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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.10
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.10

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  “Turn left at the next corner,” she said.

  “Nope.”

  Her head snapped up. “Why not?”

  “One way. The wrong way.”

  “Oh.” She looked at the map and adjusted quickly. “Turn left at the block after that one. If it’s still going the wrong way, just take the first one that isn’t.”

  “Where am I going?”

  “Is that the opening gambit of a philosophical discussion?”

  He smiled a flat kind of smile. “Folks that don’t finish high school don’t have much use for high-flyin’ discussions.”

  She winced at the really strong twang in his voice. She was discovering that his accent deepened when he was irritated. Which meant that, once again, her sense of humor had pissed off a man.

  The good news was that she wasn’t dating Walker. If that sometimes seemed like the bad news, too, she had better get over it, fast. Any non-Donovan man who could make her lose her temper without even trying was someone she should avoid.

  “If lack of a diploma bothers you that much, why don’t you do something about it?” she asked neutrally.

  “It doesn’t.” Not usually. But somehow it bothered Walker with Faith. He would have to think about that. “I’ve met a lot of dumb folks with advanced degrees. I’ve met some smart ones that never finished middle school. And vice versa. It’s the person, not the paper, that matters.” He turned left. “I hope this is the street you wanted. Master Oglethorpe must have been sucking up bourbon and branch water when he laid out this town.”

  She looked at the street sign. “This is the one. And what do you mean? The old part of town is beautifully laid out. The squares are magnificent. Centuries-old oaks and magnolias and all that lovely moss, plus flowers and monuments and even some fountains. According to the guidebook, there will be azaleas and camellias blooming everywhere in a month or so.”

  “The squares are nice enough if you go for that sort of thing,” he said, giving her a sideways glance to judge how well she was taking the bait, “but you have to zigzag around them like a drunk to get from one place to another. Damned inefficient, if you ask me.”

  “‘Nice enough if you like that sort of thing’” she repeated under her breath.

  She started to explain to him about barbarians who couldn’t appreciate civilized amenities such as historic, shady squares interrupting and slowing down modern traffic. Even as she opened her mouth, she sensed the leashed anticipation in him. At that instant he reminded her of her closest brother, Kyle, when he thought he was going to sucker one of his sisters into a just-for-the-hell-of-it argument.

  “Yes,” she said smoothly, “I guess they are. Keep zigzagging like a drunk until you find a way down to the riverfront.”

  “Where are we going?”

  “It’s a secret. You might find a way to steal the rubies if I tell you ahead of time.”

  “Have you forgotten that I’m, uh, wearing the rubies right now?”

  Humor flickered through her as she remembered where the ruby necklace was – wrapped in a chamois pouch that was tucked in a smuggler’s pocket in his underwear. He didn’t clang when he walked, but he did look a little like he had spent his youth on horseback.

  “Hardly,” Faith said. “Brings new meaning to the concept of family jewels.”

  He smiled a slow, easy kind of smile. “Sure does. Are you going to put that on the exhibit card in the show?”

  “I don’t think there’s a category for most unusual method of transport.”

  “Nothing unusual about it. An old Pakistani taught it to me. And it’s not the worst place in the world to carry contraband. In fact, smugglers sometimes get much more, uh, personal about hiding small stuff.”

  “I’m not going there,” she said firmly.

  “Neither is your necklace.”

  Struggling not to laugh, she let go of a long breath and the subject at the same time. He had topped her again. With or without diplomas, Walker was quicker on his verbal feet than anyone she had ever been around but her siblings.

  That shouldn’t have surprised her. Someone who could clean Archer out in a poker game was hardly stupid.

  Walker turned off the boulevard onto a steeply slanting cobblestone street that looked as old as some of the massive oaks. The Jeep bumped along happily, more at home on an uneven surface than on city streets.

  “There,” Faith said, pointing to the right.

