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Authors: Kirsten Miller

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BOOK: How to Lead a Life of Crime
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• • •

The sliver of window at the top of Joi’s room is open when we fall asleep. No mere mortal could cram himself through the opening, but it’s wide enough for Peter Pan to slip inside. He’s leaning against a wall—one foot on the bricks and one on the floor.

He crosses his arms and shakes his head. “You’re a f—ing mess,” he says.

“I bet you’ve seen worse.” He knows what I mean.

“Touché,” he responds with a tip of his green felt hat.

“Why are you here, Jude?”

“You know as well as I do. This isn’t the way my gift was meant to be used. I grace you with stealth and cunning, and you choose to rob drunks and pick fights. But it was nice how you saved the girl from that thug tonight. Makes me think there might be hope for you yet.”

“I wasn’t trying to save her. I wanted to steal her wallet.”

Jude laughs. “If you say so.”

If he’s right—if the wallet was just an excuse to help her—then I’m nowhere near ready.

“You don’t have to do this.” He’s suddenly serious. “You can come with me. Never Land is everything you’d want it to be.”

“Never Land doesn’t exist, Jude.”

“Then where do I go when I’m not with you?”

I don’t have the heart to answer.

“That’s okay, I knew you wouldn’t come. You want to stay here with her, don’t you?” He nods to Joi’s side of the bed.

More than anything, I think. “I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because I owe you, Jude. You’re still my one good thing.”

“I’m dead. It’s time to find another.”

CHAPTER THREE

A SIMPLE PROPOSITION

I
’m shocked that I don’t have a hangover. I must have been drunk to come so close to spilling my beans last night. The moment I wake, I scan the room for Peter Pan. But he’s returned to his hiding place inside my head.

Jude was ten years old when he came home from school clutching a copy of Peter Pan. One of his teachers had called him “the boy who wouldn’t grow up.” The idea intrigued him. He consumed the first novel in a single night and devoured the rest of J. M. Barrie’s works by week’s end. My brother’s obsession didn’t end when he reached the last page. As soon as there was nothing left to read, Jude decided to become Peter Pan. And no one ever laughed. Because it didn’t take much imagination to believe Jude could fly.

He was smart. So much smarter than I ever was. And charming and clever. Two things I’ll never be. A handsome trickster with a thatch of strawberry-blond hair that he insisted on cutting himself. Jude could con you out of your most cherished possessions—and make you thank him for taking them off your hands. He could look like a saint while spinning lies that would make a hardened sinner blush red. Other kids followed him. Adults were in awe of him. When teachers called him a scoundrel, they always said it with smiles on their faces. A friend of my mother’s predicted that Jude would one day be president or in prison—or both.

My father took all the credit, of course. He once told me that the moment I was born, he knew I belonged to my mother. That must have been the reason he demanded another child so soon after the first had arrived. He wanted a son of his own. And he wasn’t disappointed the second time around. When my father looked at Jude, he saw everything he’d desired. He was a man with no tolerance for whimsy. But even when Jude began flying through the house dressed up like an androgynous elf, my father still saw his boy. Who knows—maybe he’d read Barrie’s books for himself. And maybe he’d stumbled across the same clues I have. Peter Pan, I’m now almost certain, was Captain Hook’s son.

But there were things about Jude that our father never saw. He never saw Jude hiding me when the old man went on one of his Scotch-fueled rampages. He never realized that most of Jude’s attempts to get his attention were only meant to draw it away from me. My father thought Jude despised his weakling big brother. He didn’t know how much of his own strength Jude wasted trying to save me.

I won’t let Joi make the same mistake that Jude did. She’s lying beside me, her face cradled in a nest of her hair. None of her features fit together, and yet I’ve never seen anyone so lovely. Her beauty is perfect because it’s all wrong. I’ve been searching for flaws hidden beneath Joi’s surface, and while I’m sure they exist, I still haven’t found one. I would sacrifice almost anything to stay here with her. And that’s exactly why I have to leave. She will keep me from becoming what I need to be. And if she tries to save me, I will end up destroying her.

