Read Fighting Online

Authors: Cat Phoenix


BOOK: Fighting
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Dedicated to my best friend Jessica, for being with me
every step of the way, listening to me drone on for hours at a time about
fictional characters
who live inside my head, and
talking me into reading romance novels in the first place.  Love you





was absently staring at a shelf crammed with books, but I still noticed when
someone slowly approached in my peripheral vision.  I avoided looking at him
until he spoke to me, just in case it was someone I'd rather avoid.  If they
spoke first, however, I would have to respond, no matter who they were.

that's not anti-social, is it?

lady at the counter said you were Alex," a guy half-said, half-asked.

snapped to attention and realized he was my four o'clock appointment and staring
at me expectantly.

I said.  I brushed my long wavy hair back from my face with one hand and
straightened up from the slouch I was in.  "That's me.  You're Greg?"

nodded and sat down across from me at the table I was occupying.  He took out
his science textbook and a notebook, scrounging around the bottom of his bag
for a pen.  I took the time to study him.

had a lot of different people come to me for help, but generally they fell into
two categories.  Kids who genuinely wanted to understand a subject, and kids
whose parents decided for them that they needed outside help. 

kid looked like he fell somewhere in the middle.  He was definitely high
school, but I couldn't put a finger on an exact age.  He had an ambiguous look
to him, so he could be fourteen just as easily as eighteen. 

grade are you in, again?" I asked.

pushed his sleeves up and looked up at me. 

He took the time to scan what he could see of me above the table and added
hopefully, "I'll be eighteen in a few months."

smirked and wanted to say,
Nice try kid
.  Instead, I said, "That's
great.  So what are we looking at today?"

firmly diverted his attention to his science homework and didn't let him veer
off course for the duration of the time his mother pre-paid for.  He spread out
his notes and began to describe what he needed help with.

worked for a solid hour before taking a break.  I left him at the table to grab
each of us a hot chocolate from the coffee bar of the book shop I worked
part-time at.  Linda was my boss, and the owner of the store.  She was nice
enough to let me hang out after my shift every day and entertain my client
until their time is up.

that sounds like I was a prostitute.  Let me rephrase that.  She was nice
enough to let me hang out after my shift every day and tutor students who
didn't understand the material they needed to learn for school, whether it be
high school or college.

started helping other students out in study sessions when I was in college.  It
became apparent that I had an aptitude for seeing things from other people's
perspectives, and caught on to how they were misinterpreting the material.  I'd
simply explain things in different ways, depending on how they'd best receive
the information, and voila!  They'd suddenly just
get it.
  People spread
word to others, and soon people I didn't even know began asking for help.  I
figured out a system that worked for me and helped out people who paid. 

my first year of college though, I didn't have enough scholarship money and
couldn't afford the tuition myself, so I had to drop out.  I bitterly dropped
my tutoring sessions in favor of pickpocketing strangers, finding that I had a
natural talent for it.  I wasn't guilt free, but I didn't go hungry, either.

I was an almost twenty two year old reformed thief with no real plans to return
to college and no solid direction I wanted to take my future in.  I was just
kind of . . . existing.  Which I was fine with for the time being.

took Greg his hot chocolate and we went back to work.  After he felt better
about his science homework, he left and I ducked behind the counter to gather
my things.  I tossed my bag on top, placed my palm on the middle of the counter
and vaulted my body over it, like I did at the end of every day.  What can I
say?  I got off on cheap thrills.

bid farewell to Linda, who was shaking her head in a fond but resigned manner,
and the other clerk whose name I always got wrong.  I didn't feel all that bad;
he was new.  And a little fidgety, which was mildly irritating. 

slid my black jacket on and left the shop.  It was still winter, so the sun was
already setting and the already chilly temperature was steadily dropping.  I
walked down the fairly empty sidewalk and passed several store fronts on the
way to the parking lot.  I saw a man and a woman up ahead of me, arguing by a
parallel parked car.  The man was towering over the woman in an intimidating
stance and the woman was staring at the man with an incredulous expression on
her face.  I got closer and slowed my steps, averting my eyes and eavesdropping
on their conversation. 

can't believe you cheated on me with your secretary, Jerry!  What do you think
this is, a shitty made-for-TV-movie?" the woman cried.

felt bad for her but still smirked a bit at the movie reference. 

does things for me that you just don't do anymore," he said, managing to
sound indifferent but slightly smug at the same time. 

guesses what Sally did for him that had him so satisfied.  Smug son of a bitch.

yeah?  Does she love you?  Did she give you two kids and help support you while
you were in college?  Did she help your mother through her bout of pneumonia
last year?  Does she cook you a dinner she knows you'll like every night?"
she asked, hurt showing on her face.

lingered close to them without their noticing and acted like I was window

does more and she doesn't bitch about it, either."

