Honor Among Thieves

The elderly woman had passed me at least three times since I’d entered the store. She was wheeling a cart containing two boxes of Wheaties and a silk flower arrangement, wearing a windbreaker despite the single-digit weather outside, and leaning on the handle as though she’d been on her feet for hours. Was she a loss control employee?

I thought about abandoning the camera I’d temporarily stashed inside a tire in the auto section, in a spot blind to the security cams, but my sister’s birthday was coming up in a week.

When the old woman headed toward the gardening section at the far end of the store, I decided to act. Unobserved, as best I could tell, I took out my box cutter, slit open the blister pack, removed the compact camera and shoved it into my underwear, letting it settle uncomfortably below my balls. While I could feel it as I walked, it didn’t require me to adjust my gait, a sure tell that even a drowsy security camera monitor would spot.

My palms were perspiring freely as I counted out the cash for the purchase at checkout. The clerk, however, rang me up without a word.

Before I left I knelt to tie a shoelace, giving me a chance to scan the front doors for the elderly woman. She was nowhere in sight.

As I took a seat in my truck, I let out a sigh of relief; I’d gotten away with it again, my first heist since I’d been busted for the first time in my life a month earlier at the Wal-Mart thanks to a loss control employee who looked so young I’d discounted her.

I was working the front desk at the registrar’s office of the local university the next Monday when an attractive woman about my age entered. She had black hair that curled down onto her shoulders as disorganized as waterfall froth, serious gray eyes behind jade-framed glasses, a tentative smile and a slender frame. No wedding ring. I was immediately smitten; I liked smart women, and when she introduced herself as Ashley Moore, an adjunct professor in the Psychology Department, my attraction only deepened.

She was there to change a grade from the previous semester, and I suspected from her overly effusive apology that she hadn’t made a calculation error as she claimed, but was granting another unworthy student a second chance. I saw it every semester, professors whose commitment to their final grades was as firm as a Jell-O shot.

Still, despite her preoccupation with the grade change, there was a bit of spark to our conversation–a quick flash of eye contact, a hint of a smile where one was not warranted, more lean across the counter than would have occurred had she been repulsed. The clock reached noon just as our business concluded, and I took a chance and asked if she’d like to join me for lunch. To my pleasure, she agreed.

On the way to the dining hall, I asked about her teaching load.

“Three sections of Intro to Psychology.”

“That sounds like a lot.”

She rolled her eyes. “Tell that to the department heads. They all have tenure, so you can guess what their work load is.”

“You been at this long?”

“Only two years, so I can’t expect to be on a tenure track. Yet. But I have ambition.”

I opened the dining hall door for her. “I’ve been working for the registrar for almost six years now.”

“Doesn’t seem too exciting,” she said.

“End of semester it can get pretty wild. You can’t imagine all the kids who think we can override a professor’s grade.”

“I’m in psychology, so I can imagine just about anything.”

I wondered if she could imagine a registrar’s assistant who was addicted to shoplifting, but I knew better than to pose the question.

During lunch, I discovered that Ashley had grown up in Cleveland, did her undergrad work at Kent State, her doctorate at Ohio State, that she had always been single, lived with two cats, kayaked and bicycled for fun, liked alternative bands, wore braces until she was 19… she was amazingly, almost appallingly willing to share of herself.

I was relieved that she didn’t seem to expect quid pro quo. I didn’t want to lie to her, not this early in a relationship, but I wasn’t willing to share about my father the con man, my mother the professional psychic, or my sister, the weed dealer. I’d manufactured stories about a better family to please other women, but each time fell into the trap of small but important details I could not remember the next time we met.

I managed to keep the conversation light, focusing on comparative enthusiasms in the three great date topics (music, movies, and food). By the time she left to attend to her student conferences I was convinced this was the woman for me.

Feeling like a shy freshman, I sent her an e-mail later that afternoon asking if she’d care to join me for a concert of a locally popular heavy metal band the following Friday night. To my pleasure, she replied yes.

