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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.15
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.15

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  Too damned close.

  “Will they try again?” Faith asked.

  That was the million-dollar question. That, and whether Buddy’s knife had sliced up the lady tourist. “Depends on how bad he wants the necklace.”

  “Do you think they know where we’re staying now?”

  “I’m guessing they do.”

  She sighed and turned away. “I’ve been dreaming of that deep, jet-powered bathtub all day. Oh, well. Maybe the next place will have one. I’ll start packing.”

  “Good. I’ll take you to the airport. Gulfstream makes their executive jets down here. They’ll have one available for charter. You can be back home in Seattle tonight.”

  Spinning around, she stared at Walker. His eyes were more sapphire than lapis right now. Crystalline. Darkly blue. Emotionless. “What do you mean?”

  “Someone else can sit behind the display for you and make nice with all the customers. You’ll be safer in – ”

  “No.” The refusal was as curt as her voice.

  “Why not?” he asked reasonably.

  “I came here to make contacts that are vital for my future as a jeweler.”

  “If the next thug that goes after those gems gets lucky, you won’t have a future.”

  “I understand that it’s asking too much of you to risk your life for-”

  “Shit, that’s not-”

  Fists on her hips, she talked right over him. “ – a handful of gems. You signed on to carry gems, not to risk your life for them.”

  “I’ve guarded gems in places a hell of a lot more dangerous than Savannah, Georgia.”

  Curiosity warred with irritation. Curiosity won. “Where?”

  “Anywhere they’re selling rubies worth buying. Go soak your aching feet and let me do the worrying.”

  She could feel her grip on her temper slipping. She didn’t know what it was about Walker.

  “We’ll talk about this again after I take a long soak,” she said coolly.

  “Sure thing.” He turned back to his computer and started surfing the Net. “Bet your feet hurt almost as much as your tongue from biting it.”

  She made an exasperated sound and went to the bathroom. He was right. Her feet were screaming at her. Tomorrow she definitely would have to wear a different pair of shoes.

  And yes, her tongue had skid marks on it from biting back her temper.

  14

  As soon as Walker heard the thunder of water into the big tub, he switched from random Net surfing to the hot-gems page. A few new rubies had been listed, but none of the stones matched the description of the big carved ruby Ivanovitch was after.

  Walker picked another site and surfed to it. This site concentrated on gems people wanted to acquire. The section on loose rubies hadn’t changed. A great many people still wanted to buy a three-carat Burmese for the price of a fish sandwich and a side of coleslaw. There was no listing for the Russian’s stone at any price.

  Knuckling his beard thoughtfully, Walker sorted through the events of the past few days. Then he reached for the Donovan cellular phone with its built-in scrambler and called one of Archer’s private numbers.

  It was picked up on the third ring.

  “Jake here. What’s up, Walker? Easy, Summer, that ear is attached to your ever-loving daddy.”

  Walker heard Summer’s squeal of delight and knew that she had grabbed her daddy’s nose instead. “What are you doing at Archer’s office?”

  “Babysitting. We sent Mitchell home early and took the place over.”

  “Palace coup?”

  “Kind of. We’re still trying to plan for the party. The only place we could catch Archer was here. No, Summer. Your cousins aren’t dolls. You touch little babies the way you do your kitty. That’s it, honey. Real soft. Just the way you like to be touched when your tummy hurts.”

  Summer’s giggle made something ache deep inside Walker. He could see Jake now, knee-deep in kids, slightly harried, his hard face laughing and his pale eyes full of light. A lot of Walker wanted just that, kids and love and laughter.

  Yet the thought of it terrified him.

  Life was so fragile. Death was so final. The double-edged blade of guilt and survival never lost its bite.

  I can’t go through it again, Walker acknowledged bleakly. If that means no family, so he it. A man who can’t take care of his own doesn’t deserve to have them.

  The fretful cry of a very young baby came through from Jake’s end of the line. “Uh-oh, Summer. You woke Heather up and she’s going to want food. Hang on, Walker.” Jake flipped an intercom button and spoke into the microphone. “Heather’s tuning up. Robbie won’t be far behind. Where’s lunch?”

