{Except} Dirty Tricks by:Kiki Swinson and Saundra

CHAPTER 1
LUCKY TO BE ALIVE
Three Months Earlier

“No! Please!” I begged, gagging from the mixture of snot and blood running over my lips and into my mouth. The salt from my tears stung the open wounds on my bottom lip. But that was the least of my pain. Another slap across the face almost snapped my neck from my shoulders. The hit landed with so much force, blood and spit shot from between my lips and splattered on my assailant’s crisp white shirt. I wasn’t going to escape this assault. That much was clear.

“Just let her go. It’s my fault,” I groaned through my swollen lips. “Please. She didn’t do anything wrong. It was all me. I swear,” I rasped, barely able to get enough air into my lungs to get the words out.
“Oh yeah? It was your fault? Well, look at what you’ve done,” he growled evilly. “Just look!” He grabbed my face and forced me to watch again.

“Agggh!” Miley let out another pain-filled scream. I could hear another crackling round of electric shocks rocking through her body. It sounded like the sizzle, crackle, and pop of the mosquito light in my uncle’s backyard cooking the little nuisance bugs when we were kids. I couldn’t even stand to look over at my baby sister’s naked body, dangling like a captured animal. They had Miley’s arms extended over her head and her wrists bound to a thick silver pipe that ran across the warehouse ceiling. Her face was covered in a mix of tears, snot, and blood. Her hair was soaked with sweat and matted to her head. I could see tracks of electricity burn marks running up and down her stomach and extending down her thighs. I knew then that even if by some miracle we made it out of this shit, Miley would never be the same again. I sobbed at the sight and at the thought. It was my greed that had landed us here. It was my need to prove a point to the world. A world that didn’t give two fucks about me or what I had anyway. More skin-searing sizzles interrupted my thoughts. More screams from my sister sent my emotions over the top.

“Miley!” I screeched until my throat burned. I strained against the restraints that held me to the cold metal chair. “Miley! I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! I’m sorry! Miley!”

“Karlie. Karlie, wake up!”

“I’m sorry, Miley!” I screamed as I jumped out of my sleep and whipped my head around frantically. My chest pumped up and down so fast I had to cough to catch my breath. My eyes slowly began to focus and I took in my sister’s face. The scars on her left cheek and the healing gash over her right eye brought me back to reality. Miley had been through a terrible ordeal, but she had survived.

“Hey. Hey. You were dreaming,” Miley said softly, concern creasing her face.

“Oh my God,” I gasped, placing my hand on my chest. I looked around my hospital room again to make sure I was really dreaming. The nightmares of our experience were relentless. They came every night. I couldn’t close my eyes without thinking about what had happened to us. It was the reason we were holed up in the hospital now. A near-death experience was an understatement.

“I’m right here. What are you saying sorry about?” Miley said, touching my hand gently. “We are here together. I thought you would be excited that they moved me to your room. That means I’m much better. No more ICU, no more close monitoring. I am on the mend, big sis. That’s good news,” she continued.

I finally relaxed against the pillows on my bed. She was right. It was good news. I looked at the remnants of the cuts and bruises on my sister’s face and the sling that still held her arm and sighed loudly. Of course the guilt came crashing back down on me. It was a miracle Miley was alive after the torture she’d endured. I’d always known my sister was strong, but now I knew for sure she was a fighter … a damn warrior.

“I’m happy you’re here, Miley. We are lucky to be alive, and I’m actually overjoyed you’re right here with me,” I assured her, parting a weak smile.

“Good, because I came to get on your nerves as usual. I will be right up your butt until they let us out of here,” she joked, limping over to the other bed. I let out a halfhearted chuckle, but deep down inside I was still dealing with my guilt over what had happened to her. It had been my idea to set up the EZ Cash payday loan store I worked at to be robbed. At the time, with our bills mounting, no prospects of getting any real money, and exposure to all of that cash on a daily basis, it seemed like a foolproof, solid plan that would net us enough cash to pay off some of our debts and get us straight for at least a little while.

At first, the robbery planning and execution had seemed to go smoothly. Miley and I had insider information about the stores, the operation times, the safes, the surveillance cameras; all of the necessary things a stickup crew would need to know. I also thought then that my boyfriend Sidney and his crew were the right dudes for the job. Boy, was I wrong.

Too bad I didn’t find out until much later. With my help, Sidney and his friends had actually pulled off the perfect heist. We had stolen enough cash to do everybody involved a world of good. But you know what they say, right? What can go wrong, will go wrong. Oh yeah, the part that I planned — the robbery — went down smoothly. Well, I mean as smoothly as a robbery could go. It was the aftermath that went awry.

The whole crew counted up the money afterward and decided as a group we would fall back from spending it until the police heat after the heist died down. We decided to stash the money in different places. Smart, right?

I thought so until things slowly began to fall apart. “No honor amongst thieves” is an understatement. First, each one of Sidney’s friends started popping up dead. Somehow, their identities were made known. I thought it was their stupid bragging, but then again, nothing was as it seemed at that time. I do know their murders scared the living shit out of me and Miley.