I was definitely siding with the woman on this one. 

both threw a few more insults around before he stated that he had to get home
to Sally.  He demanded for her wedding band back and she shook her head,
appalled.  He found that unacceptable, and proceeded to rip it off of her hand
forcefully.  The woman looked like she had been slapped.  I decided it was my
civic duty to help out this poor woman.  For all I know, she really did bitch
about everything and they had rotten kids, but I didn't want to get that
involved.  I just wanted to help karma out a little bit with this pompous jerk.

was still talking to her, or
her, really, as he started backing away
from her when I made my move.  I timed my steps so that I would accidentally
bump into him while searching through my bag.  The woman had turned and was
climbing into her car when the jerk and I collided.  I knocked into him hard
enough for him to double over to keep from falling flat on his face.  He
grunted and I made an appropriately startled noise.

put two roaming hands on his body to help him straighten up, lifting his wallet
and the ring as he lifted his torso so he wouldn't feel them leave his pocket. 

no, I'm so sorry!" I cried out, swiftly tucking the items away.

turned still angry eyes toward me.  "Watch where you're going!" he
spat at me.

sorry.  I was trying to find my keys in my bag.  Are you hurt?  Did I step on
your feet, or anything?" I asked innocently.

face contorted in annoyance as he straightened his shirt indignantly and glared
at the woman before angrily stalking off without another word.  How rude.

took a beat to watch his retreating figure before turning toward the distraught
woman.  She was still standing by her car, having watched the whole thing. 

stepped up to her and said regretfully, "I think your cheating husband
dropped these."  I offered her the ring and wallet and smiled at her
bewildered face.  "Looks like you have access to all of his credit cards
and receipts he probably tucked away for things he bought Sally while still
legally married to you.  Oh, and isn't that a pretty ring?  I'm sure you'll
know what to do with that.  Have a nice day!" I said cheerfully.

with that, I turned and walked to my car.  I glanced back and she was staring
at her hands a little less distraught than before.

wasn't much, but it was something.  I probably shouldn't have interfered at
all, but every now and then I kind of missed picking pockets, so I'd indulge
when I knew the target deserved it.



One Week Later


rolled up my yoga mat, slipped my shoes back on and walked out to the main area
of the gym where the machines were.  I didn't have to be at work until ten a.m.
that day, so I took a short break before I ran for an hour on the treadmill. 

wasn't a total fitness snob and definitely wasn't into the whole
new-age-align-your-mind-body-spirit-soul-and-be-creepily-calm-all-the-time gig,
but I did like the challenges running and yoga presented me.  It was physically
challenging, but more importantly to me, it was also mentally challenging.  I
was the only thing keeping myself from stopping and giving up.  I liked to push
myself to see just how far I could go without failing.  It also kept me fit
without having to play a contact sport.

took a shower in the locker room and dressed in black skinny jeans and a faded,
vintage looking purple shirt that was closer to black than blue.  I slipped on
my black hoodie and my favorite black combat boots that laced up to mid-calf
over my jeans and tugged all of my gear to the counter below the mirror.  I
brushed through my hair with a comb, threw some mousse in it and let it air dry
into long, dark brown waves.  I took two seconds to draw a thin, tasteful line
of black eyeliner on my eyelids and left for work.

thirty minutes before my shift ended, a man entered the shop and ordered a
coffee.  I poured him a cup and he took it to a table against the far wall.  If
he glanced up from the newspaper he was reading, he would be looking straight
at me behind the coffee counter.  He looked completely normal, but there was a
tiny flicker in my intuition that told me otherwise.  I continued working,
making the occasional cup of coffee or pointing someone in the direction of a
particular book, but I kept an eye on him, observing him and tracking his
subtle movements for the remainder of my shift. 

was white and looked like he was maybe forty.  Kind of nondescript, with
nothing to really stand out in your memory if you needed to recall his face
later.  Brown hair in a common short hair cut and a small pleasant smile
hovering at the edge of his lips, like he was absently happy to be reading the

that was my first tip off.  No one is pleasantly engrossed in the news.  The
news in a town as big as the one we were in was almost always negative.  Only
rarely was there nothing to report on except the local singing competition. 

was wearing a casual gray button up shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his
elbow and blue jeans.  He was slouched just a little in his chair in a
non-threatening posture, putting those around him at ease, even if they didn't
realize it.  As I stared at him from my spot behind a bookshelf, I noticed that
every few seconds, his eyes would nonchalantly scan the area around him.  Like
he was regularly checking how crowded the store was.  He was otherwise
completely immobile except that he would slide his right foot around slightly
or adjust his paper minutely every time I moved my position in the store. 

