Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.1Elizabeth Lowell
Midnight in Ruby Bayou
Copyright © 2000 by Two of a Kind, Inc.
For my wonderful daughter Heather Maxwell
who gave me Faith’s music and told me about the “house wine” of the South.
They brought me rubies from the mine, And held them to the sun…
Tides that should warm each neighbouring life
Are lock’d in sparkling stone.
But fire to thaw that ruddy snow,
To break enchanted ice,
And give love’s scarlet tides to flow, –
When shall that sun arise?
RALPH WALDO EMERSON
St. Petersburg January
The public areas were above the thieves, buildings three and four stories high that held centuries of art and artifacts collected by rulers whose whim was the very breath of life for their subjects. There was room after room filled with extraordinary sculptures, ancient icons and immense tapestries, paintings to make angels weep and saints envious, quantities of gold and silver and gemstones beyond the ability of even man’s deepest avarice to comprehend.
In the darkest hours of the early January night, there was only time and the scrape of guards’ worn boots over marble that had once known only the polished arrogance of royalty. The smallest sounds echoed down the long, magnificent corridors with their gilt and vaulted ceilings supported by columns as tall as ancient gods.
Even the hundreds of public rooms weren’t enough to display all three million items in the treasure trove. The lesser items, or those out of fashion at the moment, were stored in basement warrens where gleaming marble gave way to crumbling plaster and rat-gnawed wood. Dust lay like dirty snow on every surface. The bureaucrats who had once listed and catalogued the imperial collections were long gone, dismissed by a civilian government that could barely keep its soldiers in bullets.
Three women and two men moved briskly down the narrow subterranean hallways. Caught in the glow of flashlights, human breath came out in white bursts. In front of the museum, the river Neva was frozen. So was everything else in St. Petersburg that couldn’t afford or steal electricity. Away from the public areas where foreign diplomats, dignitaries, and tourists gaped at royal treasures, the buildings were in disrepair. The world-class pieces of art – the Rubenses and da Vincis and Rembrandts – were well maintained. The rest of the czars’ treasures had to be as hardy as the Russian people themselves to survive.
One of the thieves unlocked a large room and flipped on the switch by the door. Nothing happened. Someone cursed, but no one was surprised. Everyone in the city stole lightbulbs for their own use.
Using a flashlight held by her partner, the dark-haired woman went to work on a huge, decades-old safe. The tumblers were balky. The door squealed like a dying pig when she opened it.
She was not worried by the metallic scream. Even if the guards above heard it, they would keep on making their rounds through warm, empty halls and imperial rooms. The guards weren’t paid well enough to investigate odd sounds. No smart urban citizen poked around in the dark looking for trouble. Enough came in the normal course of life.
Working in whispers, the thieves began pulling open lockers and drawers. Occasionally someone would grunt or draw in a breath at a particularly spectacular piece of jewelry. If their hands lingered, the dark-haired woman spoke curtly. She had her orders: Take only the modest pieces, the forgotten ones, the nameless baubles that were uninspired gifts from long-dead aristocrats or merchants or foreign officials seeking favor with the czars. These were the pieces that were listed on royal inventories as “brooch, pearls with red center stone” or “stomacher, blue stones with diamond surrounds.” None of these pieces were valued enough to be documented in the imperial portraits upstairs. None of them appeared in photographs of imperial jewelry. They were blessedly anonymous.
But ah, the temptation to take one of the less modest, more dangerous pieces. The itch to hold an emerald as big as a hen’s egg, to feel two hundred carats of sapphires set in a medieval buckle, to slip a handful of diamond bracelets into a pocket, to ease a twenty-carat ruby ring into the hidden compartment behind your belt…
It had happened more than once in the past. A swift movement beyond the reach of the flashlight, the sudden weight of wealth tucked against a thigh or belly. Amid all the kilos of glitter, who would miss an ounce or two?
It happened again tonight.
One of the men was methodically stealing every fifth piece of jewelry that lay tangled in a long drawer. When he was finished, he opened another drawer. This one was orderly, with each piece numbered, tagged, and set in its own niche.
“Not that one, shithead,” hissed the woman. “Can you not see the value is too much?”
He could see. And he could barely breathe.
The slightest touch of light had set part of the drawer ablaze. A ruby as big as an idol’s eye lay inside. There were other rubies in the necklace, magnificent rubies, but next to the centerpiece, they faded into insignificance. Surrounded by pearls like snow around fire, the huge ruby pendant shimmered and cast its ancient spell of wealth and danger.
Muttering, he moved to close the drawer. It stuck, or appeared to. He tucked the flashlight under his arm, aiming the light away from the jewelry. Then he jiggled and shoved and yanked until the drawer was closed and the necklace was deep in a concealed pocket in his pants.
The first in a long, deadly row of dominoes began to fall.