Next, Miley and I were kidnapped and beaten almost to death. Then my sister and I were miraculously saved by a detective who we had thought of as the bane of our existence during the whole time we were hiding the money, but who turned out in the end to be our savior. Truthfully, I am shocked that we are both alive. When I arrived at the hospital, I was told they didn’t think my sister would make it. I was in bad shape myself, but I prayed and prayed to God that my sister’s life be spared. My prayers had been answered. Weeks later and here we are … alive. Still a little beat up, but alive nonetheless.

“What are they saying about the use of your hands?” I asked Miley, trying to change the subject and get my mind off the past.

“The physical therapy is helping, and I’m praying soon I will get some of the feeling back,” she replied as the nurse helped her settle her things into the space across from mine.

“At least I don’t have to be stuck on that critical unit anymore. The doctors said the electric shocks could’ve done irreparable damage to my heart and other vital organs, but thankfully, they didn’t,” Miley said. “I’m lucky as hell.”

I closed my eyes and turned my face away from her. I knew in my heart my sister would really never be the same. If I was having nightmares about our ordeal, I was sure Miley needed drugs just to get to sleep.

Within a few seconds, I felt Miley climbing into my bed next to me. I moved over slightly. Miley hugged me tight. I felt warm inside. Not warm enough to erase the guilt I felt, but a warm comfort that only my sister and I shared since being left by our mother as kids. I was responsible for Miley then, and I always took that role seriously. Even now.

“Karlie, please stop blaming yourself. I was down with everything too. I knew exactly what I was getting into, and I didn’t back down. None of this is your fault. Besides, you were just as beat up as I was, and I’m just glad we are alive. Alive and together. That’s all that matters to me,” Miley said softly, giving me another squeeze. I smiled a little bit. We lay there for a few long minutes. I know her mind was racing with thoughts just like mine. We would definitely have to rebuild our lives. And I had a gut feeling that it wasn’t going to be easy either. Nothing in our lives had ever been easy. And to my dismay, I would soon find out that nothing had changed.

CHAPTER 2
SECOND CHANCES

Miley and I had been in the hospital for two more days when Dr. Dubois, our main attending doctor, walked into our room and interrupted our ratchet TV watching.

“Ms. Houston.” Dr. Dubois nodded at me first, then turned slightly to face Miley. “Ms. Houston.” Miley and I both stared at him expectantly and said “yes,” almost in unison.

“I think it is safe to say you are both well on your way to full recoveries. I think it is time to break you both out dis joint,” he said using awkward Ebonics as a dry joke at the end of his statement.

“Yes. About time,” Miley chimed in a few seconds later, raising her good arm in the air. “We’ve been ready to get up out of here,” she said.

She wasn’t lying. Miley and I had been talking about how our life was going to be after we left the hospital. We definitely couldn’t go back to our old apartment. Detective Castle had already told us it was way too dangerous. We didn’t have the money from the robberies, so it wasn’t like we could just go cop a new spot to live. After the cops saved our lives, we of course had to give up the cash. It was all part of the cooperation that helped us stay out of legal trouble. It wasn’t lost on the detectives that we had set up the robberies, but the murders had overshadowed our responsibility in it. Our cooperation sealed the deal.

I got an instant headache just thinking about it all. Shit, our circumstances were worse now than they were before the heist. Forget about a job. Our faces had been plastered all over the news, so there was no way any business in the Tidewater area — or any area, for that matter — was going to hire us. Hustling was out of the question. We had tried that once when we were teenagers. It hadn’t gone so well. We had made too many enemies way too fast in that business. Besides, Miley was way too flashy and I was way too impatient and leery for all of that looking-over-your-shoulders and figuring out who had your back versus who was going to stab you in it.

“I guess that’s good news,” I said, trying to fake my excitement about getting released from the hospital.
“You guess? No, it is good news,” Miley followed up.

I sighed. I was worried as shit about everything, especially about where we would go from there.

“Great. Well, once the nurse comes back with your prescriptions and gives you instructions on how to take care of your healing wounds, you are free to go,” Dr. Dubois said. “Good luck out there. You girls are truly lucky. It was good getting to know you both. Stay out of trouble,” he said, shaking first Miley’s hand and then mine.

“Thank you for taking care of us,” I said.

“Yeah, thank you, Doc,” Miley said.

“You’re very welcome. Now you ladies take care of yourselves.”

“We will,” Miley and I said simultaneously.

Immediately after the doctor left the room I looked at Miley and said, “Now it’s back to reality. What the hell we gonna do now? This hospital was a false sense of security, chick. We are literally starting from scratch.”

Miley let out a long sigh. Something glinted in her eyes that told me she hadn’t thought about our next steps.

“Tell me about it. We ain’t even got no damn clothes. Starting from scratch is a damn understatement, Karlie.”

I shook my head and rubbed my chin. I had to think. I was always the one who had to think. I was always the one who had to get us out of every single situation. I couldn’t help but feel a little annoyed. Guilty or not, it was exhausting looking out for myself and Miley for so long.

“What you thinking?” Miley asked. I shot her a look. As soon as I looked over at her and saw her scars, I quickly softened my face. I couldn’t be mad at her. I had done this to her.