.  He was watching me, the only employee
here, as I was watching him.  Warning bells rang in my head. 

casually made my way back to the coffee counter and discreetly removed my name
tag and busied my hands and eyes with wiping down the counter and refilling the
coffee filter, but really my attention remained on him.  I waited until he
lifted the large newspaper fully in front of his face to have room to turn the
page, and then I was sitting in front of him.  He brought the paper back down
onto the table top and I expected him to visibly startle from my sudden and
silent appearance, but he simply looked at me.  Expectantly.

raised an eyebrow and lifted a coffee cup full of fresh coffee.  "More
coffee?" I asked disdainfully.

calmly folded the paper and set it on the table, but still didn't say
anything.  We stared at each other for a few beats before I started to get a
little creeped out.  I didn't let that show, though.  I set the cup on the
table and sat back and relaxed in my seat. 

been sitting here, scouting the shop.  You're not planning on robbing this
place, are you?  Because I'll tell you now, that's not such a good idea,"
I said quietly.  Indifferently.

didn't respond and looked almost imperceptibly amused by this, which didn't do
much to lighten my mood.  Although it was worth noting that he didn't seem
outraged that someone was accusing him of theft.

think you should leave now.  Otherwise, I'm calling the cops," I
threatened mildly.  Nothing.  No response.  This guy was good.  Without
breaking eye contact or blinking, I said, "White.  Six foot, two inches. 
One hundred seventy pounds.  Short brown hair.  Gray button down shirt, jeans,
black steel toed boots.  Straight teeth.  American accent.  Right handed but
favors his left leg.  No wedding ring or tan line from recently removing one. 
Acts like he's reading the newspaper when he's really keeping tabs on everyone
in the store.  Liked the Elvis song, not a fan of bluegrass so much.  First
name, Graham."  His expression didn't change except a very slight raising
of his eyebrows after hearing his name.  Score one for me.  "Should I go
on?" I asked.

was my turn to stare at him expectantly. 

would you tell the cops when you called if I haven't done anything?" he
asked.  The
was implied.

voice was also common.  Just an adequately deep male voice.  No distinguishing

make something up.  How do you feel about . . . "  I made a show of
pausing and squinting my eyes in consideration.  "Male prostitution?  Or
threatening the life of the barista?  On second thought, I'd just make it easy
and go with the old fashioned 'It's my store and he wouldn't leave when I
asked' routine.  Private property, buddy."

inclined his head forward a bit and said, "But you don't own this store,

so he saw my nametag when he ordered his coffee.  Big deal.  I wouldn't let him
intimidate me with my name when I had a whole arsenal of information on him. 
All I really lacked was his last name, and that would be easy enough to find if
I lifted his wallet.

not, but as an employee, I have the right to kick you out."

calm, he said, "You don't want to do that."

why not?"

have a proposition for you."

so you
a male prostitute?" I asked cheekily.

knew you were good, but I didn't realize you were quite so snarky."

raised an eyebrow, offended.  "Snarky?" I deadpanned.

did you know my name?" he asked.

took your time opening your wallet to pay for your coffee.  Your license was
nice and exposed for a few seconds.  How do you know how good I am?"

been watching you."

my creep-o-meter needle was twitching in the red zone. This game wasn't fun

stood up and said in a no-nonsense tone, "Leave.  Now."

turned to leave and walked two steps but froze when he said, "That was a
nice lift you did last Thursday.  Jerry Vega didn't even feel your hand reach
into his pocket.  His wife got a pretty penny for that ring, by the way." 
I slowly rotated on my feet back toward him.  "She also found the credit
card he used to pay for hotel visits, among other various receipts for jewelry
and gifts that she had no clue about."

stared at him a beat before asking, "What do you want?"

want you to come work for me."

let my shock show on my face and gave a small, disbelieving laugh.  "Uh,
say what?"