I stopped by my sister Sarah’s place on the way home to give her the camera.

I anticipated delight as she unwrapped the gift, so I was surprised by her scowl.

“What’s wrong?” I said as she tossed the camera back into my lap.

“It’s not the gift, it’s how you got it.”

“Yeah, so I lifted it. Your whole apartment is outfitted with stuff we stole, so why is this any different?”

“Because I have the sense to be embarrassed about it.”

“Is this because you’re dating that Mormon?”

She shifted position on the couch, tucking her feet up under her like a cat. “Don’t start on Stuart. Maybe you and I didn’t have anything to do with church when we were growing up, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something there that could have helped us grow up as better citizens.”

I loved my sister, usually supported her in whatever she wanted to do, but this time I was at a loss. If she was going religious on me I could see us growing apart, since she was bound to view my life as a looming disaster.

“What’s he think about your dealing?”

“I’m out of that business,” she said. “I have been for a couple of months.”

“Thank God,” I said. “I always worried you’d get caught. The customer base isn’t exactly the most dependable.”

“You’re telling me. I can’t believe I never got busted.”

“Does Stuart know?”

She looked down her nose at me. “Do I look like an idiot? As far as he knows, I’m just a single girl making her way by cleaning houses.”

“So the shoplifting’s something I shouldn’t mention.”

“I think it would be best if I don’t introduce you for a while yet, after your arrest. Let him get more used to me before I expose him to the family.”

This disturbed me a great deal; I’d never before been someone my sister hid from her lovers. In fact, she’d often pointed me out with pride as her little brother who actually had held onto a job for years, something of a landmark in our family history. I couldn’t imagine what Stuart would make of my mother and father.

“So no more shoplifting?” I said.

“Doesn’t it get to you? It’s like an addiction but nobody talks about it. You kick dope or alcohol and people are all ‘congratulations’, willing to do anything to help you, but tell them you kicked shoplifting and they look at you like you’re a pedophile.”

“I take that as a yes.”

“Believe it or not, no more crimes for me. I don’t even run stop signs.”

“Mom and Dad will disinherit you, you know.”

Sarah rolled her eyes. “Like I care. We won’t be able to sell their estate anyway; we’ll have to fence it. I’m about this close,” she held up her thumb and forefinger with a gap the width of a thread, “to cutting them out of my life altogether.”

“What about me?” I said.

“I don’t know, kiddo. You keep heisting stuff and we may have to part ways too. And I really hope I don’t have to do that, because you’re the only one in the family who I care about.”

“Don’t do anything rash,” I said. “I can change.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Ashley agreed to join me before the concert for dinner at my favorite Lebanese place north of the OSU campus. I spent an inordinate amount of time selecting my wardrobe for the occasion. In the end, I chose my best pair of jeans, dressing them up with a newish plaid shirt and a butterscotch leather jacket that I’d lifted from Nordstrom’s during the Christmas rush.

Ashley answered her doorbell almost immediately. She too was wearing jeans, with medium-heel black boots, a scoop-necked black top and a leather jacket the same color and cut as mine.

“Nice wardrobe choice,” I said.

She laughed. “Nordstrom’s, right?”

I found her easy to talk to during dinner, with thoughtful responses regardless of the topic I brought up.

“So what’s new with your career?” I said.

“Funny you should ask,” she said. “The department just OK’d a new study I’ve been wanting to do, on shoplifting.”

My stomach clenched. I wondered if I should just stand up and leave, weighed my attraction against the paranoid fear I was experiencing, decided for the moment to ride it out. “What’s the hypothesis?”

“I think it’s all about the thrill, which is a learned behavior. Children who seek thrills learn it from their parents. Did your parents ever take you on a roller coaster?”

“That’s where shoplifting starts? On a roller coaster?”

“No, there are a hundred ways that adults seek thrills. Including having affairs.”

