As I surveyed my surroundings, I realized Leo had been right. I had needed to get out of the house. Just being out here was relaxing. Everything was perfect. A moonless night, a shitty security system, a house that backed onto heavily-treed open space, and a balcony with sliding glass doors. What more could a red-blooded American thief ask for?
My grappling hook slipped through the bars of the second story balcony of the West Palm Beach home of Doctor and Mrs. Bradley Ashford like it was laser guided. It was so thoughtful of them to have installed a balcony right outside their glass bedroom doors. Even more convenient was the fact that their entire sub-standard security system was all on the same easily-cut circuit.
A lone video camera pointed at the balcony. On the off-chance that it was actually being monitored, I took it out with a well-placed egg toss. Thank goodness I’d had all that practice in my youth.
With a flick of the switch, the prongs of the hook expanded and I tugged hard. Perfect. If only my gym teacher could see me now, I thought as I climbed hand over hand up the knotted rope. I could have gone faster, but I’d gone to the indoor rock wall yesterday and climbed for hours. My shoulders and calves were still burning. Also, movement was the enemy of stealth, so I took my time.“Not even a security bar on the door,” I told the bat that swooped passed me. “Idiots.” It was like they were begging to be robbed. Well, who was I to deny them a good story to tell at their next dinner party?
A quick slip of the knife into the frame to pop the lock and I was inside sliding the door shut behind me. Total time: one minute, four seconds.
Emily Ashford was the proud owner of several lovely and very expensive matched sets of jewelry. I knew she was because she loved being photographed in them for the society pages and I loved looking at those photographs. They were like catalogues for thieves.
According to the pictures on the Morton Museum of Art’s Instagram feed, she’d chosen to wear the Graff emeralds to their exhibit of Prince Nikolai of Liechtenstein’s (in my opinion rather boring) photography. That meant the ruby and diamond Van Cleef & Arpels collection was still somewhere in the house. Odds were they were right in this very room. Right in that giant combo dressing room slash walk-in closet I could see.
Clenching a tiny penlight in my teeth, I crept through the darkened room. Wesley would probably rig me up something better if I asked, but I liked the old-school feel of it. Plus it worked really well. I made my way over to the closet. Might as well start in the most obvious place.
Humming Jane’s Addiction’s “Been Caught Stealing” under my breath, I stalked quietly through the room. Somewhere between a ritual and superstition, the song was my good luck charm. The room smelled like old people, all mothballs and powdery perfume, and my feet made almost no sound on the plush carpet.
The thin flashlight beam illuminated hanging racks of evening gowns and tuxedos, expensive wool suits and sedate St. John’s knit skirts in muted pastels. Floor to ceiling shelves of shoes, purses, and hats lined the walls. It was like a freakin’ Bloomingdales in here.
I headed towards Mrs. Ashford’s side of the room. That’s where the booty would be.
Between the racks of shoes was a tall jewelry armoire. At least, I hoped it was that and not an old lady underwear armoire. Not that I had anything against lingerie. Quite the opposite actually, but picturing it on some old white woman? Eww.
Picking the laughable excuse for a lock with a paperclip, I slid the top drawer open.
A decent collection of necklaces, bracelets, and the large gaudy rings rich old women seemed to love glittered against the black velvet lining the first few drawers. A rough estimate put the average price of the pieces at around five or six thousand dollars a piece. Nice, but nothing worth getting arrested for.
The ruby and diamonds I was looking for weren’t there.
Damn it. There must be a safe somewhere. I could feel the clock ticking in my head. Three minutes and fourteen seconds gone. My plan was to be in and out in under five.
Think, Ridge. Think.
Okay. Doctor and Missus were elderly. Like, late sixties. They wouldn’t have a safe on the ground or too high up. They lived in a gated community in a wealthy neighborhood, so they were more concerned with being robbed by the help than by burglars.
I swept the flashlight waist high around the room. Something caught the light from between two garment bags on the Doctor’s side of the room. I went towards it and separated the two.
Jackpot. A small safe with a watch box on top of it.
Expensive watches were my weakness. I stared at the winders on the safe as they rocked back and forth, keeping the self-winding watches working.
