Home > Thick as Thieves(5)

Thick as Thieves(5)
Author: Sandra Brown

A large draftsman’s table occupied a far corner. A light fixture with a perforated metal shade was suspended above it. Next to it was a desk with a computer setup. Except for the sawdust on the floor beneath the table where he’d been working, everything was neatly arranged and appeared well maintained.

Finally her gaze returned to him.

He shifted his stance slightly, the soles of his boots scraping against the floor and disturbing the sawdust. “Sorry about…” He made a small hand gesture in the general direction of her midsection.

“Thank you.” She didn’t dwell on that. “So when you listened to the voice mail yesterday, you recognized my name.”

“Yeah. Rumor had been circulating for months that the youngest of the Maxwell girls was back. Living out there alone. Expecting a baby.”

In all the time she’d been back, this was the first time she had come face-to-face with the gossip about her. “Do you know the rest of it?”

“Don’t know who or where the baby’s father is.”

She ignored the implied question. “Are you acquainted with my family’s history?”

“I grew up here.” He said it as though that were explanation enough, and it was. Everybody knew her family history.

“You ever learn where your dad went, what happened to him?” he asked. “Did the money ever turn up?”

She didn’t address those questions, either. “Are you open to discussing my project, Mr. Burnet?”

“I told you. Discussion would be a waste of time.”

“You won’t even consider it?”

“Don’t know how plainer I can make it.”

“Are you afraid that being associated with the youngest Maxwell girl will dent your reputation?”

The corner of his stern mouth twitched, but it couldn’t be counted as a real smile. “My reputation is already dented. The thing is, your project would involve more work than I take on at any one time. I specialize in small jobs. Ones with a short shelf life. That way, I’m not overcommitted or overextended. I don’t like being tied down. I’d rather keep my work schedule flexible.”

She crossed her arms and looked him up and down. “That sounded like bullshit.”

“It was.”

Chapter 3

When the ball game ended in the tie-breaking tenth inning, the crowd at Burnet’s Bar and Billiards had begun to thin out. Now, only a few customers remained in the popular lakeside watering hole, which seemed on the verge of toppling into the opaque water of Caddo Lake at any given moment. But since it hadn’t slipped from its pilings in the forty years that it had been there, no one worried too much about that happening.

Of the eight pool tables, only one was currently in use. A hotly contested tournament among a group of very vocal and rowdy young men was winding down.

A man and woman, seated across from each other in one of the dark, semi-private booths, had been engaged in a hushed but heated argument for the past hour. Seeming to have called a tenuous truce, they left the booth and headed for the exit. The woman flounced out ahead of the man, who punched the exit door hard with the heel of his hand as he followed her.

“I think she’s got the advantage, and he’s in for a rough night,” the bartender remarked to the only drinker left seated at the bar.

Without much interest, Ledge said, “Looks like.” He remained hunched over his near-empty glass of bourbon. The color of the liquor reminded him of something he didn’t want to be reminded of. Arden Maxwell’s eyes were that color. Hair the color of corn silk. An abundance of loopy curls.

“You’re entitled to a free refill, you know.”

Ledge looked from his glass to the bartender. “How’s that?”

“Last holdout of the night gets a top-off on the house.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“New policy.”

“Since when?”

“You want it or not?”

Ledge pointed into his glass. “Make it a short one.”

The bartender refilled his glass without benefit of either ice or water. He set the bottle aside, draped his towel over his shoulder, and leaned down, setting his elbows on the bar to bring himself eye to eye with Ledge. “You rarely stay this late. Bad day?”

“It was okay.”

“Tell me another.”

Ledge took a sip of his freshened drink. The whiskey had just the right amount of sting and felt damn good going down. Real good. Too good. Which was why he always paid for his drinks, even though the Burnet who owned the place was his uncle Henry, who had reared him.

Running a tab kept track of his consumption. He had self-imposed this accounting and was afraid to suspend it. He never took a bottle of hooch home with him, either.

“You go see Henry today?”

Ledge shook his head.

“I know it was bad the last time you went.”

“And the time before that.”

The billiard balls clacked. Half the young men around the pool table reacted with groans of defeat and expletives, the other half with whoops of victory and expletives.