  She directed him onto a narrow cobbled roadway that dropped down the face of a stone revetment. The rock face held an eroding bluff in place. On the other side of the narrow road, a row of two- and three-story buildings lined the lower bank of the Savannah River. At one time the buildings had been riverfront factories or warehouses chockfull of goods and cursing stevedores. Now they had been converted into pricey inns, shops, and restaurants.

  Walker parked beside a white Cadillac, directly in front of a no-parking sign. Before he even turned the engine off, Faith got out and headed for the black awning and beveled glass doors of the Savannah River Inn.

  “I’ll stay here and guard the goods,” he told the empty car. “Yeah, I’ll just do that little thing. No, no problem. We’re here to serve.”

  He turned the key enough to kill the engine, keep the radio awake, and run down the automatic windows. A whiff of southern river floated in over the hot pavement and engine smells. Savannah was enjoying a run of unseasonably warm weather. Not enough to bring the bugs out yet. Just enough to begin thickening the sky with humidity, forerunner of the blazing quicksilver heat haze that settled each summer over the Low Country like an insistent lover.

  Little white lights danced in the winter-bare branches of the ornamental trees on either side of the inn’s entrance. Up on the bluff, a live oak spread its massive arms, embracing the night. Streetlight picked out the resurrection ferns that clung like orchids along the broadest branches. Right now there was nothing pretty about the ferns. Shriveled, withered, brittle with drought, the ferns were curled in on themselves, waiting numbly for life-giving rain. When water finally came, the ferns would stretch and grow green, rippling gracefully with renewed life.

  But that was a month or two away. Tonight the ferns simply waited and hung on to the half life that was all drought permitted.

  A car cruised slowly up the alley. Automatically Walker watched the vehicle close in. Then he saw the light bar across the top of the American sedan.

  The cop ignored the illegally parked Jeep. He was used to late check-ins, and Savannah had learned to make allowances for tourists, especially in the off-season.

  The gentle, warm, humid breeze flowed through the windows, as familiar to Walker as the shape of his own hands. The air smelled of the boundary where freshwater met salt, where pines gave way to marsh grasses, and hot days became velvet nights. Except for the city sounds and the lights blocking out the stars, he could have been back in Ruby Bayou, soft-footing it through the night with a .22-caliber rifle in one hand and hunger in his belly.

  He and his brother had fished, shrimped, oystered, and trapped crawdads with equal success, but even allowing for the fact that Lot was four years younger, Walker always had been the better shot. It was a matter of patience. Lot didn’t have much.

  The lack had killed him.

  Walker closed his eyes against a shaft of pain that had dulled but never vanished in the years since Lot’s death. Walker had stood over his brother’s barren, windswept grave and vowed never again to be responsible for any life but his own.

  He had kept that vow, despite the loneliness that echoed through him as surely as drought through the crumpled resurrection ferns.

  “Wakey, wakey,” Faith said.

  He opened his eyes. The fairy lights of the inn silhouetted Faith in rippling gold and turned her bright cap of hair into a halo. Her eyes were a silver mist shot through with twilight blue. Her gardenia-and-woman scent brought everything masculine in him to full alert.

  He felt the smuggler’s pouch between his legs wi
th painful clarity. “I’m awake.”

  Walker’s husky voice tickled Faith’s nerves like a warm, teasing breeze. She realized she was leaning too close, as though she was going to nuzzle his sleek dark beard to see if it felt half as velvety as it looked. Startled by her own thoughts, she straightened and drew back, but not before she caught a scent of soap and vital, warm male.

  “They didn’t have any adjoining rooms,” she said.

  “That’s the nice thing about soulless hotels, they – ” he began.

  “So I took the last room,” she cut in. “It’s a suite. We flipped for the foldout bed. You lost.”

  “I don’t remember flipping any coin.”

  “Memory is the second thing to go.”

  “Do tell,” he said. “What’s the first?”

  “I forget.” She smiled at the look on his face and then laughed out loud. “Come on. You can see the river from the window and there’s a great big ship coming up the channel. It looks like it’s close enough to touch.”

