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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.14
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.14

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  It didn’t help Faith’s cause when a shrimp squirted out of her fingers, plopped into Walker’s tea, and bobbed there like a pink cloud over a muddy swamp. She snickered, tried not to, gave up, and began laughing so hard she could barely hold on to the next slippery shrimp, much less pull it whole from its shell.

  He grabbed the last handful of shrimp and dumped them onto his side of the table.

  “No fair,” she said between laughs.

  “All’s fair in love, war, and shrimp shucking,” he drawled. “Besides, you haven’t peeled the one that’s doing backflips in your fingers, much less the one that’s facedown in my sweet tea. You get to those and I’ll see about sharing whatever’s left of mine.”

  Ignoring him, she swiped some of his shrimp and went back to work, peeling and eating and peeling and eating, with side trips into the cocktail sauce. A line of concentration appeared between her eyebrows. She couldn’t get the hang of shelling the slippery beasties in one quick swoop the way he did.

  When her cheek itched, she rubbed it against the back of her knuckles rather than break her rhythm in tearing off shells and eating shrimp. Sauce from her knuckles smeared under her cheekbone like cheap blusher. She didn’t even notice it.

  Walker’s rich laughter destroyed her concentration. She looked up and realized that he was finished. Even a little sister had to admit that his pile of shells looked bigger than hers.

  Naturally, that meant nothing about conceding victory.

  “I’ve got the most,” she said smugly.

  “Wrong, sugar.”

  “Okay. We’ll count ‘em. The one with the most pieces wins.”

  The cafe echoed with laughter, Walker’s included. Everyone with eyes knew that Faith had shredded her shrimp shells rather than unzipping them in one neat piece as he had.

  “Put your money away, boys,” Walker said to the men at the next table. “Looks like the lady and I both win.”

  Feeling triumphant, she stood up, whipped off her apron, and bowed. There were cheers and catcalls and applause. When she turned back toward Walker, he was standing about two inches away. The look in his eyes was amusement and something much more intense. She knew right away that it wasn’t outraged male ego. Unlike Tony, Walker could laugh at himself and truly enjoy the joke.

  She grinned back at him. Then her breath wedged when his hand lifted to her cheek. His thumb skimmed and pressed caressingly just below one cheekbone. He brought the thumb to his mouth and licked, removing the cocktail sauce.

  “That’s right tasty rouge you’re wearing,” he drawled.

  “Yeah?” Despite the sudden racing of her heart, she dipped her fingertip in the sauce and splatted some on his cheek just above his heard. “Doesn’t look as good on you.” She leaned close, licked the sauce off with comic thoroughness, and said, “Yum. Spicy. Got any shrimp to go with it?”

  “You’re fixin’ to get in trouble, sugar.”

  “I’m terrified,” she said blithely. She dipped a napkin in her water and finished cleaning his cheek. “There you go, sugar boy. All bettah.” Her tone was a close imitation of his drawl.

  She was still grinning when she sauntered out the door, her jacket slung jauntily over one shoulder.

  “Hold on,” Walker said. “I-”

  Faith screamed.

  It was the kind of scream that could be a weapon, ripping flesh and making bone ache.

  13

  The man in the black leather jacket grabbed Faith’s hair in one hand and waved a knife in front of her eyes with the other. “Gimme the fucking purse.”

  When the door swung open, he glanced at the man with the cane and dismissed him as a threat.

  “The purse, bitch!”

  The instant the mugger looked back at Faith, Walker hooked his cane around the attacker’s knife hand and yanked the blade aside. At almost the same moment, Faith’s stiletto heel sliced down his shin. She ducked out of his grasp, set to give him her knee on the return trip, but the cane beat her to it, stabbing into the mugger’s crotch.

  The man fell to his knees. Walker gripped the cane like a bat and pretended the man’s head was a baseball. The cane was too light to break the mugger’s skull, but it was heavy enough to ring his bell. The skin on the side of his head split open. Blood spilled onto the shoulder of his fancy leather coat. He stretched out on the sidewalk like a man planning to take a nap.

