By Sandra Brown
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Twenty years ago in the dead of night, four seemingly random individuals pulled the ultimate heist and almost walked away with half a million dollars. But by daybreak, their plan had been shot to hell. One of them was in the hospital. One was in jail. One was dead. And one got away with it.
Arden Maxwell, the daughter of the man who disappeared all those years ago—presumably with the money, after murdering his accomplice—has never reconciled with her father's abandonment of her and her sister. After countless personal setbacks she decides to return to her family home near mysterious Caddo Lake, and finally get answers to the many questions that torment her. Little does she know, two of her father's co-conspirators—a war hero and a corrupt district attorney—are watching her every move.
Ledge Burnet, a rebellious teen at the time of the heist, evaded his jail sentence by enlisting in the army. Now he's back in town to care for his ailing father—and to keep his eye on the county's corrupt district attorney, whom he suspects was the real murderer. Although the two are bound to silence because of the crime they committed together, each has spent years waiting and hoping that the other will make a fatal misstep. But the arrival of their elusive accomplice's daughter, Arden, who may know more about the missing money than she's telling, sets them both on red alert. She ignites Ledge's determination to expose the D.A.'s treachery . . . and sparks a desire he wishes to deny.
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That night in 2000
Talking about it is the surefire way to get caught.”
He let the statement settle, then looked each of his three companions straight in the eye one at a time, using the deliberation rather than additional words to serve as a warning.
The huddled quartet was coming down from an adrenaline high. It hadn’t been a crash landing but a gradual descent. Now that they were no longer in immediate danger of being caught red-handed, their heartbeats remained stronger than normal, but had slowed to a manageable rhythm. Breaths gusting into the humid air were just as hot, though not as rapid as they’d been.
However, what hadn’t let up, not by a single degree, was the tension among them.
They couldn’t risk being seen together tonight, but before going their separate ways, they must forge an understanding. If, during the process of creating that bond, a threat was implied, so much the better. It would discourage any one of them from breaking the pact to keep their mouths shut. One stuck to the vow of silence, or else.
“Do not talk about it.” The speaker’s hair was a paprika-colored thatch that grew straight up out of a sidewall. A freckled scalp showed through the bristle. “Don’t tell any-damn-body.” He made five stabbing motions toward the ground to emphasize each word.
Somewhat impatiently, the oldest of the group said, “Of course not.”
The one vigorously gnawing his fingernails spat out a paring while bobbing his head in assent.
The fourth, the youngest of them, had maintained an air of cool detachment and remarkable calm throughout the evening’s endeavor. A laconic shrug conveyed his unspoken Goes without saying.
“One of us boasts about it, or drops a hint, even joking, it’ll have a domino effect that could—”
“You can stop going on about it,” the oldest interrupted. “We got it the first time, and didn’t need a lesson from you to start with.”
The ditch in which they were hunkered was choked with weeds, some thriving, some lying dead in the mud, having drowned during the last hard rain. The ravine was four feet deep and made for an ugly scar that cut between the narrow road and a listing barbed-wire fence demarcating a cow pasture that reeked of manure. Without a breeze to disperse the odor, the sultry atmosphere kept it ripe.
At the center of the circle formed by the four was the cause of the resented lecture: a canvas bag stuffed with stolen cash.
It was a hell of a lot bigger haul than they had anticipated, and that unexpected bonus had been both exhilarating and sobering. It made the stakes seem higher, which wound the tension tighter.
Following the rebuke about unnecessary lessons, no one moved or said anything until the young, aloof one reached up and ground a mosquito against the side of his neck, leaving a smear of blood. “Nobody’ll hear about it from me. I don’t cotton to the idea of jail. Already been there.”
“Juvie,” the redhead said.
The older one said, “Only a fool would blab about it. I’m no fool.”
The redhead thought it over, then nodded as though reassured. “All right, then. Another thing. We see each other on the street, we act the same as always. We don’t go out of our way to avoid each other, but we don’t get chummier, either. We recognize each other on sight, maybe we’re well enough acquainted to speak, but that’s it. That’s why this will work. The only thing we have in common is this.” He nudged the canvas bag with the steel-tipped toe of his boot.
The other pair of cowboy boots in the circle weren’t silver-toed. They weren’t worn for show but lived in. This wasn’t the first time they’d been caked with mud.
