Fighting Shadows (On the Ropes #2)(5) by Aly Martinez

I didn’t want to rob people; however, I was willing to do whatever it took so I didn’t have to move again.

Fifteen years. Twenty-two houses. Well, house might have been a little-too-liberal use of the word. Sure, we had lived in houses. Nice ones. Big ones. But we’d also lived in trailers, apartments, and, on more than one occasion, our car. Conning people didn’t exactly provide a steady income.

Reaching into my pocket, I retrieved the rest of the man’s belongings. “Here.”

“That’s my girl!” He snatched the wallet and business card carrier from my hands. “Where’s his car keys?”

“I don’t know.” I shrugged, awkwardly looking out the window. “Maybe he carpools.”

“God damn it, Ash!” he boomed.

“He was nice! I took his wallet. He wouldn’t have been able to pay for a cab!”

“Oh, yeah? Poor guy. Maybe you can write a letter apologizing to him?”

It wasn’t a completely bad idea, but I was relatively sure he was going somewhere else with that statement.

“While you’re in jail!” he finished. “Your prints were on those keys. The first time you get caught, they will have you for every asshole you’ve ever turned.”

“Nuh uh! I wiped ’em.”

“Well, for your sake, I hope you were thorough! Stop leaving the fucking keys!” He banged the heel of his palm against the steering wheel.

“It’s rude. We don’t do anything with them anyway. They just go in the trash.”

“I’m gonna need you to listen to me very carefully.” He pulled off to the side of the road just as we got out of the city. “Your job is to take everything you can get from their pockets. That’s it. If your fingers touch something, it comes home with us. You got it?”

I rolled my eyes.

And he narrowed his. “You know what? Maybe Minneapolis would be a good change for you.”

That got my attention. “No!”

“You’re getting sloppy, Ash.” He sucked on his teeth with a slurping sound that made me want to vomit. “A change might be exactly what you need.” He pulled back onto the road, cool as a fucking cucumber.

I, however, was livid. “Fine! I’ll take the keys!”

“Nah. You’ve gotten too comfortable down here in the South. Everyone’s an easy target. You need the challenge of a bigger city.”

“Dad! No. You swore that we could stay here for a full year. It’s only been three months!”

“I can’t take that risk with you leaving your prints all over the goddamn city. Besides, I’ve got a lead in Minnesota. It could set us up for a while.”

“School starts next week! You promised me I could enroll after Christmas.”

“Well, you know what? Sometimes, shit doesn’t work out the way we’ve planned.” He reached over and opened the glove compartment, pulling a toothpick out and shoving it in his mouth. I had an overwhelming urge to stab it in his eye. “Especially when you bring back five hundred bucks and a fucking case of business cards.”

What he didn’t know was that the nice guy I’d just worked over also had his social security card in his wallet along with that five hundred bucks—or that I’d snuck it out while he’d checked the watch. I’d probably saved that poor schmuck three years of his life trying to get his identity back after my father got done with it. But . . . he was nice.

“Asshole,” I mumbled under my breath. Although it wasn’t nearly quiet enough.

“Just forget it, Ash. I’ve changed my mind. I don’t think school is going to be a good fit for you. Besides, what the hell do you know about algebra?”

“Nothing!” I yelled. “I know nothing about algebra, English, or history as far as you’re concerned. It’s a goddamn miracle I can even read and write.”

“Oh, don’t give me that shit. You always have your nose stuck in some book. Plus, I got you that computer so you could take classes online. Stop being so dramatic.” He went back to staring out the window.

“You did not get me a computer. I stole a computer! From a ninety-year-old man whose grandkids bought it for him so they could video chat with him every day because they missed him so much.”

“What the fucking hell are you talking about?” He laughed. “He was sixty-five and loaded. His grandkids hated him.”

“You don’t know that! It could have happened my way.” I crossed my arms over my chest, full-on pouting.

“Yes, I do. How the hell do you think you got a key to his house? His crooked son paid me to get that computer. There was quite a bit of information stored on that bad boy before you decorated it with puppy stickers.”

Whatever. I liked my version better.

I changed the subject back. “I’m not moving.”

“Debbie’s packing your shit as we speak.”

“No,” I gasped.

“We don’t have the money to stay. If you had actually brought me something of use, I could have squeaked us by a few more weeks, but business cards aren’t going to pay the rent.”

Tennessee seriously sucked. I had no friends and I slept on the couch in a one-bedroom apartment that had an ant problem. Yet I would’ve given absolutely anything to stay there. It was the first place my father had actually considered letting me attend school. I hated his wife, but thankfully, the feeling was mutual. She was so desperate to get rid of me that she’d actually convinced my father that school would be good for me. I wasn’t exactly bi-curious or anything, but when he’d finally said yes, I’d wanted to throw her down and hump her.

I’d been begging my father for as long as I could remember to let me go to school. But he’d always answered with a resounding no. He had given me a ton of bullshit excuses over the years, but I knew the truth. It all boiled down to the paper trail. Ray Mabie used a hundred different identities. Very rarely were they actually his own. However, if Ash Victoria Mabie enrolled in a public school, he would have to provide some sort of documentation. God, I would’ve killed to go to an actual school, with actual kids my age. I’d heard that teenage girls were bitches, but I was willing to take the chance. They couldn’t be all that bad. I was pretty freaking awesome. Surely there were others like me.

I sucked in a deep breath and reached into my pocket, palming the social security card that I knew would buy me more than just a few weeks. I began to pull it out, but I stilled as I remembered the soft smile of the man who’d offered me—a stranger in need—his coat. He hadn’t had to do that. He could have walked the other way, like so many others had that day.

Damn it. Why’d he have to be so nice?

“I hate you,” I mumbled as I rolled the window down and tossed the social security card to the side of the highway.

“What the hell was that?” my father asked.

“Gum wrapper. You want some?” I flipped the pack I had hidden in my hand.

He eyed me warily. “Gum, huh?”

“Yep,” I responded before blowing a bubble and popping it loudly.

“Don’t litter,” he scolded.

I couldn’t help but laugh. The man had sent me out on the streets alone with zero protection, but a gum wrapper on the side of a road bothered him. To hell with his daughter, but let’s not tamper with the fragile environment.

Fuck my life.

Eight months later . . .

“I HAVE TO GET OUT of here,” I declared as if I were being held prisoner in the pits of hell. And in my mind, I really was.

I prided myself on being logical and levelheaded. I was a planner who thought out every detail, sometimes to the point of obsession. But right then, as the words flew from my mouth, it was a completely rash decision made in haste when I caught my brother innocently kissing his wife while holding his child. He had every right to do it, and I had every right to leave so I didn’t have to witness it anymore.

Till and Eliza had gone to great lengths to make me comfortable in their new house. And by anyone’s standards, they had done an amazing job. It was a far cry from the shithole we had grown up in. By all means, I should have been ecstatic. But I was suffocating in that one-point-four-million-dollar mansion. Sure, I had a bedroom that had been built especially for me—complete with an adjoining gym that was a physical therapist’s wet dream and a bathroom that was fully handicap accessible. I had the freedom most people in my situation dreamed about.

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