I fleetingly recalled one of my most painful childhood memories, when my mother had, at the top of her voice, accused my father of screwing her sister. “So if Dad is sleeping around, the kid is more likely to become a whitewater boater?”

She shrugged. “It’s a theory. I’ll do a lot of interviewing for it, try to establish some commonalities. What about you? You consider yourself a risk-taker?”

I struggled with the question. I didn’t want her to think me timid, but I wasn’t about to reveal my real appetite for risk.

“Sure,” I said, “I like roller coasters.”

“Wow,” she said, “Mr. Edgy. What about your sister?”

Once again I bit back my immediate impulse, to stand up and leave the restaurant. “Sarah? Do you know her?”

“I’ve got to be honest with you; I don’t know her, but I know of her. Through a guy I dated a couple of times.”

“What do you think you know about her?”

“That she shoplifts and deals marijuana. My friend buys his pot from her.”

She was watching my face, and I had a great deal of trouble keeping my composure. If only she didn’t so attract me…

“Now, please don’t get upset,” she said. “You see, she’s a perfect subject for my study, if she’d agree to be interviewed.”

“That’s why you’re going out with me? To get to my sister?”

“Well, maybe that’s why I came to meet you the first time. Does that make me a bad person? Don’t answer that. But I wouldn’t have gone on this date if I wasn’t attracted to you. Regardless of your sister.”

I felt cornered.

She seemed to take my pause as disapproval. “I’ll tell you something I hope you won’t let out.”

“OK,” I said.

“I used to do a lot of tagging, when I was in high school. We lived next to this train yard. I used the name Goya. I did birds with joints in their beaks.”

“I think I saw boxcars with big birds on them. Bluebirds?”

“That was me.”

“So you’re a thrill seeker yourself?”

“I was until I was caught and spent a couple of nights in juvie. I think it was my Dad that set the example as an adrenaline junkie. He raced dirt bikes. His legs are a mess these days; he can barely walk. Yet I asked him recently if he’d do it all over again, and he said, without question.”

“But you kicked it? What do you do now for a thrill?”

“I don’t,” she said, sighing. “There’s no thrill in teaching Maslow and Jung. Not to a classroom of kids playing games on their phones.”

“Don’t you miss it?”

“Every day. Worse, I keep thinking I’m too removed from the behavior to do a good job of writing about it.”

“So what do you want to do? Go tag a train?”

“Actually,” she said, “I was hoping your sister would teach me how to shoplift. That seems like a relatively victimless crime, but it would really tickle the thrill meter. And I’d be better able to understand my study subjects.”

I hadn’t seen that coming, and struggled to recast my impression of her, adding a dark side. It made her more alluring. “I can guarantee that won’t happen,” I said. “She’s fallen in love with a Mormon and gone straight.”

Ashley frowned into her beer. “Wow. That’s like the other end of the spectrum from risk-taking. Those people even store a year’s worth of food, they’re so risk-averse.” She deliberated a moment before saying, “What about you? Did you ever shoplift?”

I had been expecting the question, and debated the best way to proceed, if the goal was to promote my relationship with this seductive though too inquisitive woman.

I decided to see what would happen if I told the truth; in my infatuation, I’d go a long way to please her. “Yeah. I grew up shoplifting; our parents taught us to help them. Mom used to stash stuff in our diapers when we went shopping.”

Her eyes grew big. “No kidding? And when did you quit?”

I took a long swallow of my beer before replying, “Who says I’ve quit?”

She unexpectedly smiled. “That must have been hard for you to share. Thank you. So you’ve got thrill-seeker in your blood too. Would you take me with you the next time you go shoplifting?”

She was playing with her hair as we talked, and licked her lips a couple of times. I wondered if the conversation had aroused her. Shoving aside a spot of fantasy in which she invited me home, I said, “You realize it isn’t a game? You could end up in jail, probably lose your job.”