Two Rolexes and a Patek Philippe. The Rolexes I could take or leave, no pun intended, but the platinum Travel Time Calatrava was a personal favorite. No one deserved a fucking fifty-thousand dollar watch. With the flick of the wrist, I could take it, fence it for say, twenty thousand, keep ten for myself and still pay off the lunch debt for half the kids in Florida.
God, I was tempted.
I forced myself to leave the watches alone and knelt in front of the lower safe. A black box a foot square, it was a basic model, one I could open in three seconds with a well-placed magnet. But first I wanted to check something. I tugged the handle and the heavy door safe swung open.
Yep. I’d seen it a couple of dozen times. The homeowner knew they’d be getting home late, tired, maybe a little drunk. And those damn buttons got smaller every year. Everything was probably completely safe in their house, so what harm could come from leaving the door unlocked. Closed, but not locked.
Goddamn it, they were begging to be robbed.
Inside were a couple of jewelry boxes and some personal papers. I took out the flat Van Cleef & Arpels box and opened it. Oh yeah. That was it: a ruby pendant the size of a silver dollar surrounded by gorgeous diamonds worth about three hundred and fifty thousand dollars retail.
And it was just sitting there in an unlocked safe.
Seriously. The assholes deserved to get robbed. Not like it wouldn’t hurt them. They had this stuff insured up the wazoo.
When they finally realized the necklace was missing, they’d be shocked and horrified for a few minutes. Then they’d call the police, file a report and an insurance claim, and in a few days they’d have a hefty insurance payout and a story for the cocktail circuit they could milk for years.
Maybe I’d even leave a little note along the lines of “Thanks for the birthday present, love R. PS the Rolex is a fake.” Sometimes I was just that much of a dick.
There was a soft click and light flooded the room.
My heart stopped beating and then relocated to my throat where it pounded loud enough to be heard by anyone within ten feet of me.
Please let that be an automatic light.
The clearing of a throat behind me killed that faint hope. “Find something you like, Mr. Pfeiffer?” Josie asked.
“So it was Josie?” Danny said. “Josie caught you?”
We were in Danny’s bedroom in Charlie’s mansion. Danny was in bed, and I sat in the oversized easy chair tucked into the window nook. Even though it was the next morning, I was still in the tight black clothing I’d worn for the job. I was minus one grappling hook, my second set of lock picks, and my black Amex card. Josie had impounded them and then she had grounded me.
“She’d been sitting in the dark waiting for me the whole time! Glaring at me like a five foot two prison warden.” God I wanted to marry that woman.
“Holy shit.” He laughed until tears ran down his face and the laughter turned into a hacking cough.
I waited until his cough died down before speaking. “Hey, don’t laugh. It was fucking terrifying. I’ve been less scared of trained attack dogs.”
Another hacking cough shook Danny’s body. He’d gained some weight since we’d rescued him from his life on the street, but he was still painfully thin. His ribs stood out starkly under his skin as he sucked in air. After his near-death experience on Isla Rosa, the kid had come out of the rolling sea with a bad cold that had rapidly progressed to bronchitis.
And apparently out of all of the people in the house, I was the only one who knew how to take care of a sick person. God knew I’d had enough practice between my mother’s hangovers and withdrawals, and Breck’s annual bout of the flu. I knew what it was like to be too tired to read, too restless to watch TV, and too weak to get out of bed, so I’d gotten Danny a book on lock picking and a set of transparent locks to practice on. You never knew when you’d need that particular skill.
“She must have been pissed,” he said. “What were you thinking?”
“I wasn’t going to really steal anything. It was like a training exercise. Steele goes to the gym. You swim.”
“And you break into people’s house,” Danny finished.
“Not a lot. Not here. Just like, twice. Three times the most. I swear.” That was the god’s honest truth. “Number one rule of the job was you don’t shit where you eat.”
“It just means don’t steal from people you might see at the grocery store the next day.” Something I learned after running into someone I’d burgled in the grocery store, I might add.