  “You okay, Faith?” Walker asked without looking away from the attacker.

  “Yes.” She didn’t mention her torn jacket. She was still shocked about the amount of damage a man could do with a few thrusts of a cane.

  The door to the cafe burst open. Three burly men barreled outside, saw that the situation was under control, and looked more disappointed than relieved. One of the men was the grizzled, sunburned carpenter with fingers like steel cable who had put his money on Walker in the shrimp contest. The carpenter looked at the big man thrashing around on the dirty cement and smiled.

  He clapped Walker on the shoulder. “Nice work, son,” he said as he flipped his cigarette butt into the gutter. He picked up the folding knife the attacker had dropped and flipped it end over end with an agility that told its own story. “Round here, trash like this sometimes trips on their own knife and end up gutted like a fish.”

  Walker ignored the knife and the sideways offer. He didn’t trust himself with either one. He was furious with himself for putting Faith at risk.

  “Is the cook calling the cops?” Walker asked the carpenter.

  “Yeah.”

  “You recognize this trash?”

  The three men looked at each other and came up empty. “Not a local boy,” the carpenter said, lighting another cigarette. “Dresses like some Yankee slick.”

  Walker swore under his breath. He had been hoping he was wrong. “Faith?” he asked.

  She took a closer look at the man. “I think he was at the expo hall.”

  Walker knew he had been.

  The sound of a siren crying in the distance told Walker the cops were on their way. He knelt beside the thief and dug a wallet out of the hip pocket of his slacks. A New Jersey driver’s license in the name of Angelo Angel. Maybe fake, but Walker doubted it. Only a mother could make up a name like that.

  He nudged the mugger with the cane. The prod was hard enough to focus the man’s attention.

  “What do they call you?” Walker asked. “I’m thinking it can’t be Angel boy.”

  The thief muttered something that was lost against the sidewalk.

  Walker poked him in the ribs. “I didn’t hear you.”

  “Buddy. They call me Buddy.”

  “You ain’t mine,” Walker drawled. “Who sent you?”

  “Fuck you. I want my lawyer.”

  Before Walker could ask more forcefully, two squad cars pulled up at the curb. Doors shot open, uniforms jumped out, and Savannah’s finest took over. Walker leaned on his cane and looked obliging.

  By the time Faith and Walker returned to the expo hall, she was ready to scream. Part of the feeling was the result of adrenaline, the rest was reserved for slow southern drawls and even slower bureaucracies.

  “I hope our little southern blossom hasn’t abandoned ship,” Faith said. “I’ve got to make some sales to cover the expenses of this trip.”

  “Seems like a pin or two would do it and then some.” Walker’s drawl was deeper than ever. Adrenaline seemed to slow him down instead of put him on a hair trigger like normal people.

  “Most of my valuable stones are on consignment from members of my family or from other jewelers,” Faith snapped. “I don’t make as much as you think on each piece.”

  “You don’t have to make anything at all.”

  “Because my daddy’s rich?”

  “Don’t forget your ma,” Walker said wryly, offering Faith his arm. If the easy way her fingers curled around the crook of his elbow meant anything, she was getting used to having him beside her. “One of Susa’s paintings costs more than the nation
al debt of some third-world countries.”

  “It’s my parents’ money. They earned it starting from nothing at all. Until I was in junior high, we gave each other underwear and gym clothes for Christmas.” She caught the flicker of Walker’s surprise. “That’s right. The Donovans haven’t always been rich. As far as I’m concerned, the kids still aren’t. Except maybe Archer. His half of Pearl Cove must have been worth a bundle, not to mention Hannah’s. And Jake has his own business, in addition to being a full partner in Donovan Gems and Minerals.”

  “You’re a partner, too. So is Honor.”

  She shrugged. “After a fashion. No wages. I take my share of the profits in unusual gemstones. Honor used to, but now she puts most of her share aside for building a home in the San Juan Islands. She doesn’t want to raise kids in the city. When she’s not working on her own designs, I pay her to execute some of mine, especially in amber. She has a real feel for that material. She could also make a bundle painting portraits.”