“It’s no fun if the stakes aren’t high, right? You of all people understand that.”

I found out that evening that my perceptions were right. I also found out she was still something of a risk-taker; she didn’t even bring up the issue of a condom.

“OK, time for your shoplifting lesson,” I said a few days later as we shared beers in her apartment.

Ashley perched on the edge of her couch, hands clasped between her knees. “Should I take notes?”

“No, just listen. First, the easiest way to get busted is to look like a shoplifter. That means wearing loose clothes, old shit that can be left behind, too many layers for the season. Carry a dirty bag or an oversized purse or an umbrella. Push a baby carriage. You do that, and don’t be surprised if you’re followed around the store.”

“Ok.”

“Then you need to know how a shoplifter acts. He avoids contact with store employees. He wanders around without purpose, looks like he’s drifting. He’s always glancing up at cameras and other shoppers, looking for security personnel.”

“But that’s all for a reason, right?” she said. “I mean, those are time-proven ways to get away with it.”

“Used to be,” I said. “It’s a new age, with electronic surveillance, professional loss control personnel, radio-frequency tags.”

“Yet you still get away with it.”

“Right. Because my dad taught me to avoid looking like I’m stealing anything. The best thing he taught me is to act confident, not furtive. Hold you head up, make eye contact, walk at a normal speed. Make a purchase at the register, rather than walk directly out the door without buying anything.

“Next, and this is important; always have enough money on you to cover the cost of the purchase. That way, if you’re busted, you can claim that it was a spur-of-the-moment decision, rather than a planned, deliberate theft. That might save you some jail time.”

“So what’s our caper?” she said.

“Lingerie,” I said. “It’s the easiest. Don’t wear a bra. Bring a pair of small scissors.”

I took her to Stewart’s first the next Saturday, when the store was at its busiest, and walked her through a dry run. She worked the woman’s department, checking prices on a few outfits that caught her eye, while I watched from the men’s department across the aisle. When she reached the lingerie department, she sorted through the bras, selecting half a dozen which she carried to the dressing room. Since it was a dry run, she returned all but one to the rack; the one she kept she took to the checkout register and paid for. She walked out of the store as I directed, casually, confidently.

We stopped for a coffee afterwards.

“So how do you feel?” I asked.

“Just pretending we were going to steal was a rush,” she said.

I took a sip of my espresso. “There’s a real difference between pretend and for real. You’ve got to be sure that you’re ready.”

“I’m ready,” she said, reaching across to grab my hand.

I wasn’t sure she was; her color was high, and she was too animated. However, as I watched people pass the kiosk in the mall, I was struck by how many gave off the same cues. On Saturday, there is a strong predatory streak in the shoppers.

After we finished our coffee we walked down the mall to Halstead’s. The store was packed. I warned Ashley that the line to use the dressing rooms might be long, and she should mirror the behavior of others waiting in line, not display nervousness, not glance around like she was watching for security. Best would be to strike up a conversation with another woman in line, or call a friend on her cell.

I knew I couldn’t just stand and watch her without pointing her out for the security crew, so I forced myself to take the escalator to the second floor where I eventually purchased a three-pack of tube socks.

I waited for a nervous ten minutes back at the coffee shop before she appeared, her head held high, a Halstead’s bag bouncing on her hip. She gave an entirely too wide a grin to me.

I stood, grabbed her free hand, and we continued toward the exit.

“Anyone following me?” she asked, barely moving her lips.

“I didn’t see anyone. They’ll nail us when we leave the mall if it’s going to happen at all.”

“I’ve got to pee.”

“Not here,” I said. “That’s where shoplifters go to change their appearance after a swipe.”

To my relief, we were not accosted as we made our way to my truck.

Once we’d pulled away from the mall, she said “You were right about the line. This clerk saw me while I was going through the bras and told me that this one color, a milky chocolate, was right for my skin tone.” She pulled up her shirt to expose one breast in the new bra. “I almost put back what I’d selected right then, but she went over to help someone else so I kept with the plan.”