Today I plan to be dressed and gone before Joi has a chance to ask me to stay. Whenever I spend the night at the colony, I’m usually the one who sleeps in. I work the nightshift, while Joi keeps regular business hours. Every morning, she hops on the subway and heads to a different part of town. She returns in the evening with a bag of supplies. Jeans for the kids who’ve outgrown the ones they arrived in. Food for the kids who can’t feed themselves. Trinkets for anyone celebrating a birthday. It’s all stolen, of course. I’d kill for a chance to observe her technique. She must be a world-class shoplifter if she’s nicking enough to support a whole colony. But Joi refuses to let anyone tag along. All she’s ever told me is that she won’t hit the same store twice in one year. And when she takes something, she leaves behind a handwritten receipt. Thank You for Donating $___ in Goods to the LES Children’s Fund. Somehow I doubt the IRS lets the store owners write off their losses. But it seems to keep Joi’s conscience clean.

Her swag bags have gotten heavier over the past few weeks, and I suspect she has something special planned for Christmas morning. I don’t want to know what it is. Before I slip out, I remember the wallet I stole last night. I unhook the clasp and pull out a wad of bills. There’s more than three hundred dollars—far more than I need. I keep a twenty and leave the rest for Joi. I hope she buys something nice for herself.

• • •

Outside, the streets are dead. It’s the first time I’ve seen the city so empty. I’m wandering around like the sole survivor of some mysterious cataclysm that’s destroyed the rest of my species. I’m humanity’s last hope. The thought makes me laugh out loud.

The last man on earth needs to eat. But there’s nothing open. Even the delis and diners are dark. Chinatown may be the only place I’ll be able to trade my twenty for food. So I start walking south on Clinton Street. I stop just short of Essex to peer through the window of a jewelry shop. There’s a kid staring back at me. He’s got a beaten, broken face that still manages to be a little too pretty. He’s not who I want to see. I’m looking for the store’s owner. His name is Jim Neverbotheredtoask, and he’s my fence of choice. His rates aren’t what I’d call fair, but at least they’re consistent. And he’ll take anything I bring him. Jewelry, bikes, electronics. A few weeks ago, he let me roll a Vespa right into the shop. He even gives me a few bucks for each credit card I collect. I’ve never found his door padlocked before. Apparently Jim has taken the day off to celebrate the birth of his Lord. I’d like to know how much of the stuff under this year’s Christmas tree is hot.

I keep walking, and when I hit Grand Street, I see my first signs of life. A bunch of Orthodox Jewish kids are playing some kind of game in the street. They stare at me as I walk past, and I sense their disappointment. They were sure the city was theirs for the day.

I’m about to turn right on Grand Street when a strange compulsion comes over me, and I continue my path down Clinton. At the next intersection, I stop. I visited this place on my second day in the city, but I’ve steered clear of it ever since. On the southeast corner of Clinton and East Broadway sits a six-story building. Grimy beige bricks with dark green trim around the top. It looks like every other apartment building on the Lower East Side, except for the entrance. The doorway is red and flanked by two columns that support a decorative balcony. The name of the structure is written in red just below. The Mayflower. That’s how I knew I’d found the right place, even though I’d never been given an address. My father spent his first sixteen years living on the fourth floor of this tenement. Then he won a scholarship and set out to seek his fortune. He works on Wall Street these days. His office is less than a mile away, but I doubt he’s ever returned to the Lower East Side.

I wonder what he would say if he could see his old quarters. The first time I visited, I broke into the building and had a look around a fourth-floor apartment. I’m not sure if it was the one my father had called home, but it was the only apartment that was empty that morning. The rooms were tiny, the bathtub was in the kitchen, and the walls were riddled with oozing plaster pustules. My father thinks that most kids of my generation are too soft to last in a place like the Mayflower. I might have agreed with him until I saw all the pictures on the apartment’s walls. At least three Latino kids seemed to be surviving just fine in my father’s childhood home. Maybe they were all exceptional actors, but the smiles on their faces looked perfectly genuine.