The pair of brown wingtips had sported a shine before sliding down into the ditch.
The navy blue trainers had some mileage on them.
“Six months is a long time to wait to divide it up,” the eldest said, eyeing the carrot-top. “In the meanwhile, why do you get to keep the money? We didn’t vote on that.”
“Don’t you trust me with it?”
“What do you think?”
If the one with the gingery thatch took offense, he didn’t show it. “Well, look at it this way. I’m the one taking all the risks. Despite our pledge not to talk it up, if one of you lets something slip, and somebody who wears a badge gets wind of it and starts snooping, I’m the one holding the bag.”
The other three hadn’t missed the emphasis he placed on that certain word. They exchanged glances of patent mistrust toward the self-appointed banker, but no one argued with him. The youngest gave another one-shouldered shrug, which the redhead took as consensus.
“Once you get your share,” he said, “you can’t go spending cash like crazy. No new cars, nothing flashy, nothing—”
The older one cut him off again, testier than before. “You know, I could well do without these instructions of yours.”
“No call to get touchy. Anything I tell you is a reminder to myself, too.” The redhead fashioned a placating smile, but it wasn’t in keeping with his eyes, which reflected the meager moonlight like twin straight razors. He then turned to the nail-biter, who was running out of fingers on which to chew. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Then stop with the nervous fidgeting. It’ll single you out like a red neon arrow.”
The older seconded that. “He’s right. If you come across as nervous, you had just as well confess.”
The nail-biter lowered his hand from his mouth. “I’ll be okay.” His Adam’s apple forced down a hard swallow. “It’s just…you know.” He looked down at the bag. “I still can’t believe we actually did it.”
“Well, we did,” the redhead said. “And when you report for work on Monday morning and are informed that the safe was cleared out over the weekend, you’ve got to pretend to be as shocked as everybody else. But don’t overreact,” he said, raising his index finger to underscore the point.
“Just a soft ‘holy shit’ will do. Something like that to show disbelief, then keep your trap shut. Don’t do anything to call attention to yourself, especially if detectives start interviewing all the store employees, which it’s certain they will. When your turn comes, you stay ignorant and innocent. Got that?”
“Got that?” demanded the older.
“Sure. I know what to do.” But even as he acknowledged his responsibility, he dried his palms by running them up and down his pants legs, a gesture that didn’t inspire confidence among the other three.
The older sighed, “Jesus.”
The nervous one was quick to reassure the other three. “Look, don’t worry about me. I’ve done my part, and I’ll continue to. I’m just jumpy, is all. Out here in the open like this.” He made a sweeping motion with his arm that encompassed the pasture and deserted stretch of country road. “Why’d we stop out here, anyway?”
“I thought we should come to an understanding,” the redhead said.
“And now we have.” The oldest one started up the embankment and gave the nervous one a warning glare. “You had better not screw this up.”
“I won’t. By Monday I’ll be okay.” He wet his lips and formed a shaky grin. “And six months from now, we’ll all be rolling in clover.”
As a group, they climbed out of the ditch, but the adjourning optimistic prediction didn’t pan out.
By morning, their plan had been shot to hell.
One of them was in the hospital.
One was in jail.
One was in the morgue.
And one had gotten away with the haul.
Lord, Arden. I had counted on it being run-down, but…”
Lisa expressed her dismay with a shudder as she stepped through the back door into the kitchen and surveyed the conditions in which Arden had been living for the past five months.
Arden trailed her sister inside and pulled a chair from beneath the dining table. As she took her seat, she noticed that the tabletop had defied the recent polishing she’d given it. Before yesterday, she had fretted over those nicks and scratches. Today, she couldn’t see what possible difference they made.
Lisa was rattling on. Arden tuned back in. “Have you had that stove checked for a gas leak? It could be a safety hazard. Is there a functioning smoke or fire alarm?”
“They’re called Braxton Hicks. Think of them as practice contractions. But it’ll be a month or so before you start to experience them. And when you do, they’re no cause for alarm.”
That’s what the OB had told her on her last prenatal checkup.
But yesterday’s contractions weren’t Braxton Hicks. They’d turned out not to be a rehearsal, and they’d caused a great deal of alarm in the produce section of the supermarket.
She forced her thoughts away from that and back to Lisa, who stood in the center of the kitchen, elbows tucked into her sides as though afraid she might accidentally make contact with a contaminated surface.
