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The Last Gypsy Princess

                                        Chapter One


     Of all the 9mm pocket pistols, Zee Ziko preferred the Glock because the grip felt firm in her small hands. Actually, she preferred not to carry a gun, but her father, Junior, insisted. Not counting Senior, and she had quit counting him years ago, Junior was the only family she had left. Even though she had turned twenty-two last week, she still did whatever Junior told her. In her Roma culture, family relationships were sacred.

     At noon on Friday, she lifted her Glock out of her dresser and slipped it into an inner pocket of her gray purse. She pulled the strap over her shoulder and rushed down the stairs. The squeaky tweet tweet of ‘Rockin’ Robin’ and the aroma of frying bacon and bananas greeted her. Bacon, bananas, and peanut butter on toast. The Elvis. Junior’s favorite sandwich.

     He yelled from the kitchen, “Got your Glock?”

     “Yeah. Gotta go.” She dashed outside to her black Jeep Cherokee and raced to the neighborhood strip mall. This last-minute luncheon date with Nick had thrown her off schedule.

     As she crossed the parking lot, a Styrofoam cup scraped past her with the warm May breeze. Up ahead, Mrs. Carter, one of her black neighbors, limped toward a Ford Focus. A bulky purple purse dangled from her arm as she jostled three bulging plastic bags. Zee felt a twinge of pain. Her mom had been the same age as Mrs. Carter.

     Unnoticed by anyone but Zee, three mid-teen Roma girls circled their prey. Dark-olive-skinned, dressed in blue jeans and T-shirts like normal teenagers, their deliberate movements caught Zee’s eye. As Zee got closer, she recognized them as grandchildren of Cornelius, boss of the large and powerful Martinov family from the east suburbs.They belonged to the Chicago kumpania ,same as Zee, but they shouldn’t be working here on the south side. They were committing a turf violation.

     Like Zee, the girls would be masters by now, trained in the craft of cons since the age of four. Zee tipped her baseball cap down and lowered her head to hide her face. With dark-brown hair, and a blend of her mother’s white and father’s dark-olive skins, Zee easily passed as a non-Roma. Hopefully, these girls wouldn’t recognize her.

     The big Roma girl, the shill, spilled a few quarters on the asphalt, then knelt in Mrs.Carter’s path, a distraction technique.

     A thin skittish girl, the runner, carried a large leather purse on her arm and lurked well behind. She kept out of Mrs. Carter’s vision, poised to accept the handoff and disappear with the take.

     The third, a small mousy girl, carried a jacket over her right arm as she slinked toward Mrs.Carter from behind.

     Mrs. Carter stopped and gazed down. “There’s a quarter over here, dear. By my shoe.”

     “Thanks.” The shill ran her hand across the blacktop, missing the quarter.

     “Right here.” Mrs. Carter tapped her foot.

     Stepping close, the small girl reached into Mrs. Carter’s purple purse.

Zee’s stomach churned. It had been years since she’d attempted anything like this. She changed direction and quickened her pace.

     The small girl plucked the wallet from Mrs. Carter’s purse. She curled her hand under the jacket draped on her arm to hide the wallet from view.

     The shill asked, “Where’s that quarter?”

     Mrs. Carter tapped her foot again. “Right here.”

     The small girl slipped over to the runner who opened her leather purse. The small girl dropped the stolen wallet into the runner’s purse and the two glided off in opposite directions.

     Zee stepped directly into the runner’s path. A practiced distraction, she lowered her shoulder, pretended to look away, smacked into the runner, deftly opened the girl’s purse and snatched the stolen wallet.

     “Hey, watch it.” The runner stiffened.

     “Oh. Sorry. Excuse me.” Zee palmed the wallet and hid it behind her thigh. “Sorry.” Zee stepped away.

     The shill picked up her last quarter, flashed a fake-looking smile at Mrs. Carter, and ambled off.

     Zee circled over to Mrs. Carter and snapped the wallet back inside her purple purse. “Your purse was open, Mrs. Carter.”

     Mrs. Carter spoke in a loud deep voice, “Oh, thank you, Zee.”

     Zee cringed.

     The shill halted, glared at Zee, and whistled three high-pitched notes. The other girls stopped and looked at the shill who jerked her head toward Zee. If only Mrs.Carter hadn’t said Zee’s name so loud.

     The Roma girls gazed at the runner’s purse. The runner checked inside, cursed and shook her head. The girls scowled at Zee as they regrouped.

     Zee took the plastic bags from Mrs. Carter and led the way. “You need to be more careful. I’ve heard there are pickpockets around.”