Jude used to say that my father was full of shit. He thought the Mayflower was nothing more than a lie. I suppose the truth is a little more complicated.

• • •

The tourists might be missing, but Chinatown is open for business. I slip into my favorite restaurant on Doyers Street. The décor leaves much to be desired, and I’m not always sure what I’m eating. But whatever it is, it’s cheap and delicious. The locals love the place, and tables are usually hard to come by. But today, the restaurant is empty. It’s just me and Mr. Song, who’s always behind the counter—at least sixteen hours a day.

While I wait for my food, I pull out the wallet I stole last night and start to examine its contents. It belongs to one Mia Osman. The girl’s got every credit card known to man. I spread them out on the table. Fourteen pieces of plastic that could keep Joi’s colony fed and clothed for years. I’m sure they were all canceled first thing this morning. Replacements will be arriving by FedEx tomorrow.

There’s not much else here to entertain me. Just a few strange notes crammed into the pockets. Chanel Rogue Shine in Deauville! reads one. A prescription for Adderall that might come in handy. A receipt for a thousand-dollar pair of Louboutin shoes. Another for lunch at a bistro on the Upper East Side. She left a 5 percent tip and dotted the i in her signature with a heart.

I feel a cold breeze as the restaurant door opens, and I quickly sweep the contents of the wallet into my lap before I look up to see who’s joined me for breakfast.

A man has chosen a table by the front window. He pulls out a chair that’s facing me, which instantly tells me there might be a problem. When two strangers take seats in an empty restaurant, they almost always prefer not to look at each other. Unless one of the strangers finds the other intriguing. I’ve had men hit on me before, but it usually happens on days when half of my face isn’t hidden beneath a bandage. Anyway, this guy doesn’t strike me as the lonely-and-looking-for-love sort. If he was, he could afford someone much better-looking than me.

I know this because there is one skill at which all rich people truly excel, and that’s recognizing each other. Even when we’re in disguise. The first thing I notice is the man’s overcoat, which fits him perfectly though he’s not a standard size. He takes it off, revealing a turtleneck sweater and jeans that he probably bought at J. Crew. That might make me question my assessment if it weren’t for his shoes. My father owns several pairs made by the same small shop in Italy. You could fly around the world three times for the price.

My eyes come to rest on his face. Maybe he doesn’t want my body, but he does want something. And he’s not shy, either. He’s met my gaze. I keep my expression stony, but he smiles. I’d say he’s thirty-five. But a rich thirty-five, which means he could pass for a man in his twenties. Tousled brown hair that was probably red in his youth. Blue eyes. Freckles so densely distributed that from a distance they might be mistaken for a tan. He seems friendly. Boyish. But there’s something he’s hiding. Something he doesn’t want me to see.

He’s risen from his seat, and he’s moving toward me. Mr. Song has disappeared. The man stops at my table and places a palm on the top of the chair across from me.

“May I join you?” he asks.

I hook the toe of one boot under the bottom rung. The chair doesn’t budge when he tries to pull it out. “Why?” I demand.

“I have a proposition for you.”

Maybe I was wrong. Maybe he is looking for love. But I doubt it.

“What?”

“I’d like to hire a thief, and I believe you might be the right man for the job.”

CHAPTER FOUR

BREAKING AND ENTERING

E
very serial killer knows that once you lure a potential victim into your vehicle, the rest of the job is a piece of cake. Joi warns her urchins to avoid all strangers in cars. It makes no difference how much money they flash, she says, or what flavor of candy they’re offering. Walk away. Even if they have a friendly smile and impeccable manners. Not all killers need to carry a gun. The ones who use charm instead of weapons or brute force are always the worst of the bunch. I guess the urchin who was murdered didn’t listen to Joi. Security footage from a bodega on Attorney Street showed the girl sliding into an SUV with tinted windows and plates that may have been from New Jersey. That’s where they found her body a few months later.