  Walker thought of all the huge freighters that came and went from Elliott Bay. Anyone with eyes could look out of the Donovan buildings and count ships from all over the world. But Faith was excited, as though she lived in a desert and never saw anything bigger than a puddle. Her enthusiasm was contagious. Like her smile.

  “Besides, there are two other conventions in town,” Faith said, “so the place is jammed. We wouldn’t have gotten this room if someone hadn’t canceled at the last minute.”

  “Speaking of that, you should – ”

  “I canceled the B and B as soon as I took this room,” she said quickly.

  “Did you leave a forwarding address?”

  She almost had, but she wasn’t going to admit it. “Just the booth at the jewelry show. And I called home, of course.”

  Walker wasn’t worried about the Donovans knowing where Faith was. It was the greedy folks who knew she had a million in anonymous rubies that worried him. “Good. I’d hate to have to drag you off to some less historic place out on the highway just to get a night’s sleep.”

  “When you talk to Archer – ”

  “Who says I’m going to?” Walker asked quickly.

  “Experience,” she retorted. “Remind him that I’m billing Donovan International for the deposit I lost at the Live Oak place, just like I’m billing DI for the whole trip to Savannah.”

  “You’re not going to split it down the middle?”

  “If Archer wants things his way, he can damn well pay the freight.”

  “There you go. Do they have a safe here?”

  “Yes, but there’s a ten-thousand-dollar limit on their insurance.”

  Walker sighed. Wearing a ruby necklace next to his skin – no matter how carefully wrapped the jewelry might be – wasn’t comfortable. The necklace was beautifully articulated. It folded into a remarkably small packet. But he was sensitive in the places that the chamois bag was hidden. More sensitive at moments like this than he wanted to admit.

  Faith’s lips shifted into a smile. “Is something, um, chafing?”

  “I’ve lived with worse. At least Archer isn’t insuring the rest of your jewelry for this soiree,” Walker said. “If I had to wear any more of your creations this way, I’d have to hop down the street like a rabbit.”

  He eased out of the car and shut the door behind him. He walked stiffly toward the back of the Jeep. His leg hadn’t liked being crammed into an airline seat.

  Faith reached past Walker into the cargo area. She grabbed her suitcase and the custom-made aluminum case that held the other pieces she would be displaying at the Savannah Modern Jewelry Exposition.

  “I’m not too crippled up to carry your baggage,” he said.

  “Neither am I.”

  “This is the South. Women don’t carry their own things.”

  “Men carry purses here?” she asked, widening her eyes dramatically.

  Giving up, Walker got out his duffel bag and cane and followed her up the short, steep porch stairs to the inn entrance. He beat her to the door handle, opened it, and gave her a hard grin as she walked by. She gave it right back.

  “This way,” she said.

  Memorizing every detail of the access to the inn, he followed her to a numbered door at the end of a short hall. Two other rooms opened off the hall. The lock on their suite wasn’t as old as the building, but it wasn’t modern, either. He would have preferred an electronic dead bolt.

  The chain lock was no better. One swift kick would pull the punys screw out of the casement. In the South, history meant dry rot. Walker preferred up-to-date steel.

  “Beautiful,” Faith said, looking around. “Rose and green and cream. Such elegantly textured wallpaper, like silk. And the wainscoting looks original.”

  “Doubt it. Old riverfront factories were real short on frills even when they were new. This paneling probably came out of an old hotel teardown or some new outfit that specializes in historical reproductions.”

  She barely heard the southern pragmatist talking beside her. This was her first taste of the historic South and she was enjoying it. “Look at the ceiling. The edges are sculpted with floral designs. Do you suppose it’s the original plaster?”

  “Hope not. This climate rots plaster almost as fast as meat. The floor is original, though.”

  Glancing at her feet, Faith saw only a lush, modern wall-to-wall carpet. Expensive, very tasteful, but not a bit of flooring was in sight. “How can you tell?”