When they quieted down, the bartender said, “May not seem like it, Ledge, but Henry’s still in there somewhere. One of these days he may surprise you with a spark of recognition.”

Ledge didn’t agree, but he nodded as though he did. He wouldn’t shoot down Don’s wishful thinking.

Don White had worked alongside his uncle in the bar for as far back as Ledge could remember. More than merely the bartender, Don had been entrusted with the bookkeeping and other facets of the business.

When Henry’s Alzheimer’s had progressed to the point where he could no longer be relied on to carry out even routine, everyday functions, Ledge had offered to let Don buy him out. Don wouldn’t hear of it.

Ledge said now, “Changed your mind yet?”

“Since yesterday?”

“Well?”

“No. Stop asking.”

“I’ll let you pay it out over four years. Five if you need more time.”

“I’ll continue running this place like it was mine, you know that. But Burnet’s will belong to Henry Burnet for as long as he’s drawing breath. After he’s gone—”

“He is gone, Don.”

“Ask me again, after. Then we’ll see.”

Don was sixty-something. The story was that days before his wedding to his high school sweetheart, she’d been killed at a train crossing.

Ledge didn’t know the particulars, because, in all the time he’d known the man, Don had never referred to either her or the tragedy that had taken her. But the lady must have been special, and the love of Don’s life. He was friendly with women customers. Over the years, plenty had gamely encouraged more than friendliness. But if Don had ever had a date, or even a hookup, Ledge was unaware of it. His life was the bar. He had adopted Henry and Ledge as his family.

From an objective observer’s viewpoint, they must appear to be a sad, sorry trio of men.

Hell, from Ledge’s viewpoint they did.

“I miss the old cuss,” Don said of Henry. “Miss his bad jokes.”

“Me too.”

Don turned his head to look at a framed picture hanging on the back bar. “I remember the day he hung that picture of you up there. He was so proud.”

Henry might have put the photograph on proud display, but Ledge hated the damn thing. A buddy of his had taken the picture with his phone as they were preparing for a mission. Ledge had been geared up, face painted, armed to the teeth, looking like a post-apocalyptic badass.

His buddy had emailed him the picture and told him to forward it to his uncle. Maybe he’ll hang it up in his bar. Brag to his customers about his nephew, the scourge of the Taliban.

Ledge raised his glass to his mouth and spoke into it. “He didn’t come back.”

Don came around to him. “Sorry?”

“The guy who took that picture. He didn’t make it home.” Ledge tossed back what was left of the bourbon.

The subject ended there, and each became lost in his own thoughts until Don muttered, “Oh, hell. Look who just sauntered in.”

Before Ledge could turn around and check out the newcomer, he slid onto the stool next to Ledge’s. “Hey there, Don. Ledge. How’s it hanging?”

Ledge kept his expression impassive, but mentally he was swearing a blue streak. This just wasn’t his day. First that unheralded face-to-face with Arden Maxwell. Now he was having to suffer the presence of this son of a bitch.

Rusty Dyle, taking him unaware like this, was grotesquely reminiscent of a Saturday morning twenty years ago.

Spring 2000—Ledge

Friday night had been a raucous one at Burnet’s Bar and Billiards. Ledge and his uncle Henry hadn’t gotten to bed until after three o’clock, when they’d finished sweeping up.

It was a rainy morning, a good one for sleeping in, but Ledge’s seventeen-year-old stomach had growled him awake. Rather than rattle around in the kitchen and wake up his uncle, who needed the shut-eye, he drove into town to the Main Street Diner for breakfast.

He was enjoying his food and the solitude when, without invitation, Rusty Dyle slid into the other side of the booth, snatched a slice of bacon off his plate, bit into it, and crunched noisily.

Ledge’s impulse was to lash out, verbally and physically. But in juvie you learned not to react, no matter what was going on around you. You didn’t take sides in a fight that didn’t involve you. You didn’t provoke a guard who would love nothing better than to be given an excuse to whale into you. You didn’t respond when the shrink asked about your childhood, whether or not you thought you’d gotten a fair shake or had been dealt a shitty hand.

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