Authors: Melissa Pearl
Tags: #coming of age, #justice, #young adult, #fugitive, #contemporary romance
“You bet I did.” His smile was hard. “He didn’t even know who I was and like hell I was gonna let him find out. I studied him, followed him, worked out what his weakness was and then I played him for all he had.” His voice grew distant. “It was the biggest thrill of my life and I decided then that I was going to make it my living. Conning rich bastards out of their money. It’s the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done.”
“But I hate it, Shorty,” she whispered after a long pause.
His eyes shot to her. “You’re so good at it though.”
“Only because you want me to be.”
“We’ve done so well.”
“We’ve hurt people.” She pulled herself up onto the couch. “Howard, Tori, Mr. Derwin, Miles…to name just a few. How can you not be wracked with guilt?”
“Because, Howard was a sniveling prat who was using you to gain popularity and sex; Mr. Derwin was a dirty old man; and Miles was a rich, arrogant prick who once again was only being nice to you because of your luscious tits and arse.” Shorty touched her face. “I’ll give you Tori, but everyone else deserved to go down. You’re like Robin Hood.”
Lucy scoffed. “I don’t see us giving money to the poor.”
“We’ve been the poor. We’ve been the robbed and the cheated. Don’t you see it, Cyan?”
She shrugged, giving a reluctant nod. “Yet here I am, having been robbed once again. Robbed of the only person left on this planet who actually cares about me.”
“What you talking about?” He pointed to himself.
Lucy rolled her eyes and stood. “You like me because I’m good at what I do, but do you honestly care?”
Shorty went very still, making Lucy feel bad. She probably over stepped the mark on that one, but her emotions were strung so tight, she could barely control them.
His deep voice dropped to a whisper. “I may not have the finesse of our Marlin, but you two are family and I ain’t gonna let some crooked copper, take either of you away from me.”
“How are we gonna stop him? He’s too big. He’s too powerful.”
“Don’t you start talking like that. Who says he’s powerful then, eh?” He pointed at her.
“He got away with murder. He somehow managed to make me a prime suspect. I know it was him. It makes perfect sense, Shorty.”
Rubbing his long fingers over his head, Shorty blew out a sigh. Pressing his lips together, he shook his head. “Alright, alright then. We may not be able to bring this arse to justice, but we sure as hell can dent his bank account. He’s gonna hurt one way or another. He’s a greedy fool and we can use that to our advantage.”
“I’m not going near him, Shorty.”
“You don’t have to. He doesn’t know who I am.”
Lucy’s insides settled to a simmer as she watched Shorty’s brain tick over.
He held up his hand to silence her. “You just lay low for a couple of days, love. Give me time to make some calls and work out a plan. First, we need to figure out who this guy is. We should’ve done it months ago, worked out exactly who he was so we could avoid him. If I’d known he’d show up in San Francisco, I never would have brought us here.” He shook his head, regret cresting over his expression.
Lucy forgave him with a closed mouth smile.
“If we can work out exactly who he is, then we can figure out where he’s got Marlin. We rescue our boy and then strip that snake of everything.”
“It’ll be dangerous.”
“Oh yeah.” Shorty chuckled. “But won’t it be fun.”
A trembling laugh scuttled from her mouth. She pulled in a quick breath, sucking it back. The tendrils of fear inside her began to loosen and the anger splurged forward again. The idea of taking down that man made her insides tingle. Maybe it would be fun.
I sat in a small cafe on the outskirts of town. I didn’t intend to work here, my car just kind of stopped outside. I had spent the morning at home, trying to work out everything I’d digested the day before. I’d driven back from San Fran in a blur and rushed up to my room the second I got home. I wrote for an hour, jotting down everything I could remember. It came back to me in flashes, my brain being whipped by the different comments. I fell asleep at my desk and woke up stiff and sore. I could barely make out my scribbles and had to start afresh.
Around breakfast, Mom started hovering, knowing something was up, but not wanting to come out and ask. It started to irritate so I lied and told her I was going to study. I felt like there was something else I was supposed to be doing, but couldn’t remember what. My brain was a muddled mess. I even left my phone sitting beside my bed, something I never usually forgot.
I’d grabbed my backpack to make it look legit and shoved my pad inside, leaving with a mumbled goodbye. I knew I’d have to explain myself later. The operative word being later.
I had no idea what I’d tell them.
But more than that, I had no idea what I was going to say to Dani the next time I saw her. How did I call her on this stuff? Did I just come out and say it? The angry part of me wanted to rage, but another part still didn’t want to push her away.
Swallowing down the last of my coffee, I placed the white mug on the table and toyed with the idea of ordering another one. My notes were now neatly concise. I didn’t have a perfect timeline, but I had a rough guide of how she may have moved. She seemed to work in six to eight week stints then disappear for a few months, returning with a new identity and persona. I thought it was strange that she was taking so long with this con. She’d been at Monte Vista High for ten weeks now, why hadn’t she made her move yet? From what I could tell, she wasn’t really conning anyone. Lying through her teeth — yes, but swindling us for money?
I shook my head as I remembered all those times I’d offered to pay for her meals…but that was chump change really. Where was the big con? Who was she secretly playing?
My forehead was starting to hurt from frowning so much. I ran my pen over the names Riley and Peyton, making them bold as I assessed the timeline.
There were still big gaps in it, schools she probably attended that I knew nothing about. Maybe she’d done longer stints at those schools?
I pressed so hard on the P of Peyton that I ended up ripping the paper.
What did it matter anyway?
I still had a picture…and it was pretty damn clear.
Danielle Harrison was a con artist. She studied her prey, figured out their weaknesses and played on them.
