The Criminal Gene by Nancy Scott Hanway
I’m seeking representation for my 100,000 word YA Contemporary, THE CRIMINAL GENE.
In 1985, a teen shoplifter, sent to live with her elderly aunts in suburban New York, finds out her criminal genes aren’t so easy to escape when she gets roped into her family’s long-standing criminal gang. Ultimately, she learns that her greatest talent isn’t what she can steal, but what she can save.
THE CRIMINAL GENE
Katonah, New York, 1985
It's a little-known fact that hippos are braver than lions. Female hippos, especially.
They'll fight to the death.
I plunge my hand into my pocket and pull out my jade hippo figurine. When I get nervous, I stroke her smooth back and pat her ears. I’m nervous now, standing in an antiques store, staring at a silver ring with a swirly N.
N for Nina, my name. And for some old lady who just croaked. It’s thatkind of antique store—the kind that sells junk from a hundred dead grandmas.
Monogrammed rings don’t make me nervous. Stealing does. My fingers hurt with the feeling, and my breath quickens.
In the back of the store, my two great-aunts argue over a china teapot.
“Ugly,” Aunt Eugenia says. “And they’re charging a fortune for it.”
“Don’t be rude,” Aunt Wilma says.
I return to the ring. Probably too expensive. I don’t steal valuable items—people miss them quickly.
Besides, it’s the act that thrills me, not the things themselves. When I steal I feel elevated—like the Greek myths I used to obsess about, where gods can interact with people. That's who I am when I steal—Athena. Brilliant and crafty, and she doesn’t get near humans often. Just enough to let them know who’s in charge.
Earrings chink behind me. My senses sharpen. I shove my hippo back in my pocket and turn toward a display of tacky vintage plates with state mottos.
“Can I help you?” The saleslady hovers so closely I can almost taste her coffee breath.
“Just looking for a present for my mom.”
“What’s your price range?”
I know when I mention a price, she’ll leave me alone.
“Like five dollars,” I say, as if that’s the upper limit.
She frowns, pink lipstick creasing. “Sorry, hon, you can’t afford the ring. It’s sterling.”
Damn.She saw me eying it. Just my luck.
“Got some bargains on the other side,” she says, as she sways off with her feather duster. “I’ll give you a good deal, too.”
Whenever salesclerks act nice, I fight with myself about shoplifting, remembering a saying Mom loves: “There’s something wrong with the person who benefits from kindness but doesn’t return it.”
Then she adds, “It’s part of our responsibility to other human beings.”
But Mom isn’t here. She’s home with her piece-of-shit boyfriend, Fred, who teaches Business Management at the University of Iowa. Mom thinks he’s a genius, and acts surprised when he slaps her, as if a professor wouldn’t do that. How’s that for irony? All the lectures from Mom about kindness, and she hooks up with a guy who beats her—and backhands me when she’s not looking.
I wander over to the other side of the jewelry counter. The store’s cornered the market on frumpy vintage pieces. They won’t notice one missing necklace or pair of earrings.
I glance again at my great-aunts. If they see me, I’m toast. Burnt toast. Blackened and crumbled between their wrinkly fingertips.
Stealing is why I got sent here.
Fred slammed me against the wall after I got caught. Mom didn’t see, but at least she believed me. The bruises convinced her. She didn’t ditch him, though. Not even then. She kicked me out, instead. Packed my things and sent me to live with her elderly aunts in her old hometown outside of New York City.
When you’ve grown up in a trailer park in Iowa, living in New York sounds like heaven. Especially when it means getting off Fred’s radar.
And that’s how I ended up with two old ladies in a preppy village swarming with country club stiffs. I’ve only been here a day, but I’ve already figured out Katonah. Fifty miles from Manhattan—an hour’s drive from cool to not-cool. The minute I stepped off the bus, people stared at my ripped jeans, spiked hair, the grimy duffel bag fastened with a worn belt.
And my great-aunts, my only living relatives, aren’t what I expected. Aunt Wilma seems sweet enough, but Aunt Eugenia started riding my ass the second I arrived.
“In four generations, the Burds have never had a shoplifter. We do not tolerate it.”
“Nice to meet you, too,” I said.
I’m not getting slammed against the wall or watching Mom get beat up. So that’s good. But I still have to figure out how to stay sane for two years, while I wait to turn eighteen. Then goodbye forever to anyone remotely related to me.
Staying sane, for me, means shoplifting. Always has.
My fingers tingle. I hold bright plastic earrings to my ears, while I eyeball fake diamond studs on a velvet tray. They don’t have a price tag but they’re right next to the sale earrings.
Glass, I bet. Not even rhinestones—they don’t sparkle.
Blood thumps in my ears. My hand creeps toward the earrings—I grab them and slip them into my pocket. A sense of power rushes through me, and that horrible, trapped feeling disappears. My headache vanishes.
“Planning to stay all day?”
I jump. I didn’t hear Aunt Eugenia come up behind me. Am I losing my touch? For a second I think she’s onto me, but she can’t have seen anything.
“Just waiting for you to get done with that teapot,” I say.
“So cheap,” Eugenia says with a sniff. “And they’re passing it off as real Limoges.”
“Why do you care?” I say.