Owen Walker lived in a barebones efficiency apartment overlooking Pioneer Square, one of Seattle’s less upscale tourist attractions. The front door was unimpressive, no happy barks or impatient kitty yowls greeted Walker’s approaching footsteps. The closest thing he had to a pet was the refrigerator mold that grew while he was overseas on assignment for Donovan International. Lately that had been most of the time.
Other than installing a new, stronger dead bolt when he took over the apartment, Walker had spent little effort making the place into an urban cocoon. The bed was big enough for his six-foot frame. It also served as a couch to stretch out on and watch TV if he was home long enough to get involved in the misfortunes of the Seahawks or the Mariners or the Sonics.
Recently he had been lucky to keep up with his own problems, much less those of the teams whose members were traded around faster than hot gossip. Today hadn’t been any different. Even the problems had problems. The latest one was the assignment Archer Donovan had dropped on him this afternoon.
See if the rubies Davis Montegeau sent Faith match any on the international hot list. I don’t want my sister’s reputation as a designer ruined by using stolen goods. Montegeau sent what she described as fourteen superior rubies, between one and four carats. They’re loose now, but could have been part of a single piece of jewelry.
Since Archer didn’t want his little sister to know that he was sticking his nose in her business without her invitation, Walker didn’t have the actual rubies to work with. All he had was a verbal description.
Walker had spent the past four hours on Donovan International’s phones with various global cops. He hadn’t accomplished anything but to make his injured leg stiffen up. So far the rubies had come up clean. He had the callused ear to prove it. Tonight he would check them out on the Internet.
But first, food.
Automatically he threw the locks on the door behind him, hung his cane over the doorknob, and limped to the refrigerator to see if anything looked like a late lunch or an early dinner. Whichever.
His body still wasn’t certain which continent it was on. Despite the clean black slacks, crisp dark blue shirt th
Thoughts of the near disastrous Afghanistan trip fled when the smell of garlic sausage from last night’s takeout Italian hit him in a wave. After the second breath he decided that the sausage wasn’t from last night. More like three nights ago. Or four. Maybe five. He’d had a real craving for Italian when he returned from Afghanistan, but he hadn’t wanted to gimp through Pike Place Market looking for fresh ingredients. Instead he had eaten way too much takeout food since he had climbed stiffly down the steps from the company plane into the Pacific Northwest’s February gloom.
Cautiously he opened the lid of the nearest leftover box. Nothing looked green, and there probably wasn’t enough left to poison him anyway. With a mental shrug he put the sagging box in the microwave and nuked it. While invisible energy tried to breathe new life into old takeout, he decided to call the meal an early supper. For that, he could open one of the long-necked beer bottles that had waited patiently during his absence.
By the time the microwave cheeped, he was on the Internet, requesting a global search for stolen loose rubies bigger than one carat or for stolen jewelry that contained fourteen rubies of more than a carat. While the computer chewed on his request, he walked back to his pocket-sized kitchen, opened the microwave, and grabbed a fork from a nearby drawer.
He took his first bite of lukewarm supper on the way to the computer. The pasta had the texture and taste of rubber bands, but the sausage was still spicy enough to make his mouth tingle. He had eaten much worse food and been glad to get it, both as a boy and more recently, when he had shared campfires and rations with Afghani miners.
Between bites, he scrolled through a list of stolen rubies that had been posted by everyone from maiden aunts to Interpol. Some offered rewards, no questions asked. Others offered a finder’s fee, also no questions asked. Law enforcement organizations of various kinds offered telephone numbers and the opportunity to be a good citizen.
Smaller rubies were missing, but most of them were described as having a modern cut. Some were said to be family heirlooms, but in Walker’s experience that could mean anything from 1550 to 1950. It was possible that the Montegeau rubies Faith Donovan was designing into a necklace had come from one or more of the long, long list of stolen heirlooms, but he doubted it. The dates on the postings went from last week to thirty years ago, and originated from twenty-three separate countries. None of the lists mentioned fourteen superior rubies – set or loose – that ranged upward from one carat.
So much for work. On to private pleasures.
Walker scraped the last of the pungent sauce from the carton, took a drink of beer, and went to another web site, one he often visited. This one was an international clearinghouse for sales of gems and jewelry of all kinds. As he did every night that he was near a computer, he entered a request for rubies that were carved or inscribed in some way.
Forty-two entries came back. He scrolled through them quickly. Most were only a few steps above what a tourist would find in a squalid Thai alley. The carvings were as lackluster as the stones were dubious. He paused over a good-quality ruby that had a laughing Buddha etched on the long, flat table. After a moment he scrolled on again. He had a similar – and better – gem in his collection.
Walker stopped when he found an exquisite four-carat stone with a heart carved on one side and a cross on the other. It was presumed to be from one of the Crusades. Wistfully he stared at the gem. If it looked half as good under a microscope as it looked on the screen, the ruby would make a splendid addition to his personal collection. He would put in a bid, if the stone didn’t cost an arm and a leg.
It did. The price tag had one zero too many. Two, actually.
“Same shit, different day,” he muttered.
Three months in Afghanistan hadn’t changed much except the way he walked, and that was only temporary. He went back to looking at less costly goods. Nothing he saw interested him.