Danny bit his lower lip as he concentrated on sliding a thin metal rod into Amazon’s top recommended high-security padlock. He wiggled it around, cursing quietly when nothing happened. He backed up the video on his iPad a few seconds, narrowing his eyes as he rewatched the Lockpicking Lawyer’s demonstration. “Oh,” he said. “Okay.” He slid the pick in, turned it gently, and the lock popped open with a soft click. “Yes!” he cried, throwing his arms up in the air. “I did it!”
“Nice,” I said. “You’re a natural.”
“If you need some money, I’m sure I can get you some,” he offered.
“Nah. I’m fine. I have a bunch of cash in my room. Plus if I want more, I’ll just make Breck give me his. What else are brothers for?”
The door slammed open and Breck strolled in like he owned the place. He was wearing a t-shirt that read “I found my Prince. His name is Daddy.”
“Speak of the devil,” Danny said.
“Nice shirt,” I said. At least it was one he actually owned. I’d taken to hiding mine. If Breck needed a shirt he could do his own damn laundry like the rest of us.
“Thanks.” He pulled it away from his body to look at the rhinestone-studded crown and silver script. “I find the message subtle, yet impactful. Ooh, you’re wearing your robbing clothes. What did I miss? Whatcha up to? Corrupting the youth of America? Can I help?”
Not waiting for an answer, he bounded over to the bed, jumped up and landed on his side next to Danny, sending books, lock picks, and locks flying. “Do you want to be corrupted?” he asked Danny suggestively, pulling him down to the mattress.
Danny grabbed his iPad before it could slide off the bed, placing it behind him, and then curled up next to Breck. “I think Steele might object to you corrupting me any more than you already have.”
“No, I wouldn’t,” said Steele leaning against the doorframe and filling it. “As long as I get to watch.”
Danny looked speculatively from Breck to Steele and back again, raising his eyebrows as if he were considering the offer. I snorted. Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen. Danny had recently hooked up with Wesley, and the redheaded hacker wasn’t big on sharing his things to put it mildly. I’d borrowed one of his PS4 controllers and he’d practically had Leo arrest me.
“Besides,” Steele said, entering into the room and instantly making it feel smaller. “I thought you already corrupted him.” The bed sunk when Steele sat on the edge, causing Danny and Ridge to roll into him.
“Oh, it was mutual,” Breck said, wrapping an arm around Danny’s waist for support. “Mutually beneficial corruption.”
My jaw clenched as I remembered again how Danny had ended up in our lives. Breck took one look at me and flinched.
He should look sorry. I didn’t know how he could joke about the reason we even knew Danny was that he and Breck had met when they were both hooking for money and had almost been beaten to death by the same john.
Breck treated it as a joke, but I knew it had really traumatized Danny. I’d put money on it fucking Breck up more than he let on. He’d never liked anyone to see his pain. But then again, shit, who did?
I don’t know who I felt more protective of, Breck or Danny. Probably Danny a tiny bit, if I had to be completely honest.
Yeah sure, Breck was my blood, twin brother, other half, yaddah yaddah. But I’d been taking care of Breck in one shitty trailer or another in our shitty town since we were five. Hell, parental abandonment was all we knew.
But not Danny. Danny came from some white-collar rich family in some leafy suburb. His parents had done everything for him, given him everything. Right until he told them he was gay. And then it was adiós; don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Assholes. He’d been seventeen. What the fuck kind of parents did that to a kid?
I mean, even our mom had never kicked us out, and she was a goddamn addict struggling to keep body and soul together. She’d gotten knocked up with twins at nineteen by some asshole who’d been gone before she could pee on a dollar store pregnancy test.
The older I got and the further away I got from Colorado…well, I didn’t quite forgive her. I probably never would. If I never spoke to her again, especially after that shit with Breck and the money, it would be too soon.
Danny had no one.
So, apparently somewhere between Danny diving into the sea in the middle of a hurricane and Josie swooping in on a mother-fucking helicopter and delivering him safe and sound onto dry land, I’d adopted him as some kind of younger brother. And nobody fucked with my family. No one. Senator or rich asshole or germ.
When I—if I—ever had kids, I was going to be the best parent ever. In the meantime, I had Danny and Breck.
Breck was the only reason I hadn’t peaced out of this madhouse already. Taking care of him was my job, and it was easier when I could see him.