It’s not like she needs another teapot . . . or another anything. My aunts live in a huge old Victorian, a horror movie waiting to happen, crammed with hideous china.
“I don’t like cheats,” she says. “But what do you expect in a junk store like this?”
I smirk. Eugenia and I share one opinion in common.
“Oh, hush,” Aunt Wilma says.
The saleslady hustles over as we’re leaving. “I’ll have you know that’s bona fide Limoges porcelain. So don’t go telling your friends I sell fake merchandise.”
She sounds angry, as if Eugenia brings out her inner bitch. I understand that all too well.
Back at the house, I sit on the edge of my bed fingering a set of jade zoo animals on the bedside table, a Noah's Ark of creatures marching in lockstep. At least, that's what they looked like when I got here. I've rearranged them so the giraffe is bonking the lion, and my hippo leads the pack.
This is where my hippo came from. When Mom left New York around the time I was born, she brought this one dark hippo to Iowa, leaving the rest of the animals behind. After Mom gave her to me for keeps, I named her Rhea, after the Greek Titan goddess. The name means “ease” and that's how she makes me feel. She has a barrel belly and squat legs, but her squared jaw, with its big mouth, tilts toward the sky at an angle, like she’s flying up from underwater.
“Nina! Come down here this instant,” Eugenia hollers. “Your mother should have disowned you at birth.”
What now?Earlier I committed the sin of leaving the toothpaste tube uncapped. Later I learned that demons will haunt my days if my elbow touches the table during a meal.
Mom told me that Aunt Eugenia “has an edge.” Yeah, like a razor blade. One I’m about to run straight into.
Before heading downstairs, I palm my hippo and slip her into my pocket.
In the parlor, Eugenia sits on a spindly chair beside the red brick fireplace. Legs crossed, dressed in a blue linen dress, white hair in a perfect chignon. A Virginia Slims dangles from her hot pink lips. With every puff of her cig, her wide rib cage expands, as if she has a chest full of medals.
In front of the fireplace there’s a blood-red couch stuffed to bursting point. A warped grand piano fills one corner. Propped against it, an old harp flakes gold paint onto the carpet. It leans to one side, as if an angel dropped it on the way to somewhere more cheerful.
“Somebody shoplifted diamond earrings from that store downtown,” Eugenia says. “They noticed them missing after we left.” Gold bangles clink at her wrists as she moves the cigarette to and from her mouth.
“That's unfair.” The clinking sounds like the tick-tickof a bomb. “Somebody steals junk diamonds and they assume it's me?”
She snorts. “Maybe because you dress like a criminal.”
I look down—black Slits T-shirt, fashionably torn, ripped black jeans, and pointy, red-and-black buckled shoes. Sharp—and way neater than usual. Mom made me leave behind my frayed jean jacket, painted with the names of all-female punk bands and held together with safety pins.
“That attitude,” I say. “It's stereotyping.”
She stares at me as she smokes. “Did you take them?”
“No. And in that store they had to be bogus.” In answer to her raised eyebrow, I say, “Fake. I don't get why they're so hyped up.”
“These were real. An antique set worth a great deal of money. They were being appraised.”
Shit.Real diamonds at that junky store? No way.
I have to protest my innocence—I read once that innocent people always get mad. “How could you even thinkI’d do it?”
She stubs out her cigarette in a heavy crystal ashtray, rattling her bracelets. “It could complicate our lives if you were convicted.”
Complicate her life?
Something else occurs to me. “How’d they know who to call?”
“Everyone here knows me,” she says.
Perfect. I’d imagined an exciting New York town full of radicals. Two dotty old aunts I could easily fool. Instead, I’ve landed in a stuck-up Hooterville with a major-league bitch everyone in town knows on sight.
“As usual, blame the kid,” I say.
“I’d be inclined to agree if I didn’t know your history. Empty your pockets. Now.”
I practically tear my pockets out of my jeans, forgetting about my little hippo, who falls on the carpet and rolls onto her back with her stomach exposed. I kneel to pick her up.
“Why are you carrying that around?” Eugenia says. “Are you planning to pawn it?”
“Of course not. Mom gave her to me.”
“That's the one your mother stole when she left us.”
“It was hers, wasn't it?”
“Well, put it back upstairs—that is, after I search your room.”
“Go right ahead, Warden.”
“You—” She points at me like she’s an empress and I’m the peasant she’s decided to execute. “Do notever speak to me in that way again. And show some gratitude. Remember, we didn't have to take you.”
I fold my arms across my chest and turn toward the window, the inside of my right arm pressing against the bulge of earrings tucked safely in my bra.
She huffs upstairs. The moment I hear my bedroom door creak, I leap toward the old roll-top desk in the corner and rummage around until I find Scotch tape. I work swiftly to attach the tissue package more securely to the elastic under my arm. Best hiding place in the world.
Seconds after I've lowered my shirt, Eugenia returns. I stalk past her up to my room. Mom’s old room, with a cherry four-poster that looks like one some venerable queen like Queen Elizabeth—the first one, the badass one—might have died in. I fling myself onto the bed, which makes a low groan.
Shit. I’ve committed felony theft.
Not exactly what I had in mind for today.