  “Why doesn’t she?”

  “Susa casts a long shadow. She doesn’t mean to, but…” Faith shrugged. “I don’t think Honor has any idea of how good she is, how much she has accomplished. She keeps comparing herself to Mother.”

  “Must run in the family,” he said blandly.

  “What does that mean?”

  “You have your own business and a flair for jewelry design that’s getting you a national reputation, yet you seem surprised when someone compliments you on your skill.”

  Faith pushed Tony out of her mind, Tony who had wanted her to give up her “stupid hobby,” get pregnant, and spend her life raising his babies while he traveled all over the world as a “media adviser” for Fortune 500 companies.

  Tony, who hadn’t found her sexy enough to be faithful even when they were engaged.

  Sometimes when she thought of how close she had come to succumbing, to giving up everything that was important to her just to have the appearance of a marriage, she still could get a sick feeling in her stomach.

  “You’re good,” Walker said calmly. “Really, really good. You had as much traffic past your case and more real interest than the strutting idiot at the display next to us.”

  “I’ll tell myself that the next time I wonder how I’m going to juggle all the bills, buy another casting furnace, fix the leak in the shop sink, and still dress expensively enough to reassure potential customers that I don’t need their money. Why is it that when you don’t seem to need money, people can’t wait to give it to you?”

  He smiled thinly and opened the door to the expo hall. “First rule of banking: Don’t lend money to people who really need it. Poverty just breeds more poverty.”

  A few steps inside the door, Walker nodded to the guard who had sent them to Cap’n Jack’s for lunch. “Thanks for the tip on the seafood place. Best shrimp I’ve had in years.”

  “You’re welcome, suh. You folks missed all the excitement round here, though.”

  Walker looked at the knots of people gathered around the room. There was tension in the voices that hadn’t been there before. “What happened?”

  “Some stickup artist with solid brass balls – excuse me, ma’am – robbed the expo safe at gunpoint. Taped up the poor gal, left her on the floor, and got away before anyone knew what happened.”

  Walker whistled between his teeth. “How much did he get?”

  The guard grinned, showing teeth stained by nicotine. “Just some trinkets. The good stuff was all out in the hall on display. Damn fool should have waited and hit it after the show was over for the day.”

  Faith glanced sideways at Walker, then at the guard. “Seems like the fair city of Savannah is going through some growing pains,” she said. “I was mugged just outside of Cap’n Jack’s.”

  The guard’s eyes widened in shock. “Are you all right?”

  “My jacket is torn, but other than that, I’m fine.”

  “She’s deadly with those stiletto heels,” Walker said. “Opened up his shin like it was a mullet.”

  The guard shook his head. “Believe me, ma’am. Savannah ain’t like this. Oh, we have our trash, sure enough, but we make a point of keepin’ it separate from decent folks.”

  “I’m sure you’re right,” she said politely. “I’m going to the booth, Walker. You mentioned the rest room, I believe?”

  He got the unsubtle hint. She wanted the ruby necklace on display. “I’ll be right back.”

  Lights twinkled and winked in the bare-branched trees outside the inn, casting uncertain shadows over the glass. From outside the open window at one end of the suite, a ship’s horn sounded. Like the smell of the river and the murmur of traffic, the ship’s warning was low and distant, dreamy rather than urgent.

  Walker felt anything but dreamy. Frowning, he stared at the screen of his laptop computer. He had just downloaded an inventory of the gems that were missing after the Seattle burglary. They had already known about the loss of the most significant gems before they left, but the final count wasn’t going to make Faith smile.

  “Tell me if it’s as bad as I think it is,” she said tightly, pacing barefoot over the soft carpet. It had driven her crazy to work on the necklace and ignore her family putting her shop back together under the unflinching eyes of an insurance adjuster. “I can deal with anything but not knowing.”

  “You got off pretty light. Ten or twelve loose gems. None big enough to make a ripple in the marketplace when they’re fenced. The finished pieces all turned up in the bin out back. Apparently the burglar decided they were too unusual to pawn.”

