Esmeralda works for a housecleaning service during the day and as a restaurant hostess at night. Just out of high school, she is the sole support for her mother and two young siblings.
She has drive and ambition. What she doesn’t have is money.
She knows of a home in the upscale town of Mendham, NJ, that will be empty for more than a month. The rich people who live there go away the same time every year to spend time at their vacation home. Having cleaned the house, she also knows it contains a fair amount of cash and valuables.
One night sitting with Ray, one of her co-workers, she casually mentions a “what if” scenario; Ray tells Skooley, a white trash drifter who recently moved to New Jersey from south Florida, and a plan is hatched.
It isn’t long before Esmeralda finds herself trapped by both circumstance and greed, forced to try and defend herself against one of her partners in crime, who she quickly discovers is far more dangerous than she ever thought possible.
Praise for THIEVES:
“A chilling portrait of a psychopath on a murderous rampage. One hell of a debut for Steve Russo.” —James Hayman, New York Times bestselling author of The Girl on the Bridge
“Kudos to Steven Max Russo. I read Thieves in one sitting—it’s propulsive, absorbing, and all too plausible. I warn you, these thieves will steal an entire day or two from you—and you’ll love every minute of it.” —Jonathan Stone, author of Moving Day, The Teller, and Days of Night
“Gripping and powerful, Thieves is a dynamite read. Definitely a book you won’t be able to put down.” —Andrew Grant, author of False Witness
“With Thieves, Steven Max Russo works the rich tradition of American heist fiction like a pro.” —Wallace Stroby, author of the Crissa Stone series
“A stunning debut novel. Steve Russo hits it out of the park with an ingenious, diabolical plot, a unique voice, and complex characters that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the final page.” —Charles Salzberg, author of Second Story Man and the Shamus Award-nominated Henry Swann mysteries
“Steve Russo has written a gripping suspense thriller. He grabs you in the opening scene and doesn’t let go till the heart-pounding climax.” —Peter Leonard, national bestselling author
|Publisher:||Down & Out Books II, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.63(d)|
Read an Excerpt
Mendham, New Jersey Friday
As a rule, Skooley did not like beaners. He grew up in a small town in south-central Florida and though the area where he lived was fully integrated, he was taught early on to stick with his own kind.
His father worked, but only intermittently, and quite often in the fields right next to the illegals. He always thought of himself as better. Better because he was white. Better because he was born in Florida and a true American.
But Skooley had always known that his old man was just trailer trash and no better than anybody.
Still, he found that as a rule, he just didn't like beaners.
But Ray seemed all right. He was actually pretty smart, for a Mexican. It was Ray's idea to steal the bikes from his busboy buddies instead of taking Skooley's car. It was a long bike ride from the town of Bernardsville, NJ, where they were both staying in a rooming house, to this driveway in Mendham, but he would have had to find a place to put his car, the stolen Toyota Camry, for a few hours unnoticed. He hadn't even gotten around to stealing a new set of plates, and that could very well have posed a problem. This way, they just rode the bikes with their six-pack of beer in the rusty metal basket right up to the private drive — that actually looked more like a goddamn street than somebody's driveway — and walked the bikes into the woods. There were plenty of other bicyclists on the road, though most of them were wearing spandex and sleek plastic helmets. Still, nobody paid him and Ray any mind. They laid the bikes down, then sat in the dirt and started drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and watching the house.
"Hey, Skooley, what you think, man? I don't see nobody."
Skooley turned and looked at Raymundo. Ray was a small, dark man, about twenty-three years old and maybe five three with a thick build and unruly, bushy black hair that fell over one eye. This caused him to twitch his head every so often to get the hair out of his face, which for some reason just annoyed the hell out of Skooley. He was wearing white painter's pants that had turned a dull gray, and a dingy New York Mets T-shirt with what looked like a faded yellow mustard stain just to the left of his navel. On his feet was a pristine pair of white Nike sneakers.
Skooley squinted his eyes and looked at the Mexican.