Grimacing, Walker shut down his computer and looked around for something to do in the hours before he slept and tried not to dream of gun butts smashing his head. Several books beckoned, but his brain was still too fuzzy from adjusting to Seattle’s time zone to be much use on his latest project: a kind of do-it-yourself tour through the German language, compliments of a German book on rare gems and gem carving.
Idly he considered scanning the book into his computer, running it through all nine of his translation programs, and comparing the results. The thought brought a grin to his mouth. The last time he had done that, with an article on Thailand’s leading gem traders, he and Archer and Kyle Donovan had laughed themselves blind at the results.
That was when Walker had begun teaching himself German, complete with West Texas rhythms on top of his South Carolina boyhood drawl. He had just begun making real progress on reading the language when Donovan International had sent him to Afghanistan to survey the possibilities of buying into the ruby trade there. Walker could speak Afghani, but couldn’t read it.
The sound of shouting from the Seattle street below his window barely registered. There was no danger to him in a drunk cussing out pigeons for doing what they did best – crapping all over benches.
He glanced at the battered stainless steel watch on his wrist. Not quite five o’clock. Archer would still be in his office at Donovan International. Walker took the last swallow of beer and punched in the oldest Donovan brother’s private number.
“Yeah,” came the immediate reply.
“Then you do agree to doubling my wages. I could hardly believe it when – ”
“Up yours, Walker,” Archer said, but there was no real heat in the words. “What did you find?”
“Tell your brother his gut hunch was wrong.” Kyle Donovan’s gut was famous, or infamous, among the Donovans. As an early warning system for danger, Kyle’s lower tract lacked precision, but it was too often right to be disregarded. “If anyone is looking for the rubies Davis Montegeau gave Faith to set in a necklace, they aren’t looking in any of the usual places, or even the unusual ones.”
Archer pushed back from the desk and absently stretched his big body. “Okay. Thanks. It was the easiest thing to check.”
“Easy for you, sure enough. My ear still aches from all those international calls.”
Archer snickered. “I’ll make it up to you.”
“In your dreams,” Archer retorted easily. “Dinner tonight at the condo. I’ve got another job to run by you. Stateside this time.”
“My jetlagged body thanks you. Who’s cooking dinner? You or Kyle?”
“Me. Fresh salmon, compliments of brother-in-law Jake.
And my sister Honor, if you believe that the one who nets the fish gets half the credit. She does.”
“I’ll believe whatever it takes to get fresh salmon on my plate. Anything else?” Walker asked hopefully.
“My wife did mention chocolate chip cookies.”
“Hot damn! I’m on my way.”
Archer was still laughing when Walker hung up. Although Walker had begun as an employee, he had become a friend.
Within moments of reading his email, Archer’s expression settled into its usual hard lines. Donovan International’s winning bid on developing a Siberian silver mine had been undercut after the bidding was supposed to be officially closed. The fact that the successful bidder was a local gangster’s brother-in-law just might have had something to do with it.
He reached for the intercom. “Mitchell, get me Nicolay. Yeah, I know what time it is there. In a few minutes, so will he.”
Faith Donovan set aside the block of tripoli she used to add polishing grit to the buffing wheel. Flexing her aching hands, she bent over and examined the piece of eighteen-karat gold that made up one of the thirteen seg
The curve was neither casual nor random, but the result of a design process that was as exacting as it was rewarding. That was why Faith’s fingers and back ached, yet she wanted to smile in spite of the early winter darkness. Even with all the pressure of an impossibly short deadline – barely two weeks for a process that should have taken three months – the necklace was coming together beautifully. Her old friend Mel would have a unique, extraordinary piece of jewelry to wear when she married Jeff Montegeau on Valentine’s Day.
And Faith would have a showstopper for the Savannah jewelry exposition the weekend before the wedding. She very much wanted that. Though the expo only lasted a few days, it was one of the most important modern jewelry shows in the nation. She needed to make a stir. The Montegeau necklace would certainly do that.
At least it would if she found a way to insure the necklace between now and four days from now, when she flew to Savannah. Her other pieces were insured, because she had had plenty of time to plan for the expo. There just hadn’t been time to leave the rubies with a qualified appraiser and still create a necklace.
Frowning over the insurance problem, she picked up the segment of gold and bent over the buffer again. Beyond the windows of her shop/studio, ice-tipped rain swirled across Pioneer Square on the wind. The streetlights sent out glistening circles that did little to brighten the winter evening.
Eventually the rattle of sleet on the windows increased until she could hear it above the whirring of the buffing wheel. With a guilty start she straightened and looked at her watch. Almost five-thirty. She was supposed to be at the Donovan condo with three of her five siblings, planning a surprise party for their parents’ fortieth anniversary. Or trying to plan one. Archer and his wife, Hannah, Kyle and his wife, Lianne, and Honor and her husband, Jake, had been at it for several days already, but they hadn’t even been able to agree on a site.
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