“What did you do with the packaging?”

“Everything except the security tag and hanger is in my purse. There were several hangers in the changing room so I felt OK leaving mine.”

“So how did it feel? Taking a risk?”

She sat back, put a hand on my shoulder. “It took me right back to my tagging days, the rush.”

I, on the other hand, wasn’t so pleased. The experience had reminded me of times as a child when I would see my mom lift something and worry until she managed to clear the store door.

Still, the episode seemed to be a success, confirmed when she invited me back for a special showing of her newly acquired lingerie

I had a standing Sunday lunch with my family. Sarah’s car was already in the driveway when I arrived shortly after noon.

Dad was ensconced in front of the television watching pre-game coverage of the Steelers and my mother was putting together a salad to go with the Swiss steak and mashed potatoes. I grabbed a cup of her boiled-to-bitterness coffee and joined my sister in the dining room where she was reading the paper.

“How are things with you?” she asked as she flipped me the sports section.

I told her about meeting Ashley, about her study on shoplifting.

She peered over the Metro section. “And she wants you to teach her how to do it, I bet.”

“How do you figure that?”

“It’s obvious. Why else would she cozy up to you?”

“Thanks for the compliment.”

She put down the paper. “So did you take her shoplifting yet?”

“What makes you think I’d do that?” I leaned back in my chair.

“Because you can’t say no to a woman, not one who attracts you like that one obviously does.”

“A bra,” I said. “Halstead’s. No problem.”

She shook her head. “That has to be the worst foundation for a relationship I’ve ever heard. What next? Are you going to boost a car, or kite a check?”

“It was a one-time deal. She tried it, now she knows.”

“That’s what a million junkies once believed. You’re in over your head.”

“What about you?” I said. “How many boyfriends have you attracted because they liked your weed?”

She flushed. “You think I didn’t know that? That’s why I’m in love with Stuart; he only knows me, not my bad habits. I can be a better person with him.”

“I don’t need to be a better person.”

“You don’t think so? Then you’d better look in a mirror, kid. You’ll see Dad looking back at you, and that’s not a good thing.”

Just as the clock struck twelve on Monday, Ashley showed up again at the Registrar’s office.

“Got time for lunch?” she asked, waving me to join her.

After we got our food and took a seat, I asked, “Did you have a chance to write up your conclusions?”

Her fork stopped in midair. “I spent all day yesterday on it.”

“And?”

“And it’s given me a good start. I’m trying to qualify the thrill; it was surprisingly sexual. Does it turn you on that way?”

“Not usually. For me, it’s more of a habit. I guess since it’s a family practice I don’t get much of a thrill from it anymore.”

“What’s it like to get caught?”

“That,” I said, “is seriously sobering.” I told her about my single bust, about the surprise; I never imagined that anyone could have spotted me shoving the six-pack of razor blades down my trousers.

“So what’s our next crime?” she said, playfully fluttering her eyes.

“Next? I thought you wanted to try it once. Now you have.”

“If I’m going to understand this fully, I need more information. Stealing something worth $40 is a good start, but I have to believe that a more expensive item would be a quantum leap beyond. What’s the most expensive thing you’ve ever stolen?”

“It’s not like we’re talking about a high school basketball career,” I said. “I’m not really into recalling my biggest theft.”

“Oh, come on. Give me something.”

“OK,” I said. “We could pull the old switcheroo.”

“What’s that?” Ashley said.

“We start by buying a gift card for Halstead’s at Kroger, with cash. We use the gift card to buy a laptop. By using the gift card, we avoid having any paper trail to us like we would have if we used a credit card.”

“OK.”

“Now on the box of the computer is a label with an identifier code unique to that specific laptop. When we get home, we create a new sticker identical to the one on the box. The next day, we go into the store empty-handed, grab another laptop from the shelf, apply the counterfeit sticker to it, and take it and the receipt to Returns for a refund. Take the refund in the form of a gift card, so you can’t be traced.”