"Shit, Ray, take it easy. We only just got here." He gave him his best friendly smile. "Let's give it a while. We got beer, the sun is shining, what more can you ask for? Hell, where I come from, days like this are few and far between. I can't tell you what a pleasure it is to sit in this here woods and just enjoy the day."
"What, you don't got woods in Florida?" He pronounced it Flor-eeda, like he was still in Mexico.
Skooley held his smile as he looked at Ray. "Where you from anyway, Ray?"
"Bernardsville, man, you know that."
"No, I mean before."
"Before Bernardsville? I live two years in Newark."
"No, no, where in Mexico you from?"
"I from Guatemala."
"They got woods like this in that part of Mexico?"
Ray looked back at him for a second, puzzled, then shook his head.
Skooley nodded, then leaned back against a tree with a beer in one hand and his cigarette in the other.
"There you go, amigo. Where I grew up near Okeechobee, we got mostly just brush, maybe a scrub pine here or there, but there ain't no hills or mountains and certainly no trees the likes of what we got surrounding us here. I feel like Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest. You ever hear of Robin Hood?"
Ray turned away from Skooley without answering and watched the house.
They sat in silence for a while and worked on finishing off the six-pack of beer, which was just starting to get warm. It was pleasant in the shade under the trees, and Skooley closed his eyes and felt himself drifting off for just a second.
He awoke with a start, dazed and unsure of where he was. Someone or something was crashing through the woods. He jumped to his feet and saw Raymundo walking toward him from the direction of the house.
Ray flicked his head to clear the hair out of his eyes. "Man, you should see the pool they got back there. Is beautiful."
Skooley wiped off some spittle that had accumulated on his chin with the back of his hand and then ran his hand under his armpit to clean it off.
"Anybody see you?" he asked.
"No, man, is like I tole you, nobody home. They away. They away for a month, maybe more."
"You go into the backyard?"
"Yeah, the backyard, the front yard, all over. I even knock on the door. "
"I told you we was gonna wait, check it out first."
"We did wait, man. You fell asleep, Skools. I got to pee. I walk back over that way, you know, to take a leak. I right there so I take a look around. I don't see nobody. I come back, you still snoring. We got no more beer. I go out to the road, walk up the driveway in case someone home, you know, looking out the window, they don't see me sneaking around. I walk up to the front door and knock. No one answer. I ring the bell. Nothing. I walk around, yoo-hoo, anyone home? I go into the backyard. Nice pool. It got a cover, but you can still see, you know. Little waterfall, hot tub too, man, is beautiful."
Ray stood there looking at Skooley with a smug, self-satisfied smile, and it took every ounce of self-control for Skooley not to sucker punch him. Instead, he beamed back to his best friendly smile.
"Suppose someone answered the door, Ray. Suppose there was some old lady in the backyard, you know, laying out by the pool thinking she's all alone getting a tan, maybe even naked with her titties sticking out. What then, huh?"
"Someone answer the door, I say I looking for work, you know, clean the yard, cut the grass. Not sneaky, real polite. But no one answer. Is like I tole you already, they not home. They go away for like a month. They go every year. My friend, Esmeralda, she say every year, same time, they go away to California, Arizona, someplace like that."
Skooley rubbed his chin and thought about it. They were there because Ray had heard about this house from one of his beaner girlfriends who cleaned houses. She had told Ray that there were only two people who lived here: an old rich guy along with his wife. She said the guy was loaded, owned a paving and construction company, and had a big motor yacht they kept docked somewhere on the Hudson River. Skooley could see a small backhoe parked on the far side of the house next to some construction debris. It had to be the guy's machine. And his wife was supposedly some sort of famous artist. Esmeralda said that she had her own art studio over the garage, and there were expensive paintings hung up all over the house. One room on the main floor she described as being like a gallery in an art museum. She told Ray that their three kids were grown, married, and out of the house.