  “Dinner,” Lianne corrected.

  “Whatever. Bring it on the run.”

  “I’m already there.”

  True to Jake’s prediction, Robbie tuned up. The wailing, husky cries of tiny babies gained in volume. The two infants seemed to compete. One cried and the other cried louder.

  With a half smile on his face, Walker waited patiently while Lianne – and Kyle from the sound of it – came from Archer’s office and took their babies off to be fed.

  Immediately Summer started fussing. Her volume and intensity were startling.

  “Turn her loose, Jake,” Kyle said loudly from across the room. “If she starts hollering, no one will be able to hear themselves think. Not since Faith have I heard a scream like that.”

  Walker overheard. “Let her go,” he agreed quickly. His head was still ringing from Faith’s scream earlier in the day.

  “Okay, Summer,” Jake said, setting his daughter down. “You can watch the twins eat, but only if you’re very, very, very quiet.”

  He waited while his daughter half crawled, half staggered over to her cousins, using whatever piece of office furniture her little hands could grab on to for balance. As an exercise in locomotion, she was breathtaking to watch. Each instant guaranteed disaster, but somehow it never arrived.

  “Home safe,” Jake said into the phone, sighing. “Okay, I’m ready to speak adult.”

  “You sure you remember how?”

  “Now, yes. In the middle of the night, I goo. Kyle is worse. He goo-goos.”

  Kyle gave Jake a casual middle finger.

  “Goo-goo.” Walker snickered at his end of the line. As he did, he realized how much he had come to enjoy being a satellite of the Donovans’ sprawling, growing family. Being with them wasn’t anything like the tension and anger and loneliness he remembered of his own childhood.

  “Well, goo over this, sugar boy,” Walker drawled. “Somebody wanted the Montegeau rubies bad enough to pull off a daylight raid on the expo safe.”

  “Mother,” Jake muttered. “Archer’s not going to like making good on that million.”

  Another line rang. Someone in Archer’s office picked it up.

  “No problem,” Walker said. “The rubies are still tucked in right next to the family jewels.”

  “Ouch.”

  “I’ve carried worse,” Walker said, shifting slightly in the chair. He didn’t mention that the real problem was the semi-arousal that seemed to be a permanent state when he was around Faith. Though Jake was only a brother by marriage to Faith, he protected her as fiercely as any blood brother would.

  “You’re certain it was the rubies they were after?” Jake asked. “There are a lot of other gems on display at the expo, aren’t there?”

  “Yeah. Lot of crap, too, but all the prices are solid platinum.”

  “You know what they say about art – like beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder.”

  Walker grunted. “Thing is, I set up an elaborate switch so that anybody watching Faith’s necklace would think it was in the hotel safe. Truth be told, the rubies had lunch with us.”

  Jake waited. He knew that there was a point to the story. For all his drawl, Walker didn’t waste time on unnecessary words.

  “And after the expo safe was cleaned out, a guy named Buddy Angel jump
ed us and grabbed Faith outside the place where we had lunch.”

  “What! Is she all right?”

  Kyle looked up sharply from the diaper he was putting on a squirming baby.

  “She’s fine,” Walker said. “Sliced the guy’s shin open with a stiletto heel and was going for his balls when I got in a good lick or two with my cane.”

  Jake gave a thumbs-up to Kyle, who went back to changing the baby.

  “There was no damage, I hope,” Jake said. His smile was as thin as a blade. Walker was a gutter fighter after his own heart.

  “None to us. The bastard had a knife. He might be the one who sliced up a tourist the night before. That happened in the same room that Faith had reserved, then canceled.”

  “Archer’s not going to like this,” Jake said tightly.

  Understatement of the year.

  “I don’t care much for it myself,” Walker drawled. “That room was the only one ransacked. Then the burglar opened the safe. How many second-story residential prowlers kill a woman, then slide downstairs and light-finger their way into a big safe?”

  “Never knew of one. You’re sure Faith is all right?”