I never received one of Joi’s warnings. She probably assumed I knew better. But here I am, sitting in the passenger seat of a Maserati GranTurismo, gathering information about the man at the wheel. He has a lead foot and very little respect for the city’s traffic laws. Still, he’s an excellent driver, possibly even professionally trained. Italy’s top rocket scientists must have been hired to customize the Maserati’s interior. The dashboard is bristling with little buttons and levers. I wonder if I’ve had the honor of being kidnapped by a Bond villain. I keep waiting for hidden restraints to pop out and pin me to my seat. On another day, I might be worried about what the man has in store for me. Today, I don’t really care. I’m just curious.

He wouldn’t talk in Mr. Song’s restaurant, except to say that I would be paid five hundred bucks for less than an hour’s work. I never asked how he knew that I was a thief. I would have accepted his offer right there on the spot, but he told me I should see a few things for myself before I decided to take the job. Then he slapped down a hundred-dollar bill to pay for the food I’d ordered. If he was trying to impress me, it didn’t work. I shoved the bill across the table and made him wait until I finished my breakfast. And I didn’t bother to rush.

The ride ends sooner than I expected. We’ve stopped on Charles Street in Greenwich Village—just across town from Pitt Street and a whole world away. Tourists think Manhattan’s most picturesque neighborhood is still home to the city’s artists, painters, and poets. There hasn’t been a poet sighting in the Village for years. You have to work in finance to afford all this cuteness.

The man points out his driver’s-side window.

“That’s where you’ll be working,” he says.

It’s a four-story town house. Old. Brick. Tons of original detail. Every New York banker’s wet dream. But the people who live here appear to be the last of the breed I thought was extinct. I can see an easel standing by a top-floor window. The house is dark. Looks like no one’s been home for a while.

“You just parked across the street from the place you want me to rob?” I ask. What an idiot. His money must be inherited.

“There’s no need to worry. The occupants are out of town. And I’m in the process of purchasing the building.”

He’s giving me that smile again. He’s expecting me to ask why he wants to rob his own building.

“What do you want me to get?” I refuse to give him the satisfaction.

“I should explain a few things first,” the man says.

“Just tell me what you’re after, and I’ll find it. I’m not interested in exposition.”

But he won’t be hurried. “You might want to indulge me. A young man should never pass up a chance to see how the world really works. You could learn a few new tricks,” he says with all the good humor of a sitcom dad.

“I know how the world works,” I respond.

“Then you should also know when it’s time to be quiet and listen.” He still hasn’t stopped smiling.

“Listening costs extra,” I say.

For some reason, this seems to amuse him. “Will another two hundred suffice?”

“Spill your guts, Goldfinger.” I slouch down in my seat and stare out the windshield.

“I’ve always preferred Blofeld,” the man replies with a laugh. “I’m a cat lover too.”

“I’ll need an extra five hundred if you want to discuss your pets.”

“Then perhaps we should get down to business.” The man smirks. “The building is currently owned by a gentleman who should be dead in a matter of days.”

“You planning to kill him?” I ask. It’s a joke, but my employer answers as if I were perfectly serious.

“Of course not. The gentleman in question is ninety years old, and he’s dying of renal failure. I’ve already made a deal with his son to buy the house as soon as the old man is gone. Unfortunately, the building comes with a pest problem. There’s an artist and his family living upstairs. I want them all out.”

“So give them the boot after you buy the building.”

My new boss sighs. “If only it were that simple. The house’s owner has always considered himself a patron of the arts. At some point in the 1980s, he befriended a promising painter who was down on his luck. He offered the young man an apartment and studio on the top two floors of this building. The neighborhood wasn’t quite as genteel in those days, and rents were much cheaper. But the painter got a deal that was remarkable even back then. He pays two hundred and fifty dollars a month—plus six terrible paintings a year. I’ve had my lawyer look over the document. She says that the lease is good for another twenty years.”