But Skooley was cautious. What kind of dumbass would just leave a big old house like this sitting empty for so long? Guy was rich, and he didn't get that way by being a dumbass. It wouldn't hurt to take their time and look things over. See if anyone was house sitting. Maybe one of his kids decided to stay over for a few days to make sure that everything was locked up good and tight. Shit, maybe this was the year they decided to just stay put and not go to California or Arizona or wherever the hell they went. Maybe right now, this very minute, they were just leaving the local supermarket or their neighbor's house and heading back home. Skooley certainly wasn't afraid of breaking the law, but he didn't see any need for being reckless.
"C'mon, man, let's go check it out, see if we can get in," said Raymundo, and with a flick of his head he started out of the woods toward the house, "I bet they even leave a door open for us, Skools. Maybe they got some beer in a big Viking fridge, huh?"
Skooley scratched his chin and thought about it for just a second, then figured what the hell and followed the little Mexican from Guatemala into the yard.CHAPTER 2
The front yard was the size of a football field, easy. It wasn't a nicely kept trim lawn, but more of a sparsely wooded tract. The land had been cleared, but a few big trees were kept intact for shade. There was a row of bushes and hedges that blocked most of the view from the street. Dried leaves and downed branches were littered all about, not making the place look unkempt so much as just rural. All the houses in this area were large and set back off the main roads. The properties were huge, couple of acres each with woods all around. This house was large but not of mansion proportions. Skooley had seen some real money palaces in his travels, particularly in some of the resort areas of coastal Florida. After he left home for good at fourteen, he bummed around working wherever he could, mostly in restaurants as a busboy or dishwasher. He worked a while for a landscaping company in the Fort Myers area that had some rich clients in Naples. Talk about big money. Man, some of those houses were the size of fucking museums. And the cars, shit, everyone in that town drove a Ferrari or Maserati or Bentley. Not the little shit-box BMWs and Audis he saw all over this part of New Jersey. Hell, he'd also been in some sections of Miami and Fort Lauderdale that took rich to a whole other level.
This house wasn't even new. It was old. Parts of the foundation looked to be mortared rock at least a hundred years old. Shit, probably more than a hundred. You could see several additions and alterations that had been made at different times. The windows on the front part of the house were single-paned, looked like they could be thirty or forty years old. Guy still has to put up storm windows. The whole place needed work. Not major work, just maintenance type work. Skooley wondered why a guy who owned a construction company didn't fix up his own house. Maybe the guy was too busy making money. Then again, maybe he was just a dumbass.
They strolled up to the front door, real cool and casual. The door was dark blue and appeared new, but the trim around the frame looked like it should be replaced, or at least painted up a bit.
"What you think?" Raymundo flicked the hair out of his eyes and looked at Skooley. His bravado had disappeared. Hell, thought Skooley, the little fucker seemed nervous, maybe even scared.
Skooley motioned with his finger around one corner of the doorframe. "This here whole section should be replaced. See how the wood is pitted?"
"The fuck you talkin' about?"
"At the very least, it could use some paint."
"Yeah? You think we should paint? Hey, maybe they got brushes in the garage. You know what I think? I think maybe you should paint the fucking door while I bust a window and go see what they got inside."
Skooley ignored Ray and rang the doorbell, then tried the doorknob. Locked. There was also a serious-looking deadbolt directly above the knob.
"I thought you said they left the door open for us, Ray." Skooley cupped his hands and peered into the foyer through a small glass window next to the doorframe.
"Sure looks a lot nicer on the inside than it does the outside." He could see a chandelier hanging over a wide staircase leading to the second floor. He craned his neck to see if there was any type of electronic security panel next to the door, but the window wasn't wide enough to provide a good view. He didn't think the place was alarmed. The windows were old. Doorframe was old. He didn't see any signs or window stickers intended to scare away burglars. Usually, if someone has an alarm system, they advertise it. Stops most break-ins before they even happen. That's the whole point. Would most certainly have stopped him. Maybe there was some kind of a setup that he didn't know about. Could be the guy just never replaced the wiring in this old section of the house. Or maybe they lived here in Sherwood Forest for so long without incident, they just didn't feel threatened enough to invest the money. The house was nice enough, but it was old and not even close in size or luxury to most of the other houses on the street. Probably worst thing ever happened was they got some drunken neighborhood kids skinny-dipping in the pool at night.