  “Only thing hurting is her feet.”

  “Four-inch heels?” Jake guessed.

  “At least.”

  “Still trying to be as tall as her brothers.”

  “She’s near enough eye to eye with me in those stilts,” Walker drawled.

  “That’s because you’re short.”

  “There you go.”

  Jake laughed. Walker stood more than six feet tall, short only in the company of the Donovan brothers and Jake. “So, in light of the robbery in Seattle,” Jake said, “and the, uh, problems at that lovely little historical inn, you don’t buy the idea that the safe job at the expo and the purse snatching in Savannah are a coincidence?”

  Kyle started working faster. He wanted to hear both ends of this conversation.

  “Throw in the fact that the purse snatcher was wearing a thousand-dollar leather jacket and a ten-thousand-dollar watch,” Walker said. “He was from Atlantic City and his name ended in a vowel. Did I mention that?”

  “Shit.”

  “Yeah.”

  “What’s the connection between rubies and the mob?” Jake asked.

  “I was hoping you’d know. Or some of your past buddies would.”

  “You’ve got some of the same buddies.”

  “Not officially. Not since I used to take visiting firemen into the back country of Afghanistan for a close-up look at how the local guerrillas were cutting throats. All my contacts are international. If this is mob, we need domestic specialists.”

  Jake grunted. “FBI. So you want Archer to call in Uncle?”

  “Uncle?” Kyle asked sharply. “As in the government?”

  Jake nodded.

  Kyle slid Robbie’s jumpsuit into place, wrapped his son in a clean blanket, and headed for the inner office door.

  “That does it, boys and girls. This just became a conference call.”

  He went to Archer’s office and entered without knocking “Walker is talking about bring – ”

  Curtly Archer held up his hand, cutting off his brother’s words.

  Kyle’s odd, hazel-green eyes narrowed. Archer held the phone as though it was a snake.

  “I’m listening, April Joy,” Archer said. His voice had the deadly neutrality that came only when he was hanging on to his temper by a slippery thread. “I’m just not hearing anything that makes sense.”

  Kyle muttered something under his breath. April Joy was bad news, the kind that came with the full might and majesty of the federal government behind it.

  “It’s pretty simple, slick,” April said. “We have the cretin who ripped off your sister’s shop.”

  “Have him? As in custody?”

  “He’s more useful to us on the street. Really useful. It will be even better when we put a long leash on him and send him home.”

  “Where is that?”

  “Russia.”

  Archer shifted the phone, trying to loosen his grip on the receiver. “His name wouldn’t happen to be Ivanovitch?” He sensed a change at the other end of the line. April Joy was poised over the phone like a cat over a fat mouse.

  “How do you know that?” she demanded.

  “Ivanovitch was in the shop earlier this week. We did a little checking of our own, traced him back to the once-a-week Aeroflot flight from Magadan to Seattle, with a short Customs stop in Anchorage. The rest was easy.”

  April laughed. “Not much gets by you, does it?”

  “Not when it comes to family. What did he want with Faith?”

  “What he got. Jewelry.”

  Archer was certain that April Joy was lying. But he didn’t know why. “You’re aware that some poor drunk was murdered about the same time as the robbery, and in about the same place.”

  It wasn’t a question.

  “Some poor drunk is always getting sliced up somewhere,” April said impatiently. “It’s a national shame. Read about it in the New York Times over your bagel.”

  “Coincidence, huh?”

  “Listen, slick. I’m not a nun and I don’t work for a national church. But if you find out Ivanovitch did the drunk, let me know. Murder is a better twist on him than fencing stolen goods. Or do I have to explain to you why we need all the twists we can get on whichever Russian mafiya type we get our hands on?”

  Archer didn’t need to be told. The mafiya was the most active smuggler of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear technology. The various mafiyas would sell nukes to any paranoid world saver with the money to buy them.

  Ivanovitch might be a piece of shit, but he was Uncle Sam’s. If April lost him, she would have to start from scratch with another mafiya lowlife. Better to keep the devil you know than go hunting in hell for another.