“Outrageous,” I drone. I honestly couldn’t care less.

“I suppose the deal might have worked out well for the owner if the painter had gone on to fame and fortune. But the best art is always inspired by pain, and life isn’t terribly painful if you’re living in the most sought-after part of Manhattan for three thousand dollars a year. Everything our painter has produced since he moved here has been mediocre. Even his two dim-witted children.”

“Let me guess. You want me to find the painter’s copy of the lease so you can destroy it and kick the guy out.” My fingers grip the door handle. I really can’t stand any more of this. It’s time to cut to the chase. “No problem.”

The man is still trying to hammer a point into my head, but he’s finding my skull can be remarkably thick. “You understand, don’t you? These people don’t belong here.”

What in the hell does he want from me? “There’s no doubt in my mind that you deserve to live here much more than they do,” I assure him, my voice slick with sarcasm.

“I have no intention of living here,” the man tells me. “I have a perfectly fine house a few blocks away. But I’m something of a bibliophile, and my library is overflowing. I need a building close to home where I can store my rare books.”

I laugh so hard that tears start to well up in my eyes. This is, hands down, the strangest conversation I’ve ever had. “Whatever,” I say. “Are we done here?”

“Yes,” the man replies.

“Then drop me off down the street. You don’t want anyone on the block to see me getting out of your car. I’ll meet you around the corner when I’m done.”

I consider hitting the road as soon as his car is out of sight. This whole scenario is too goddamned weird. And it gets even stranger when I discover that the front door of the building has been left unlocked. I wonder if I’m being set up. Maybe I’m the unwitting star of some new reality show that explores the dark side of the human soul. I turn around and grin for the cameras, just in case they’re watching.

Past the front entrance is a small foyer. I’m facing a pair of doors. The left must lead to the lower apartment. The right door is blocking the stairs to the top two floors. I examine the lock on the door I need to open. Then I immediately check the foyer for hidden cameras. I’m not smiling anymore. I’m serious now. This has to be some kind of joke. Every apartment in Manhattan has at least one dead bolt on the door. Every apartment except the one I’m being paid seven hundred dollars to rob. There’s just a dinky bedroom knob—the type with a push-button lock. I spend a moment wondering if anyone who lives in New York could really be so stupid. Maybe a painter, I decide.

I take out one of Mia Osman’s credit cards and slowly slide it down the crack between the door and its frame. The lock opens on the very first swipe.

Paintings line the stairway that leads up to the artist’s apartment: A bum in Washington Square Park. A panhandler on a subway platform. Poor kids dancing through the spray of a fire hydrant. They’re crap. The guy can paint, but his choice of subjects is pure cheese. I’m expecting more of the same when I step into the living room on the building’s third floor. But the first thing I see steals my breath for a moment. One entire wall of the room is covered in mismatched frames. Behind the glass in each frame is a mitten that must have belonged to one of the artist’s kids. There are dozens of mittens, and none of them are identical. Every one is a different color. Some are damaged and dirty. Others couldn’t have been worn more than twice. The first mitten in the row closest to the ceiling looks small enough for an infant. The white snowflake stitched on its palm is almost too tiny to see. Little by little, the flakes get fatter and the mittens grow larger. The last one that was framed is almost adult-sized.

It’s as beautiful as anything ever displayed in my parents’ home. My father always chose art that screamed good taste and deep pockets. He never bothered to see if it spoke to him. As far as he was concerned, a painting was just a way to hang money on the wall. I don’t think he ever realized that each of his “investments” contained a little piece of someone’s soul.

I’m starting to feel a bit jittery. So I pull my eyes away from the mittens and scan the living room. No television. An ancient turntable. A computer with a goddamned floppy disk drive. No wonder the door downstairs doesn’t have a dead bolt. The family doesn’t think they have anything worth stealing.