work for an organization that trains and utilizes talented young people like

does that even mean?" I asked, interested despite myself.

the good guys.  We offer different services.  Sometimes we retrieve or protect
sensitive information or people.  Sometimes we steal things before someone else
can, or replace things before the wronged party notices.  Among other
things," he added cryptically.

working in the name of peace and harmony, right?" I asked sarcastically.

smirked and said, "Something like that.  We only do the jobs that are
ethically or morally right."

was about to respond to that, but then it hit me that he everything he did was
deliberate, which meant . . . "You baited me to approach you," I
accused him.  "You meant to draw my attention."

he said readily.  "I wanted to see what you would do."

I'm not looking to buy into the Crazy Stock today, so I'm just going to walk
away now, and pretend you're not here.  If you don't leave soon, I
the cops.  Enjoy your paper," I said quickly and succinctly, turning on my
heel and escaping into the shelves of books.  I emerged a few minutes later to
peek out at the store front, but he was nowhere in sight. 

So.  That was weird,
I thought.

went back to work and tried to forget about him.

was kind of impossible though, as he showed up at the same time every day for
the next week.  He came in, bought a coffee, sat at the same table, and read
from a book without so much as saying hello to me.  At first I was unnerved by
his presence, but after a week had passed, he became less alarming and more
charming.  He conversed pleasantly with those around him and even showed he had
manners when it came to opening doors for others or helping someone who dropped

real classy gentlemen. 

deep suspicion of him slipped a little and I finally approached him on his
eighth visit.  At the end of my shift, I walked right up to his table and sat
down like he had invited me there.

I can't wait to tell everyone I have a stalker.  I'll be the talk of the town
for at least a day."

put his book down and said, "Easy to understand how you would confuse a
devoted patron with a stalker.  The coffee is excellent here," he intoned.

made an unimpressed face at him and reclined in my chair, stretching out my
legs comfortably in front of me.  "So you're a spy." 

bent his head to the side and said, "More or less.  I prefer the term

Seems less Hollywood cheese, don't you think?"

nodded, having to agree.  "So, what do you know about me?"

Rose Hawkins.  Five feet, nine inches.  One hundred twenty five pounds.  Twenty
one years old.  Born November fourteenth.  Lives alone at one eighteen
Lexington Avenue, apartment 4C.  Above average SAT scores.  Dropped out of
college due to financial trouble.  Parents killed in a car crash at eleven
years old.  Sent to live with your only living relative, your aunt Sherry, who
you like well enough and occasionally talk to, but don't miss.  Left for
college at eighteen and didn't move back home when you dropped out.  Right
handed.  Works at a book shop, tutors academia.  Indulges in fast food a few
times a week but for the most part, grocery shops for relatively healthy food
to cook at home.  Enjoys running and yoga.  Taken a few self-defense classes
and you even went to the shooting range with the closest thing you could have
called a friend your first semester of college, who you lost touch with before
it could grow into a lasting friendship.  No real friends to speak of, though
you have do have several acquaintances you like to volley jokes and insults
back and forth with on a regular basis.  Two previous romantic relationships,
though neither grew to anything serious --"

held up my hand to halt his progress.  "Okay, that's enough.  That was . .
. strange."

relaxed back in his seat and asked casually, "So how did you start picking

considered him and chose to humor him for a hot minute.  "How does
anyone?  I was desperate."

were you desperate?"

was angry, young and poor.  I've always watched people and been able to blend
in well, to go unnoticed.  I used that to my advantage and figured out how to
lift things without them knowing.  I got really good at it."


less angry, a few years older, and still not rich.  I came to this book shop
enough that Linda recognized me and eventually, she offered me a job.  I took
it, picked up tutoring again, and dropped my thieving ways.  And that's the end
of my very brief sob story.  I don't need saving and I'm definitely not looking
to save others.  As you can see, I'm doing just fine on my own."



your life.  You're bored.  You don't really get anything out of what you're
doing here.  I can help with that."

so you're bringing new purpose to my life?" I asked dubiously.

excitement, among other things."

oversimplifying my life, reciting facts off a sheet of paper.  That doesn't
mean you know me.  And saying you want to excite my life does not make me want
to jump on your bandwagon.  It makes me want to run in the opposite direction. 
It sounds like you're offering me a free trip to Russia only to sell me off as
a sex slave or something once I get there."

BOOK: Fighting
4.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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