  “E-mail me a photo of this Ivanovitch,” Archer said.

  “Why?”

  “Because you want me to help you.”

  “You’ll have it in half an hour.”

  “I’ll talk to Faith,” Archer said.

  “Thanks. I owe you one.”

  Archer’s smile was hard as a knife. “Yes. You do.” As he hung up and switched to a secure cellular phone, he said to Kyle, “Whatever it is will have to wait. I have to talk to Walker first.”

  “He’s on the phone with Jake right now.”

  Archer shot out of his office and looked at his brother-in-law Jake. “I need Walker.”

  Jake handed over the cellular. A wise man didn’t argue With Archer when his eyes looked like cold-rolled steel.

  “Walker?” Archer said.

  “Right here, boss.”

  “You have any Russians following you?”

  “Not that I’ve seen.”

  “Keep your eyes peeled. I’ll email you a photo as soon as I get it. April Joy had her hands on the guy who robbed Faith’s shop, but she let him go because she wants sources in Russia more than she wants a burglar with an accent. At least that’s what she hinted. She probably has other irons in the fire as well.”

  “Ivanovitch?”

  “Yeah. He’s Russian mafiya.”

  “Which one? They’ve got hundreds. It’s a national sport, like baseball or soccer.”

  “Ask him which team he plays for the next time you see him,” Archer retorted. “Just be damn sure you see him before he sees you. It’s possible he’s the knife artist who did the drunk. I just saw the final autopsy report. He’s very, very good with a blade.”

  “My, how those mob boys love their sharp toys. We ran into one who fancied Faith’s purse.”

  “What?”

  “Don’t worry, boss. She’s fine. But this guy is sloppier than your friend out there. Nobody’s been able to prove it, but I suspect he was behind that very messy murder the night we got here.”

  “Wait. Start over, at the beginning,” Archer said curtly.

  Archer didn’t like it any better the second time.


  The Hilton Head condominium was large, airy, and very expensive, but shouts still echoed in it, drowning out the soothing lap of the Atlantic’s ankle-high surf. Perhaps it was all the marble and glass that enhanced the echoes. Perhaps it was simply that even in his declining years, Sal Angel had the voice of a rutting gorilla.

  “What kind of a grandson are you?” Sal demanded in disgust. He stabbed his grandson’s chest with a sharp index finger. “A crip and a woman. A simple grab and you fuck it up. Twice!”

  “Hey, last night wasn’t my fault! Shit, there was blood all over the place! You expect me to – ”

  “I don’t expect nothing, and that’s good, cuz that’s what you are, nothing! You have the guts to whine to me about a little blood and how your leg hurts because some babe stepped on you. I thought you were a man. Looks like I’ll have to wait for the next generation to find a successor-” his finger stabbed again, harder “ – but first you gotta stay home with your wife long enough to fuck her. Anything you forgot to tell me?”

  Staring at the top of his grandfather’s shiny pink head, Buddy Angel bit back a smart remark. His sweet wife was a sack of ice in bed, but he was stuck with her because her grandfather was one of Sal’s cronies from the old days, when they ate spaghetti and fought gang wars together. Buddy knew better than to cross the old farts. They still ran the East Coast rackets.

  There were days Buddy wished he had become an accountant. But paying taxes just didn’t leave enough at the end of the month to live on. It was easier to prey on the chumps than to be one of them. So he put up with his father and grandfather yelling and thumping on him. Sooner or later they would die and he would be king of the Angels. Then he would kick ass instead of kiss it.

  “I told you,” Buddy said through his teeth. “The guy with her looked like a pussy, but he didn’t fight like one.”

  “Yeah yeah yeah. Whine some more, like I haven’t heard enough already. Shit, do I have to show you how it’s done? I’m seventy-seven, for the love of Jesus! Young people. Huh. Can’t even beat off without help.”

  Buddy doubted his grandfather could beat off under any circumstances, but he kept that little nugget to himself. His head was still spinning from the clout he had received as a grandfatherly greeting.

 
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