The idea of her using her sexuality to rope those suckers in made me sick, because it made me a sucker too. She had captured me. She had wound her way into my heart and clutched it tightly. Her sweet smile, her soft lips. She’d never been overly flirtatious. She’d known exactly what I needed in order to fall for her.
I felt like such an idiot.
Yet again, Zach Schultz strikes out.
I dropped my pen on the pad and slumped back in my seat. Looking out the window, I took in the quiet street and spotted a short-haired brunette ambling across the road. Her familiar gait made me sit forward, my eyes narrowing as I studied her.
That was the girl I saw weeks ago, the one I thought may have pulled a fast one on that rich guy. But that had just been me imaging things, right?
No way. That couldn’t be right. She—
I snaffled up my pad and pen, shoving them into my bag as I jumped from the seat. I shoved a twenty on the counter as I left, knowing it was way too much, but not caring. Leaping down the stairs, I turned around the edge of the diner and spotted the girl disappearing around the next corner. I sprinted along the street, slowing as I reached the edge of the building. Ducking my head around, I felt like a secret agent as I saw her cross the road and head down an alleyway.
I waited until she’d checked my way before sliding along the wall and following her. I kept this up for about ten minutes, sneaking behind her as she worked her way through a rabbit warren of alleyways. Eventually she stopped outside a dilapidated apartment building that looked like it hadn’t been lived in for years. Windows were smashed, the door was boarded up. From behind a dumpster, I watched her wiggle the bottom board free and climb in through the broken door. Once she was inside, she reached back out and slotted the piece of wood back into place.
What the hell was she doing?
I waited two minutes. I didn’t want to give her too much of a head start, but I also didn’t want her knowing I was following her. This somehow felt like her final destination. Creeping towards the door, I wiggled the board free and slithered inside. I rose up into a musky room that was an empty bar with a broken table in the corner. Soft light filtered in through the cracks between the boards, highlighting the dancing dust. I felt like I was on the set of some murder mystery show. Any second now I’d trip over a corpse and start yelling.
Pulling in much needed air through my nose, I gripped my bag strap and stepped forward. I saw a trail through the dust and followed the tracks, which lead me to a dark stairwell around the corner.
Hesitating for only a moment, I took the stairs, praying they didn’t creak as I ascended. I paused at the top, listening for noises. A quiet shuffling came from a door down the passageway. I eased towards it. Placing my hand against the wood, I pressed my ear to the door and listened.
Someone was definitely in there. It had to be her.
I tried to calm my racing heart as I wrapped my fingers around the knob. The door squeaked as I pushed it open. The brunette was standing with her back to me, but I heard her gasp then grab something off the counter as she spun to face me.
A knife hurtled through the air and I ducked just in time. It embedded into the wood above my head, vibrating from the force of the throw.
“Woah.” With bug eyes, I glanced up at her wild expression.
She turned back to the counter, snatching something else and I leaped off the floor before she could throw it. I ducked behind the table as a metal drinking canteen bounced off the floor behind me. Her breaths were punchy. I waited until I heard her shuffle towards me, then I lurched up and with two diving steps was in front of her. I grabbed her wrist and pushed her up against the wall. Slamming her hand back, I tried to dislodge the Leatherman from her hand, its corkscrew feature ready to pierce my eye.
“Stop it!” I yelled in her face and her eyes jerked towards me.
She went stock still, her lips parting in recognition.
“Zach,” she whispered.
The tool fell from her grasp, clattering against the floor. Letting go of her wrist, I placed my hand on her hair and tugged. The wig fell from its place revealing a splash of blonde.
“Shit.” I flung it across the room and backed away from her. “Shit!”
She stayed silent as I threw my bag on the floor, my eyes raking over the sparse apartment. There was a mattress on the floor in the corner with a threadbare blanket flung over it. The only other furnishing was a lone table with two rickety chairs tucked beneath it. I leaned against the back of one of them, my palms pressing into the wood.
“I didn’t want it to be true,” I finally uttered.
“How’d you find me?” She sounded scared, her eyes darting to the door as if more were about to follow. Maybe the cops? She deserved it.
I gripped the chair, keeping the thought to myself.
“I recognized you. I saw you on the street weeks ago ripping some guy off. You know, where you bumped into him and then blamed him for breaking some statuette that was already sitting headless in the box. Am I right?” My voice was terse and cutting.
She flinched and stretched her neck as if trying to lean away from the guilt.
“So who’d you swindle this time? Some old lady? Some innocent family man? How much did you get?”
Her lips pinched tight. I could see each of my questions stung. She blinked and looked to the floor, her teeth munching on that sexy bottom lip of hers.
“What do you want, Zach?” She sounded tired, beat up by my discovery.
I had expected some sneering smile or arrogant smirk, even anger would have been better than defeat. With a frown, I reached down for my backpack and slowly unzipped it. Pulling out my pad, I gripped it so tightly the pages started to scrunch.
“I want to know who you are.”
A tendon in her neck pinged tight, but her lips remained sealed. She wasn’t going to give me anything.
I picked up the pad and couldn’t help my scathing tone. “I’m trying to figure out if you’re Taylor, the party animal who likes to prey on loser guys and take them for all they’re worth.”
Her eyes grew round, her skin paling to snowy white.
“Or maybe you’re Riley, the girl who dates rich prats hoping to swindle them for as much as you can until you leave them hanging in a shopping mall one day. Or are you in fact, Peyton a girl who likes to get it on with old guys while her friends take pictures!” I slapped the pad down.
“You’ve been investigating me?” Her anger was so heavily laced with fear, it was hard to match it. My insides jerked as she fought for composure, blinking at what I could only assume were tears. “Get out!” She pointed to the door, her hand trembling.