Sure Steele, his giant professional bodyguard boyfriend, was great for physical protection, but he was useless at reining in Breck’s impulsiveness. Actually, I think he encouraged it. Breck could be his own worst enemy and Steele was the goddamned devil on his shoulder.
I was no angel myself, but I’d be damned if I didn’t at least try to save him from the devils inside his head.
Danny shifted until he lay with his head in Breck’s lap. He picked up the book I had gotten him and opened it to that page he had bookmarked. Bottom lip between his teeth, he carefully drew his highlighter across a passage in the book. Damn, he was adorable.
And more importantly, he was a good kid. The kind any parents would want. How could his parents have just tossed him away like that?
“Ridge is awesome at lock-picking, did you know that?” Danny said.
I didn’t usually want people calling attention to my unsavory talents—not that I had a lot of savory ones—but it was kind of nice to see someone appreciating my skills.
“Show him, Ridge,” Danny said. “Do this one.” He pawed through the selection of locks I’d given him and tossed me one of those u-shaped bike locks so beloved by bike messengers across the country.
I caught the heavy lock before it could smack me in the face. Oh, I loved these. All those douchey bikers in spandex used them, thinking their thousand dollar bicycles would be safe. Wouldn’t they shit their Lycra if they saw me doing this?
Danny watched me slide the pick in, staring as if he could somehow see through the thick metal. When the lock popped open after only a few seconds, even Steele seemed impressed.
“Wow!” Danny held out his hand for the lock. I handed it to him and he turned the pieces over his hands as if looking for the trick. “That ad said they were unpickable.”
“Very few things are unpickable,” I said. “But really, any decent bike thief is just going to use bolt cutters or an angle grinder to snap that lock off. That’s what I used to do. Picking the lock takes a lot longer.”
“Isn’t carrying a grinder around just a little conspicuous?” Breck said.
“You’d be surprised by the things people don’t notice.”
“You never stole bikes, did you, Ridgie?” Breck asked.
I sighed. Breck didn’t know half the things I had done to keep him safe and fed, and if I had my way, he never would. Stealing a bike or two over the course of ten years was nothing.
“Did you ever own a bike?” I asked him, knowing full well he had.
“Yeah,” he said with a frown. “You know I did. I got that blue one for sixth-grade graduation. And then that cool mountain bike when I turned sixteen.”
I stared at him, not saying anything, waiting for him to connect the dots.
“Oh,” he said slowly as the light dawned. His forehead creased. “Mom said she bought those for me.”
“Yeah,” I muttered. “She also said she bought the groceries and paid the rent.”
Breck was silent. What could he say to that?
“So what’s the secret to lock-picking, Ridge?” Danny asked. “If you had to give one piece of advice? Patience? Steady hands?”
I thought about it for a second. “All those things are important, necessary even. But, I think, the most important thing is desire. You’ve got to want what that lock is keeping you from having badly enough to do whatever you have to do to get it. You have to want whatever it is more than the lock doesn’t want you to have it.”
“Well, this rogues’ gathering can’t be good,” Leo said from the doorway. He strode over the bed without waiting for an invitation.
“Agent Shook, come on in,” I said.
“When are you going to call me Leo, Ridge?”
“When I’m sure you won’t arrest me,” I said, totally serious. Shook seemed like a good enough guy, and he’d definitely been an asset on the last two jobs, but I wasn’t used to being on a first name basis with the cops.
Leo walked over to the bed and laid the back of his hand against Danny’s forehead. “No fever,” he said. “That’s good.” With one finger, he tipped up the book Danny was reading to get a better look at the cover. “‘Lock Picking for Dummies.’ Lovely. Not quite what I meant when I said you should do some career research. Where’d you get this?”
“From Ridge,” Danny said.
“Shocking. And where did Ridge get it from?”
“Amazon,” I answered. “It was on sale.”
“Uh huh.” Leo picked up Danny’s set of practice lock picks. “And these?”
“Amazon, Grandpa,” I said. “You must have heard of it.”
“Argh. I can’t do it,” Danny groaned and hurled his translucent plastic lock across the bed.