"Let's find a rock, break the fucking window." Ray was starting to get agitated.
"Hold on there, amigo." Skooley reached into his shirt pocket and shook out a Marlboro Light. "You ever done a B&E?"
"B&E. Breaking and entering. Ever broke into a house before?" He lit his cigarette.
"Shit, Skools, we ain't broke nothing yet."
"You know, Ray, you can be a real turd sometimes. A fucking Mexican turd."
"What you mean, Skools?" Raymundo squinted the one eye that Skooley could see, the other hidden behind thick black hair. The little Mexican got a look that Skooley didn't like.
"What I mean is the shitbird that owns this house is stupid enough to just up and leave for a month, right? I don't see no security cameras, no electrical panels near the door; them old windows don't look like they got no alarms on 'em. Hell, ya think he might be stupid enough to scuttle away a spare key in some little ole hidey-hole, ya know, just in case?"
They didn't find a key to the front door, but about a half hour later, they did find a key to a door in back that led into the garage. It was hidden in a fake rock that lay in a flowerbed right next to the door. It was the only rock in the flowerbed. The owners had pushed it far back against the house and partially covered it with dirt and leaves. Skooley found it pretty easily. He had entered several homes in Florida in the same manner. Of course, for most of those homes, it was a bit more challenging as the fake rocks were usually tucked away amongst a pile of real ones. But still, they were usually pretty easy to pick out. Of course, he had also been surprised quite a few times to find a key under a mat or sitting out of view on a doorframe or window ledge or under a pot or taped to an air conditioning unit. Thinking back, he only ever had to actually break into about five or six houses in his life. Same thing with cars. The key to the Camry he drove up from Florida was in a magnetic box that was stuck inside the left rear bumper. Hell, people were stupid all over.
The door into the garage was in the back of the house. This door was certainly not new. It was old and flimsy. He probably could have just forced the door open with his shoulder if he had to, but the key slid easily into the keyhole of the loosely set knob, and with a quick turn and a twist of the knob, they were in.
The garage was oversized and could have easily fit three cars, maybe four. There was a 2010 Mercedes E350 Coupe parked on one side. For a car that was already a couple of years old, it was in almost showroom condition. The black pearl finish gleamed with fresh wax, and the tires, though a little worn, were well-coated in tire shine. Her car, he thought. Right next to the Mercedes, in the middle of the garage, was a dark green 2013 Range Rover. This car had a light coating of dust. There were spatters of dried mud along all the wheel wells, and it was obvious that this car was used for more than just driving around town. His car. Geez, the guy probably paid sixty or seventy grand for this thing. All so he could drive in style to his dirty job sites. Skooley looked in the passenger's side window. The interior was immaculate. Guy probably sits on a towel or something. Fucking rich people.
The last bay of the garage looked more like the garages Skooley was used to. It was jam-packed with all sorts of shit. He saw a riding mower that was more like a small tractor; two weed whackers, one was partially dismantled, the other brand-new; a spreader for fertilizer; two mountain bikes; several red plastic gas cans in assorted sizes; a relatively new Honda 9000 watt portable generator was sitting conveniently right below the house's main electrical panel; hand tools and garden tools were hanging off pegs on the walls; a low shelf with bags of grass seed and grub control chemicals and Scott's fertilizer; a yellow box of rat poison with a drawing of a big old rat with a red circle and an X drawn through it; old sports equipment like a deflated football and baseball bats and tennis racquets; engine parts; hell, stuff was just piled up upon more stuff. The whole place had a familiar odor that could best be described as a mixture of gasoline, motor oil, and old sweat with a slight undertone of dried manure.
Ray had made his way to the door that led to the house. He looked at Skooley and pointed to the door silently. The door was another old piece of crap that needed paint. There were two rickety wooden steps leading up to it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Thieves"
Copyright © 2018 Steven Max Russo.
Excerpted by permission of Down & Out Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.