“You told me you were occupying only a few of the downstairs rooms. What about in here?”
Lisa went over to the open doorway and looked in at the formal dining room and, beyond it, the living room. Two decades ago, they’d been emptied of all furnishings except for the upright piano that stood where it always had. Arden had been surprised to find it still here, but she supposed that it had remained for the same reason Lisa hadn’t taken it with them when they vacated. How does one cart off something that large?
“I suppose the rooms upstairs are as empty as these,” Lisa remarked. “Doesn’t appear as though you’ve been in here at all.” She gave the staircase a sweeping glance, then turned back into the kitchen. “Where are you sleeping?”
Arden nodded toward the room off the kitchen. Lisa gave the partially open door a push with the knuckle of her index finger.
It was a square and featureless space with a square and featureless window. Their mother, Marjorie, had used it as a catch-all to store Christmas decorations, castoff clothing bound for Goodwill, their dad’s rarely used golf clubs, a portable sewing machine, and such.
When Arden moved in, she’d decided to set up a temporary bedroom in here rather than use her old room upstairs, saving herself from having to go up and down the stairs as her pregnancy advanced and she grew more ungainly.
That was no longer an issue.
When the first pain gripped her, Arden dropped the apple she’d been testing and splayed her hands over her distended abdomen. Although the sharp and unexpected contraction robbed her of breath, she gave a cry of fright.
“What’s the matter, honey?”
She turned toward a voice filled with concern. She registered a pleasant face framed by gray hair, a blue-and-white-striped blouse, and kindly eyes. Then another pain seized her, meaner than the one before. Her knees buckled.
“Oh, goodness. Your water broke. You’re going into labor.”
“No! I can’t be. It’s too early.”
“How far along are you?”
“It’s too early!” Her voice went shrill with panic. “Call 911. Please.”
Lisa was commenting on her drab, makeshift bedroom. “I simply don’t understand why you chose to come back here and live like this.”
Arden had furnished the room with a twin bed, a nightstand and lamp, and a chest of drawers that she had assembled herself over the course of two days. She remembered feeling a great sense of accomplishment and had imagined herself assembling a crib soon.
The mirror that Arden had mounted on the wall above the chest reflected Lisa’s dismay as she came back around, shaking her head slowly and regarding Arden as she would an indecipherable ancient transcript.
“Is there anything to drink?”
Without waiting for an answer, Lisa returned to the kitchen and checked inside the refrigerator. “Good. Diet Coke. Or would you rather have something else? Does the ice maker work?”
Arden tried to keep up with Lisa’s brisk thought processes, but her mind was fettered by vivid recollections.
“You’ll be all right. Lie back. Take deep breaths.”
A young woman in yoga attire had responded to the older lady’s shout for help. She eased Arden down until she was reclining in the supporting arms of another stranger who’d taken up position behind her. Kneeling at her side, the young woman continued to speak to her in a calm and soothing manner. But nothing she’d said helped, not with the pain that assailed her, not with the despair that was equally intense.
Desperate, she shoved her hands between her thighs in an effort to hold inside the life that her body was prematurely trying to expel.
Lisa located the drinking glasses in the cabinet in which they’d always been and poured them each a drink. Bringing them to the table with her, she sat down across from Arden.
She sipped from her glass, then reached out and covered Arden’s hand with her own. “Baby sister.”
Lisa whispered the endearment with affection, caring, and concern. All of which Arden knew to be genuine. Lisa was as baffled by her life choices as she was annoyed.
She said, “From the moment you called me yesterday, I’ve been in a tizzy. I don’t know how much you remember of last evening, but when I got to the hospital, you were in hysterics one minute and near catatonic the next. I was beside myself. Then this morning, trying to get you out of there…”
“What’s your name?”
At her side and bending over her, the EMT had replaced the yoga-clad woman. He was young and fresh-faced.
“Arden, we’re going to take care of you, okay? How far along are you?”
His partner, who looked like a career bodybuilder, was taking her vitals. They asked everyone who’d congregated around her to move aside, then lifted her onto the gurney, and rolled her out of the store.
The midday sun was directly overhead. It was blinding. Her vision turned watery.
She blotted tears from her eyes now.
