The weather is brutal. And fights are always easy to come by. Even on Christmas Eve.

I hear a siren a few streets away. Someone at the bar must have called the cops. I check my reflection in the side mirror of a delivery van. A stream of blood is still trickling down my face. The collar of my coat is completely soaked. It’s almost one o’clock in the morning, and there’s only one place I can go.

BOOK: How to Lead a Life of Crime
5.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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