The lease will probably be in a desk or filing cabinet, and there isn’t anything like that here. I wander down the hall and peer into a bedroom. It doesn’t look promising, but I’ll give it a more thorough search if I don’t find what I’m after on my first go- through. Across the hall is a room that belongs to a teenage boy. The door is plastered with those stupid stickers they hand out at conventions. Hello, my name is . . . The name Jack is written graffiti-style inside all the white spaces. I don’t even bother to enter Jack’s lair. I rule out the kitchen at the back of the apartment, then head upstairs.

There’s an enormous skylight in the studio’s ceiling. The room must be perfect for painting. The easel I spotted from the street displays the artist’s latest masterpiece: an old lady pulling weeds in a tiny garden wedged between crumbling buildings. I groan at the sight and turn my attention to a paint-splattered table. On top, there’s a jumble of tubes, tools, and brushes. Underneath is a small filing cabinet. Jackpot.

It’s locked, but it takes me ten seconds to jimmy open the drawer with a screwdriver. Inside, there’s a f—ing folder labeled lease. I thumb though the yellowing pages to make sure I’ve got the right document. Something in the distance catches my eye. Movement. There’s a room off the studio, and the door is wide open. I knew this was too easy. I’ve been set up. Someone’s been waiting here to catch me red-handed. If they expect me to run, they’re in for a shock. I’ll go out fighting. With the lease rolled up and shoved in my pocket, I stand and silently make my way across the floorboards.

But the room is empty. There’s a rumpled bed with faded flowery sheets and a desk that’s being used as a vanity. Clothes are strewn everywhere, as if the girl who lives here couldn’t decide what to pack. She must have been in a rush. She forgot to close the window, and the curtains are fluttering in the breeze. I notice that almost all of the pictures taped to the walls feature the same blond teenager. She reminds me of someone. In one of the photos, she’s waving. On her hand is a mitten from the wall downstairs.

“The girl’s pretty cute, don’t you think?” I spin around to see Peter f—ing Pan. He must have come in through the window.

“Jesus, Jude,” I manage to shout and not shriek. “Go away!”

“So whatcha gonna tell Joi about all this?” He’s floating above me, about a foot from the ceiling.

“It’s none of her business.”

“But she might need to make room for the painter’s kids at the colony. By the way, how much do you think this one could charge?” he asks, pointing at the blonde in the pictures.

“What in the hell are you talking about?”

“I’m just saying she kinda looks like that girl at the colony who got kicked out of her house.”

“Trina,” I say.

“Her name’s Tina,” Jude corrects me. “Maybe she and this new girl could work the Lower East Side together. Pretend to be sisters or something. I bet they’d make more money that way.”

I’ve never heard him speak like this. “Shut up. No one here is going to be homeless. There’s a place for crappy artists and their families. It’s called Queens.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure I don’t give a shit.” The words leave the taste of vomit in my mouth.

“Then why are you feeling sick to your stomach?” He’s flying alongside me while I sprint downstairs to the bathroom.

“Why are you doing this to me?” I finally ask when the last piece of rice from my Chinese breakfast is floating in the toilet bowl. “Why are you making it so hard?”

Peter Pan grins. “Because you still believe in me.”

• • •

I flush the food and every thought in my brain down the toilet. I make sure the lease is still in my pocket and head for the kitchen. I’m looking for something pungent enough to cover the stench of vomit on my breath. The family must have cleaned out the refrigerator before they left for the holidays. All I see are a few crusty condiments and four shriveled pickles floating in brine. Good enough. I grab the whole jar.

I eat one of the pickles on my way down the stairs. I have to pause at the front door to make sure it stays in my stomach. I’m crunching on another as I slide into the passenger’s seat of my employer’s car. I finish the snack before I hand him the lease. I can tell from the expression on his face that the pickles were a nice touch. I must look totally badass.

“That was fast. I assume you didn’t encounter any problems?” he asks.

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