  “The carved emeralds and the three Pearl Cove baroques didn’t turn up?” Faith asked.

  “Nope. But Kyle already put the word out on them. They’ll stand out like neon lights in a pawnshop.”

  She let out a long breath. “Okay. A few glitters more or less, I can live with. Gems, even the carved ones, the unique ones, can be replaced one way or another. I was just afraid…”

  Her voice faded. She didn’t know how she could explain the aching sense of loss and anger that came at the thought of having some of her beautiful creations stolen by a thief who didn’t understand that the true value of the jewelry lay in the marriage of gem and design, rather than in the value of the gems alone.

  Yes, she could always recreate a design, but it would never be the same. Creation only came once. Attempted duplication simply never turned out as well.

  “Yeah,” Walker said, quickly reading through the inventory again, “I know what you mean. The thought of some brain-dead thief yanking stones out of settings and dumping your art in a trash bin would sure send me out hunting some serious butt to kick.”

  “Exactly!” Pleased, she spun around and planted a smacking kiss on Walker’s cheek just above the soft, nearly black beard. “My hero.”

  He slanted her a look that was at odds with his off-center smile. “Don’t count on it. I keep telling you – ”

  “Buddy Angel tripped and fell on your cane,” she cut in. “Right. Do you think the cop believed that?”

  “Why not? It’s the truth.”

  “I got the feeling that Savannah’s finest didn’t like having some Atlantic City bad boy on their turf.”

  Walker’s smile thinned to a razor slash of white. “Especially a clumsy one who terrorizes pretty tourist ladies. No telling how many times Buddy is going to trip again before his fancy lawyer gets him out of jail.”

  “Out? But he had a knife! Surely armed robbery is worth more than a few hours in jail?”

  “Depends on the lawyer.” And on how thoroughly the cops checked Buddy’s knife. A good crime lab might find bloodstains on it, bloodstains of a type that matched the dead tourist in the Live Oak Inn. Walker knew that the investigators had received an anonymous call suggesting such a link. He knew because he had placed the call himself. But he wasn’t sure the cops would follow up.

  “Buddy’s leather coat cost a thousand bucks, easy,” Walker said. “The ring on his pinky was a three-
carat diamond. My guess is he’ll make bail on charges that are reduced to a misdemeanor purse snatching, unless they find something else to hang on him. Then they’ll throw his sorry ass in jail and let his lawyer howl.”

  “If Buddy has that much money, what’s he doing snatching purses?” She made a quick, disgusted sound. “Never mind. Forget I asked. Dumb question. A better question is why he didn’t believe the Montegeau necklace was in the expo safe.”

  “Offhand, I’d say a pal of his taped up that expo gal, went through the safe, came up dry, and called Buddy on the cellular.”

  Neat white teeth pressed into Faith’s lower lip. “That means they watched us. They followed you to the desk. They thought I put the necklace in the safe because we were going to lunch.”

  He nodded. “That’s the way I figure it.”

  “So you think they just waltzed past all the exhibits, saw that the Montegeau necklace offered the best return on a fast grab, and went after it?”

  “I don’t know. I didn’t have enough time to, uh, question Angelini.”

  “Angelini?”

  “Buddy. He’s mob, sugar. It’s all over him like itch on a chigger bite. He might have changed his last name to Angel, but his daddy or granddaddy was an Angelini for sure.”

  She thought of Buddy’s sleek black hair, hard black eyes, and Mediterranean complexion. “Wonder what his pal’s name is. Guido?”

  “It could be Mick Mulligan or Jack Spratt. The Mafia might have started in Sicily, but in twenty-first-century America, organized crime is an equal-opportunity employer – you want to break laws for them, you’re hired.”

  Slowly Walker rotated his shoulders. Beneath his laconic style, he was still tense. He could close his eyes and see how damned close the steel blade had been to Faith’s throat. If he had lagged one more step behind her, he would have had fresh blood on his hands, and this time it would have been Faith’s, not Lot’s.

 
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