“That’s so clever,” Ashley said. “You never really have to carry a stolen good out of the store.”

I took her to Kroger for the gift card, then Halstead’s to purchase the laptop, while I bought a thumb drive. She returned with a Toshiba that listed for $695.

I dropped her off at home and headed over to Sarah’s place after phoning her to make sure she was in. She was between cleaning jobs, making a batch of peanut butter cookies.

“I need you to show me how to make those replacement product ID stickers,” I said.

“What for?”

I spilled our plans, hoping her new-found morality wouldn’t overwhelm her willingness to help promote her brother’s happiness.

It did. “I’m not going to help you end up in prison.”

“Forget I asked,” I said. “Just give me a couple of sheets of that shiny sticky-back paper you use.”

“I’ll give it to you on one account; she’s the one that takes the risk.”

“That’s the plan,” I said.

That evening, I found a piece of software on the Internet that allowed me to make a dozen copies of the product I.D. label. When Ashley arrived, I used the new laptop and had her practice applying the sticker over the original one accurately, so no hint of the underlying sticker appeared. She did it perfectly the first time. I kept the laptop, since I knew a fence that would pay us thirty cents on the dollar for it.

Halstead’s was crowded that Saturday, as they were having a storewide buy one, get one sale. It made it easy for me to trail Ashley without standing out. Once again her face was flushed, her hands a little unsteady, but she strode with confidence and didn’t tip herself off by glancing around.

She went straight for the computer, a stack of which were on an endcap. They’d knocked $100 off the price overnight, which would have pissed me off if I was actually buying one.

She tucked the laptop under her arm as she cruised the aisles in the electronics section. I watched from the pharmacy area and was pleased to see how, once she was alone, she quickly and accurately pasted the new I.D. sticker on the box. From where I stood, it looked perfect.

She took a serpentine route to the returns desk. When she reached it, in the far reaches of the second floor, I walked up behind her with my exchange, the thumb drive, ignoring her as I would a stranger. She was fifth in line, and initiated a phone call to someone that kept her occupied

Finally it was Ashley’s turn. She hung up the phone, placed the computer on the counter and handed the clerk her receipt. I was close enough to hear every word.

“Is there something wrong with the computer?” the clerk said, picking up the box and looking it over.

“Not a thing,” Ashley said. “It’s just that my Dad bought me one for my birthday yesterday, and I don’t need two.”

“You haven’t even opened it,” the clerk noted.

“Right. Like I said, I got another one yesterday for my birthday.”

“OK, no problem,” the clerk said, and picked up his barcode scanner. He triggered it, scanned the I.D. sticker. The computer to which the scanner was connected beeped. “Hmm,” he said, looking at the screen. “That doesn’t look right.” He cocked his head to the side for a moment and pursed his lips. “Just a minute.”

He stepped away from the counter to a table behind him, which bore stacks of returned goods. He picked up a Toshiba laptop box that looked identical to the one that Ashley was returning. She tapped one foot nervously.

The clerk scanned the I.D. code of that computer, frowned, then picked up the phone.

“Is there a problem?” Ashley asked.

The clerk, his back still to her, raised a finger as his boss once again emerged from the offices. He whispered to her, and as he did a distressed look came across her face.

He handed her the box and dialed another number as she carried the box up to the counter.

“You bought this yesterday?” the manager asked, indicating the computer on the counter. Her eyes were locked on Ashley’s.

“Right,” Ashley said. I could hear her confidence wane. I stood resignedly, waiting for the security guard to appear.

And he did, just a moment later, a hulking middle-aged man in a blue uniform that was tight across his shoulders.

“You see,” the supervisor said, picking up the laptop with the fake I.D. code on it from the counter, “the problem is, a computer with the same I.D. was returned this morning. Funny thing is, the woman didn’t have a receipt, so we had to limit her to store credit.” She picked at the I.D. sticker with the nail of her index finger, and the edge curled up, allowing her to tug it off altogether.