“Keep trying. It takes practice.” I stretched out an arm and reached for the lock. Whistling under my breath, I hooked my backpack with a foot and pulled it close enough to reach
“Ten thousand hours?” Danny asked with a small smile.
“Huh?” My head was halfway in the bag as I dug for my own set of picks.
“Ten thousand hours,” he repeated unhelpfully nodding at me as if that would somehow make it more clear.
“Uh, I don’t know how many hours.” I’d never added up the time I’d spent fiddling with picks and locks and the like.
Leo watched over my shoulder as I unrolled the black leather lock-picking kit I’d put together piece by piece. He reached out and touched a finger to my favorite tool. About as long as my hand, it looked kind of like an ice pick crossed with a hypodermic needle. A thin spike of metal protruded from a thick, cylindrical stainless steel handle. The bottom of the pick slid out and spun. It could pick almost any kind of disc lock, which was a lock that used rotating discs as the locking component. Which was a shit ton of them. It had set me back a couple of hundred dollars but it had been worth it.
“We have this in my office,” Leo said, shaking his head. “Where did you get that?” Leo asked. “Let me guess, Amazon?”
I couldn’t hold back the snort of laughter. “You wish.”
“Malcolm Gladwell says it takes on average ten thousand hours to become an expert at something,” Danny explained as if that cleared up everything.
“Good for him?” I asked.
“It’s a book,” Danny explained.
“I don’t think Gladwell was talking about crime,” Leo said.
“Could have been,” Breck said.
“Don’t worry too much about it,” I said. “In reality, it’s usually faster and easier to bypass the locks or force them open than to actually pick them. Picking is a last resort.”
There was a soft rap of knuckles on the doorframe. Carson’s outfit of the day was tennis whites, including headband and wristbands. Normally, he only dressed for the webcam from the waist up but today he had on shorts and tennis shoes, and I wondered if he’d gone out into the world dressed like that.
Did he and Josie compare notes about outfits? I would love to see their closets. Had Carson brought that stuff with him when he came to the funeral? Had Miranda had them shipped here? I had so many questions
“Lock picking?” he said. “How quaint.”
“Do you pick locks?” Danny asked.
“No,” Carson answered disdainfully. “That is a skill for petty thieves.”
I gave him the finger.
“If it ever comes to the point where I need to pick a lock, I’ve missed my mark. Literally.”
“So, how do you steal things?” Danny asked.
“I don’t steal things,” Carson said, offended. “People give me things.”
“That is the best way to do it,” I agreed. “Stealing is fun and all but the best thing to do is get the mark to just hand stuff over. Or at least move it to a less secure place.”
“Like what and how?” Danny asked, sitting up straight. He immediately started coughing his lungs out. Breck rubbed his back in little circles.
Carson and I exchanged glances. He made a you first gesture. I shrugged. “Any number of ways. Make them think the location is unsafe. That the security has been breached or there’s a flood or something. You could pose as a potential buyer or insurance appraiser.”
“Or a reporter,” Carson said. “Someone writing a book or magazine article.”
“The point is,” I said, “breaking into someplace is a last resort. And even then, especially in private homes, you have to pick fewer locks than you’d suspect. Security guards get bored and surf porn on their phones, so you can just walk through doors. People have a false sense of security at home. They don’t lock doors and they shove jewelry in their underwear drawers.
“It definitely is so much easier to get people to do the work for you,” Wesley said coming into the room without even knocking.
Looked like the gang was all here. Ironically, I had the fleeting thought that I should put a lock on the door.
“You want my best advice?” Carson asked, continuing at Danny’s nod. “Pick someone who isn’t going to call the police. Ninety percent of the battle is picking your marks.”
“It’s true. The best tool is your mind,” I said. “It’s a mindset. You start seeing things differently.
“Jesus Christ,” Leo groaned. “This damn place is a school for criminals. Charlie B’s Home for Wayward Queers. Carson, did you come up here for a reason or just to corrupt the youth of America?”
“Can’t I do both?” he asked with a grin. “But, yes. Miranda says could you all please come down to the kitchen.”
Oh great. That could only mean one thing. A new assignment.
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