  “The way it drapes over the support beams. You don’t get that kind of sag in less than a century.”

  “You really would have preferred soulless modern.”

  “Wrong. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know the difference between a level floor and this one.”

  Walker looked at the overstuffed, subtly flowered couch that would be his bed. He hoped that the foldout mattress was harder than the cushions, but he doubted it. Absently he rubbed the stiff muscles of his thigh. “Next time I flip the coin for the bed.”

  She bit her lip against a smile until she turned and saw that he was kneading his hurt leg. Guilt washed through her. She was angry with Archer for being unfair in wielding his corporate power, yet she was punishing Walker for her brother’s arbitrary decision. Talk about unfair.

  “I’ll take the couch,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking.”

  There was a flash of deep blue as Walker’s glance cut back to her. “What weren’t you thinking about?”

  “Your leg.”

  “It’s fine.”

  “You’re rubbing it.”

  “Want to do it for me?”

  Her eyes narrowed. “I should take you up on it, just to watch you squirm.”

  “Anytime, sugar.”

  “Okay. Right now. Facedown,” she said, pointing toward the floor.

  “What?”

  “Facedown on the floor.” She flexed her hands and smiled in anticipation. “I just finished a three-month course in deep-muscle massage.”

  His dark eyebrows shot up. “Why?”

  “Same reason I took courses in metallurgy and Celtic art and ancient roses and Sun Tzu’s theory of war and the migration pattern of birds.”

  “And that reason would be?”

  “I was curious.”

  Walker laughed softly. “I’ll bet you get lost on the Net for hours at a time.”

  “Net? As in computers?”

  “Sure.”

  “Not a chance. I had all the computer I’ll ever need in college. I called it the Antichrist. That’s when I was feeling good about it.”

  “You really do all your design work by hand?” he asked, surprised.

  “Beats having three weeks of work booted into the ether because the Antichrist burped.” She shrugged. “Kyle got the computer gene in our family. He can make them sit up and do tricks that I’m sure are illegal.”

  Walker had firsthand reason to know that some of Kyle’s skills could land him in federal prison, but didn’t say anything to F
aith about it. Sometimes ignorance was indeed bliss.

  “Facedown,” she said. “I’ll have that leg loosened up in no time.”

  “This is going to hurt, isn’t it?”

  “What makes you think so?”

  “Your alligator smile.”

  “Maybe I’m just dying to get my hands on your body.”

  “Yeah, and alligators cry,” he said. But he eased himself onto the floor. Even if it hurt, it had to feel better coming from her hands than from his own.

  “Where does it hurt?” she asked.

  “Everywhere.”

  “Well, that sure helps.” She knelt beside him and began running her fingertips over his left thigh, testing for soreness. “Where does it hurt the most?”

  Walker didn’t think she wanted to hear about the ache in his crotch, and he was damn well sure he shouldn’t be talking about it. “Midthigh, in front, and just above the knee.”

  “Gotcha.”

  He drew a sharp breath as her fingers closed around his upper thigh. “I said the knee.”

  “If I started there, you’d go through the roof. Some things have to be worked up to.”

  Walker bit his tongue and settled in to endure an interesting kind of torture.

  10

  She awoke to terror.

  Steel fingers dug into her throat, choking her. Her cheeks burned even as something hot and wet slid thickly down to the lace-trimmed sheets. Something sliced down her arm in a trail of fire. She couldn’t move, couldn’t cry out, could only lie rigid with fear while a rough voice demanded over and over: “The ruby! Where is it! Tell me or you will die.”

  She told him all that she knew.

  She died anyway, painfully, watching her killer’s fixed, glittering eyes.

  On the opening day of the Savannah Modern Jewelry Exposition, Faith and Walker were up early. She turned on the TV and headed for the shower while Walker went out and scrounged breakfast. He was back before she was finished drying her hair. He balanced the coffee and doughnuts, opened the door, and kicked it shut behind him. The TV and the hair dryer competed for his attention.

 
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