Lisa must have noticed, because she stopped enumerating the aggravations associated with being discharged from the hospital. “What I’m leading up to is that this is the first chance I’ve had to tell you how sorry I am. Truly, truly sorry, Arden.” She stroked Arden’s hand.
Fresh tears welled up in Arden’s eyes. She looked into her untouched glass of Coke where bubbles rose in a rush to the surface, only to burst upon reaching it. Something vital and alive, extinguished faster than a blink.
In the ambulance, her jeans were cut away. She was draped. When the young-looking medic examined her, his smooth brow wrinkled.
She struggled to angle herself up in order to see what had caused his consternation, but the bodybuilder kept her pressed down, a hand on each of her shoulders, not unkindly, but firmly.
“My baby will be all right, won’t she?” Arden sobbed. “Please. Tell me she’ll be okay.”
But, thinking back on it now, she believed she’d known even then, on a primal and instinctual level, that her girl child would never draw breath.
“You probably won’t believe this,” Lisa continued as she rubbed her thumb across Arden’s knuckles, “but I admired you for electing to have the baby. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I was appalled when you told me about it and what you planned to do. Coming back here to live and raise the child. Here of all places?”
She took a look around as though seeking to find an explanation for the inexplicable written on the faded wallpaper. “It’s masochistic. Does this self-inflicted punishment have to do with the baby’s father?”
Arden picked up her glass and tried to hold it steady as she took a sip of Coke. The glass clinked against her lower teeth. She set it back down.
In a hushed tone, Lisa said, “Is he married, Arden?”
She cast her eyes downward.
Lisa sighed. “I figured as much. Did he even know you were pregnant?”
She took Arden’s silence as a no.
“Just as well,” Lisa said. “You’re under no obligation to tell him now. If he didn’t know about the child, he doesn’t need to know about its fate. That episode of your life is behind you. You can start afresh. Clean slate.”
Again she covered Arden’s hand and pressed it affectionately. “First thing on the agenda is to get you away from here. I want you to move in with me until you figure out what you want to do with your life.” She gave Arden time to respond, but when she didn’t, she continued. “Since Wallace died, the house seems so empty.”
Lisa’s husband, who had been much older than she, had died two years earlier. No doubt their huge, rambling house in an elite neighborhood of Dallas did feel empty.
“I’ll give you all the privacy you wish, of course, but Helena will be delighted to have you there to fuss over. She and I will pamper you until you’re completely recovered.” She smiled and patted Arden’s hand again before checking her watch.
“You can’t have much to pack. If we get away soon, we’ll be there by dark. Helena will have dinner waiting.” She was about to leave her chair, when she paused. “And, Arden, you’re not under a deadline. Give yourself time to think things through. Really think through an idea before you act on it. Don’t rush headlong into something.
“In all honesty, I had a bad feeling about your move to Houston, and, at that point, I didn’t even know about your relationship with this married man. Granted, the job held promise, but your pulling up stakes and relocating seemed impulsive and doomed from the start.”
The attending physician in the ER clasped her hand. “Ms. Maxwell, I’m sorry.”
“Your daughter was stillborn.”
“Don’t blame yourself. Nothing you did caused it. It was an accident of nature.”
Doomed from the start.
Feeling as though her breastbone was about to crack open, Arden pushed back her chair and went over to the sink. Opening the blinds on the window above it, she looked out at the backyard in which Lisa and she had played.
The fence was missing slats. The grass had been overtaken by weeds. Her mother’s rose bed, to which she’d given so much tender loving care, was a patch of infertile dirt.
She sensed Lisa moving up behind her even before her sister encircled her waist and rested her chin on her shoulder so she could share the view through the window. “I remember the day Dad brought the swing set home for you.”
It was still anchored in the ground with concrete blocks, but it was rusty, and the chain was broken on one of the swings.
“I was around twelve years old, so you would have been two. There was a little seat for you with a bar across your lap.”
Lisa rubbed her chin against the knob at the crest of Arden’s shoulder. “You were too young to remember that, but surely you remember when I taught you how to skin-the-cat.”
Lisa had been almost too tall by then, but she was athletic enough to demonstrate how easy it was. She’d spotted Arden on her first fearful attempts, then had challenged her to do it on her own.
Her palms damp with nervous sweat, she’d braced herself on the crossbar, taken a deep breath, and somersaulted over it. But she fell short of making the full rotation. Her hands slipped off the bar, and she’d landed hard on her butt.