The security man took a firm grip on Ashley’s arm and said, “Come with me.”

Although I’d cautioned Ashley against doing anything to indicate we were together, she couldn’t help but glance back at me as she was led around the counter and into the office suite. Luckily, none of the store employees noticed it.

Shaken, I exchanged my thumb drive for a refund and retreated to my car; I knew from experience that Ashley would be tied up for some time. They would call the cops, then she would be taken downtown and booked. Only then might she be able to post bond.

I waited until Ashley walked out to the waiting police cruiser. Her head was low, her shoulders slumped.

I tried to figure out how the scam had gone wrong, and couldn’t think of any way that it could have happened.

Unless.

I headed home, walked immediately to the bedroom where we’d left the original laptop, and found it gone.

I went directly to my sister’s house. She was home, alone, halfway through painting her toenails.

She answered the door warily, confirming my suspicions.

“You took my laptop back to Halstead’s this morning, didn’t you?” I said as I stepped inside. “You’re the only person with a key to my apartment.”

Sarah stepped back. “Of course I did. Who else was going to save you?”

“What do you mean, save me? You know what Ashley is in for now? She’ll get some time and probably lose her job, all because of you.”

“Like I give a damn what your Ashley gets. She’s poison, and she was going to take you down with her. I just hope she’s got the guts to take the rap herself, and not drag you into it.”

“But…”

Sarah leaned a shoulder against the wall. “We’ve got a long, long journey ahead of us to get from where we were to where we need to go. I’m not going to make it by myself, and I’m not going to leave you behind in the sewer of our family life. Think of this as the first step toward our rehabilitation.”

“But I really liked her.”

“There are plenty of women in the world, brother. Some won’t even lead you to prison.”

I called the jail early that evening to discover that Ashley had posted her own bond and was free for the moment. I thought about calling her, but was afraid of what she would say.

My doorbell rang at 8:00 p.m., just as I popped open my third Bud Light. I opened the door to find Ashley standing there, fire in her eyes.

“So explain to me,” she said as she stepped inside and took a seat on the couch arm. “What the hell happened back there?”

I’d been prepared to give her a sympathy hug, but her posture clearly indicated it would be unwelcome.

“It was my sister,” I said, sitting across from her, and explained what she had done and why.

Ashley closed her eyes for a long moment. “So let me get this straight. She doesn’t give a shit that I’ve now got a criminal record for theft, as long as you remain out of jail.”

“She loves me,” I said, feeling a little defensive. “That’s the only way she has to show it.”

“Your family is truly fucked up, if that’s the way you show love.”

“I never pretended it wasn’t. There’s a price to be paid when you base your entire life on crime.”

“And now it’s up to me to pay that price.” She leaned back, teeth clenched.

I was growing steadily more pissed as she spoke, though I suspected it was guilt appearing in a new guise. “You wanted to know about shoplifting, now you do. I warned you what could happen.”

Tears began gathering in Ashley’s eyes. “You may think I have no one to blame but myself, but I still can’t help but blame you and your sister some. You’d never betray one another the way she did me. I thought there was honor among thieves?”

“I didn’t turn you in, and Sarah no longer sees herself as a thief.”

“And now I have to face the fact that I am one.”

“Some thrill, huh?”

She rose to her feet and said, “Don’t call me again.”

As the door shut behind her an emptiness settled over me, and it was all I could do to keep from pursing her.

I didn’t notice until much later that my new camera was missing.

Bio
Other stories of Tom Barlow may be found in anthologies including Best American Mystery Stories 2013 and Best New Writing 2011 as well as numerous magazines including Heater, Needle, Plots with Guns, Plan B, and Pulp Modern. He is also the author of the short story collection Welcome to the Goat Rodeo and the adventure novel I’ll Meet You Yesterday.

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