“I’m thinking we gonna need help. I guess I will call Sidney and tell him we’re ready to go. And being released,” I said. Sidney had also survived a good ass-whooping behind the robbery. Unlike us, he had walked away with a busted knee and just some minor cuts and bruises and a black eye. Not even enough to keep him in the hospital for one week. Lucky him.

Just as I was about to dial Sidney’s cell phone number, our room door swung open and Sidney limped in with his cane in hand. My eyes lit up.

“Damn, boy. You’re always on time. I was just about to call you,” I sang and smiled brightly.

“Oh yeah? Why? What’s up? They letting y’all go or something?” Sidney asked. I had to admit that the cane and the limp gave him a sexy swag that I liked. He was already gorgeous, with the most beautiful hazel eyes and a body to die for. A quick tingle came over me. Damn. I couldn’t help but think about Sidney finally being able to touch me again like I like to be touched. Sidney and I had been through a lot. We had been together almost three years and we’d had our fair share of side chick incidents, prison stints, and now, we could add a near-death experience to the drama. It didn’t matter how much he might irk my nerves … I loved that man. I already knew that I wanted to be with him for life.

Sidney was six feet, two inches of caramel gorgeousness, and his dick game was the best I’d ever had in my life. And trust me, with the rough way I had to grow up after my selfish mother killed herself with drugs and abandoned us, I had had my fair share of dick — wanted and unwanted. So I knew Sidney was top notch.

“Yeah, the doctor just came in here and told us we could go home. Which means, you’re our ride and possibly our spot to lay our heads too,” Miley said from her side of the room.

Sidney chuckled and looked back at me. “Ain’t nothing change about this one, did it?” he said, jerking his head in Miley’s direction. “Still the spoiled and bossy little sister. She telling me what to do already and ain’t even out yet.”

“That’s right,” Miley sang, sticking out her tongue playfully.

“Still a pain in the ass, you mean.” I laughed. “But she’s my pain in the ass, and at this point, I wouldn’t trade her for anything in the world.”

“A’ight good. So let’s go. Shit, we wasting time. A nigga always got moves to make.” Sidney motioned for me to get out of the bed.

“Calm down. We gotta get our meds first. Dr. Dubois said the nurse would be in here in a few minutes,” I explained.
Sidney looked a tiny bit disappointed.

“Oooh. The nigga can’t wait to get you home,” Miley joked, rubbing her two pointer fingers on top of each other — the playground way of saying hanky-panky.

“You damn right. I miss my baby,” Sidney said, moving in and kissing me on the neck. My entire body got hot and my cheeks flamed over. I couldn’t wait either. I was suddenly hot and bothered but had to play it off.

“Stop, crazy,” I said coquettishly, pushing him but not hard enough to move him.

“A’ight, well, I’m gonna go and get the car from the parking garage and pull it up to the front entrance so you don’t have to walk far. And by then y’all should be ready.”

“Yeah, we will. Make sure you got that Meek Mill or Drake on blast. I need to hear some good music. Oh, and don’t forget we have to stop at someplace boss to eat. I’m dying for some good food. Being trapped in here got me fucked up,” Miley said.

Sidney just shook his head and laughed. “This girl,” he mumbled as he headed for the door.

“Sidney,” I called after him. He looked over his shoulder.

“I love you,” I said.

He flashed that gorgeous smile. “You already know what it is, bae,” he replied.

I am not sure what came over me at that moment, but for some reason, I felt like I had to tell him that I loved him. It wasn’t something we said often throughout our relationship. It wasn’t something I said often in my life, period. I guess now it was the time to do so.

CHAPTER 3
UNLUCKY START

You would have thought I was the one in worse condition. I was moving slow, and Miley was speeding ahead of me through the hospital corridors toward the exit.

“Damn. Slow down,” I huffed, trying to keep up. My back ached and so did my legs. I guess that was muscle fatigue after being cooped up in the hospital for weeks. Miley didn’t seem to be suffering at all.

“I want out of here,” Miley called over her shoulder. “You better c’mon. I already told you I’m starving.”
I had to laugh at my sister. Once the nurse had come back with the doctor’s handwritten prescriptions and instructions on how to properly take the medications and care for our healing wounds, Miley damn near pushed the lady out of the way. Miley was hyped to leave the hospital. She hated the food, and so she’d promised to treat herself to an order of Bang-Bang Shrimp from the Cheesecake Factory the moment she got out.

“I want out of here too, but damn, slow the hell down,” I grumbled, winded.

Miley was thinking about simple shit like food and what damn rapper she was going to listen to on the way home. I, on the other hand, had more important things on my mind. Important things like where the hell we would live and work. How we would eat, not just today but every day. I swear, I dreaded the thought of it all. I knew one thing, though; we were going to have to come up with another damn plan. The thought scared me. The last plan had nearly gotten us killed. (Continues…)
Release: 8/29/17
Click to purchase: (Kindle) or (Paperback)
Excerpted from Dirty Tricks by Kiki Swinson, Saundra. Copyright © 2017 Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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