Pride smarting as much as her bottom, she’d fought back tears. But Lisa had insisted that she try again.
“Tomorrow,” Arden had whined.
“No. Right now.”
On the second try, she’d succeeded. Lisa had practically smothered her in a bear hug. She recalled now how special Lisa’s approval and that congratulatory hug had been.
The family had celebrated her feat with dinner out at the restaurant of her choosing: McDonald’s, of course.
That had been a happy day, one among the last happy family times that Arden recalled. Their mother’s fatal accident had occurred within months.
But losing her hadn’t been as sudden and unexpected as their father’s abandonment.
This past March marked twenty years, twice the age she had been when Joe Maxwell left his two daughters, never to be seen again. His desertion remained the pivotal point around which Arden’s life continued to revolve.
It did no good to speculate on how differently Lisa and she would have turned out as individuals, or what kind of futures they would have had, if he hadn’t forsaken them. He had.
Softly, sympathetically, Lisa said, “You’ve been through a terrible ordeal, and I don’t want to pressure you when you’re so vulnerable. But, Arden, this isn’t the place to recover. Believe me, it isn’t. You were younger. You can’t appreciate how bad it was after Mother died. Or maybe you can, but you’ve blocked it from your memory. I haven’t. I remember.
“When Dad disappeared, and I moved us away from this town, I swore it would be forever. People who lived here then will remember us. Why subject yourself to gossip and speculation? To say nothing of the fact that this house is literally falling down around you.” She flipped her finger over a chip in the Formica countertop.
“So many times, I’ve thought about selling it, but I would get sentimental, think of Mother in these rooms, cooking in this kitchen, humming as she folded laundry, and I couldn’t bring myself to let it go. Though God knows we could have used the money, selling it would have made severance with Mother seem so final. Besides that, the house belonged to you, too. Selling it wasn’t a decision I felt comfortable making for both of us.”
She took a deep breath. “But now I wish I had gotten rid of it, so you wouldn’t have made this dreadful mistake of moving back. You’ve deluded yourself into seeing this place as home. It isn’t. It hasn’t been for twenty years, and, without your child, it never will be.
“I’m your only family. I’ll nurture you until you decide what you want to do from this point forward.”
She gave Arden a quick, hard hug and held on for a moment longer before letting go.
Arden turned to face her. She kissed her sister’s cheek, then crooked her pinky finger, and Lisa linked hers with it. After their father’s desertion, they’d begun doing this often. It symbolized that they had only each other, and that their bond was unbreakable.
They kept their fingers linked, smiling wistfully at each other, then Arden pulled her hand free. “Are you finished, Lisa?”
“Finished telling me where I’m going to live and what I’m going to do with my life from this point forward. If you’re done, please leave.” She took a bolstering breath. “If not, leave anyway.”
Arden was still awake when she heard the car approaching on the road.
She glanced at the clock on her nightstand. It read a few minutes past one a.m. The drive-by was a little later than usual tonight.
Immediately after learning she was pregnant, she’d made plans to leave Houston. Within a week, she had resigned from her job, paid out her lease, emptied her condo, and made the move back to her hometown.
- PRAISE FOR SANDRA BROWN
- "Bold and bracing hard-boiled crime thriller Thick as Thieves [is] perhaps [Sandra Brown's] most ambitious and best-realized effort ever . . . A tale steeped in noir and nuance that's utterly riveting from the first page to the last."—Providence Journal
- "[A] taut novel of romantic suspense . . . A final twist will catch readers by surprise. Good pacing, smooth prose, inventive action scenes, and a touch of hot romance combine to make this a winner. Brown consistently entertains."—Publishers Weekly
- "From the initial setup to the explosive conclusion, Thick as Thieves will pull readers in for a roller coaster ride of action, deception, and redemption . . . a high adrenaline page-turner that will keep you entertained until the very end."—Fresh Fiction
- "A masterful storyteller."—USA Today
- "Brown deserves her own genre."—Dallas Morning News
- "A novelist who can't write them fast enough."—San Antonio Express-News
- "Sandra Brown is the best . . . Thick as Thieves is some of her best work to date, which is really saying something."—Real Book Spy
- On Sale
- Aug 25, 2020
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Grand Central Publishing