     Roma pickpockets used to only take money and credit cards, but now many of them, including the Martinov family, sold people’s identities. Zee hated that.

     “Pickpockets in our neighborhood?” Mrs. Carter shook her head. “No.”

     The three Roma girls conferred, then skulked away, shooting death curses at Zee with their eyes.

     “My goodness,you look prettier every time I see you.” Mrs. Carter patted Zee’s arm. “You stop by the house soon, you hear.”

     Zee smiled. “I will.”

     As Mrs.Carter climbed into her car, Zee hurried after the girls. Already late, this had to be quick. She caught the girls at the far side of the lot. “Wait.”

     All three spun toward her, scowling.

     “You owe us.”The shill stormed forward. “You need to pay up.”

     Zee held her ground. “Never work here. This neighborhood’s protected.”

     “Oh, yeah. By who?”

     “By me.”

     The shill stepped close, towering over Zee. The thin girl held back. The small girl slipped to the side, then behind Zee. The shill shoved Zee, surprising her. Zee tumbled backwards, catching a glimpse of the small girl now on her hands and knees. Zee fell over the small girl, dropped her purse and scuffed her palms on the coarse blacktop. She couldn’t believe they had dared to assault her.

     “Oops, slipped. Sorry.” The shill smirked.

     The small girl scurried behind the shill.

     “You owe us. We’ll take your cash.” The shill snatched Zee’s purse.

     “Don’t you dare.” Zee grabbed, but the surprisingly agile shill sprang back out of reach. The shill ripped the purse open and gasped. Few if any other Roma women carried guns. Roma women practiced the tradecraft of deception, not force.

     The shill pulled out the Glock and pointed it at Zee.

     Battling back her fiery temper, Zee climbed to her feet and rubbed her sore palms.

     The Glock, wavering in the shill’s shaky hand, pointed at Zee’s chest.

     “Get back,” the shill said. “Now.”

     “Sure.” Zee nodded. She faked a step back. Then she shot her leg forward, smashed her heel on the shill’s toes, and grabbed the Glock. The shill howled, but held the gun tight and pulled the trigger.

     The gun didn’t even click.

     Zee jerked the pistol from the startled shill’s hand, pulled the action back, loaded a shell into firing position, and pointed the gun at the shill.

     “Hey, what’s going on over there?” A middle-aged security guard hobbled out of the nearby drug store toward them.

     Zee shielded the pistol from his view with her body and grabbed her purse. She slipped theGlock inside and closed it.

     “What you got there?” The security guard stopped and lifted his radio.

     Zee spun toward him. “Sorry, sir. My young cousins here were supposed to stay near home today. We’re having a talk.”

     “Cousins?These are your cousins?”

     “Yes,” Zee lied.

     “Are you girls her cousins?”

     “Yes,” the three girls lied.

     Thankful the girls had closed ranks, Zee flashed a well-practiced, innocent smile. “No problems here, sir.”

     “Okay, then.”The security guard shuffled away, glancing back over his shoulder at them.

     Zee watched him leave, then turned toward the girls.

     The shill sneered.“You Zikos all think you’re the big bosses. Think you’re better than us. Well, you’re not. You’re a freak. Barely even Roma. You’ll never become rom baro over us Martinovs.”

     Rom baro? The shill had to be kidding. Becoming leader of the Roma was the last thing Zee wanted. For the past decade, her fondest hopes and dreams were simply to live a normal life. Perhaps even marry a normal boy like Nick and have her own family. Even so, the shill’s threat distressed her. But she didn’t dare let it show.

     Zee stepped forward and pointed a finger at the shill’s face. “Never work here again. Ever.”

     The shill swallowed and retreated a few steps. The other two scrambled behind her.

     To hide her uneasiness,Zee pivoted and hurried away. No Roma had dared so much as a scowl at her since the last turf war ten years ago. Among the Roma, Zee carried a lethal reputation: two men shot and killed. A reputation fabricated by Senior. A burden he had imposed on her under the guise of protecting her during the war. Deep down, she knew Senior had really done it to protect himself.

     Thirty-eight Roma had died in that war, many of them from her own kumpania, including her Uncle Durril and Senior’s most trusted witch.

Junior had been right about needing to carry her gun. In fact, she’d shoot target practice in the basement tonight. Something bad, perhaps another turf war, loomed on the horizon. She could feel it.

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“I love this book. It’s like a Gypsy version of THE GODFATHER.”

                                                                                        Karen Duvall
                                                                                           Author, Knight’s Curse 

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