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Thick as Thieves
Author: Sandra Brown

 Prologue

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.

“Still counts.”

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?”

“Nothing.”

“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?”

“Yeah.”

“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.

Chapter 1

Present day

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?

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