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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.19
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.19

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  “You still with me?” Walker repeated, squeezing.

  Tony nodded jerkily.

  “Good boy,” Walker said, as though congratulating a particularly dim hound on remembering not to pee on the floor.

  “This is the only warning you’ll get, and one more than Faith wanted you to have. You see, she was looking forward to tearing off your pitiful pecker and shoving it up your nose. Followed by your pea-sized balls. Hear me?”

  “Esss.”

  The sound was more a hiss than a word, but Walker understood. He waited for a long three-count before he released Tony’s hand. Then he watched to see if the other man was truly as stupid as he was big.

  Color trickled back into Tony’s face, then flooded it with red. “Who the hell are you?”

  “Faith’s.”

  “Her what?”

  “Now you’re catching on.”

  Tony looked at Walker’s calm, measuring blue eyes and took a quick step backward. Tony was used to rough-and-tumble games like football.

  Walker wasn’t playing games.

  “I could break you in two,” Tony said.

  Walker waited for him to try.

  “But I don’t fight smaller men,” Tony sneered.

  “Just women? Boy, you’re a real grade-A chickenshit, aren’t you?”

  Tony’s face darkened. “You’re lucky I don’t take you apart.”

  A gentle smile was Walker’s only answer.

  “Anything Faith got, she asked for,” Tony said.

  “Damn, but you are dumb.”

  Walker moved as though to turn away. As he did, his cane swung out carelessly and tangled in Tony’s feet. A quick jerk, and both men fell in a surprised heap.

  At least, that was what it looked like to anyone who was watching. To Tony, the world suddenly turned upside down, his feet flew up, and he was flat on his ass on the concrete, wheezing while Walker tried to scramble back to his feet, using Tony as a floor. Elbow to the throat, knee to the balls, a flying hand to the nose. The seemingly accidental blows all connected before Walker managed to stand upright again.

  “You okay?” Walker asked anxiously, bending over Tony for the benefit of the few bystanders who had stopped to watch. “I’m awful clumsy with that cane. Can’t seem to get the hang of the damned thing. Here, let me help you up.”

  Dazed, Tony let himself be levered to his feet and dusted off with a force that left him breathless. Blood ran from his nose. He couldn’t stand straight for the pain throbbing up from his groin in sickening waves. His kidneys ached in a way that told him he was just starting to hurt.

  “Let me call you a cab,” Walker said. “You don’t want to be walking in this heat.”

  Raising his cane, he signaled for a cab and bundled Tony into it. Walker gave the driver a twenty and an address in the roughest part of town before he smiled at Tony. “Good talkin’ with you, boy. Say hi to the folks back home.”

  Walker slammed the door, smiled at the nice people gathered around, and was careful to limp heavily all the way back into the building.

  When Faith saw Walker, she rushed over and put her hands on either side of his face. Her eyes searched him for signs of injury. All she saw was smooth skin, dark silky beard, and eyes the color of lapis lazuli. “Are you all right?”

  “Sure thing. Why?”

  “Tony can be… very difficult.”

  “That ol’ boy?” Walker smiled and looked surprised. “He was purely apologetic about interrupting you. Said he won’t do it again. He was just hoping you were over your mad.”

  “I’m not. I never will be.”

  Walker smiled despite the rage simmering in his gut when he remembered Tony’s words: Anything Faith got, she asked for. Those were familiar words. His stepfather, Steve Atkins, had used them every time he slapped Walker’s mother around. The excuses for the beatings had varied from a late dinner to T-shirts that weren’t clean enough, but the result was always the same. Anything she got, she asked for.

  “Sometimes a good mad is the only thing that gets the job done,” Walker said. “You deserve a lot better than that pile of road apples.”

  Faith’s smile was shaky, but real. “Yeah. I finally figured that out for myself.”

  “I’m surprised one of your brothers didn’t figure it out for Tony,” Walker muttered.

  “I’m old enough to make my own mistakes and to clean up after them, too.”

  Privately Walker thought that Tony was out of Faith’s weight class, but he knew better than to say it aloud. She resented the unfairness of life that made men stronger than women. “There you go.”

  “This must be my lucky day,” she said. “I just sold that emerald cat and Tony finally got the message.”

  Walker smiled. “The cat, huh? To the woman with makeup and scars?”

  “No. Some guy who needed a birthday present for his niece.”

  Walker’s eyebrows went up. “Quite a present. Was it really for his niece?”

  “He was seventy years old if he was a day. What do you think?”

  “I think his niece is blond and built.”

  “So do I.”

  18

  The jewelry show closed at noon of the third day, which gave the exhibitors plenty of time to pack up and secure their valuables before heading home. Walker spent every minute trying to talk Faith out of going to Ruby Bayou to deliver the necklace and hang around for Mel’s wedding.

  Kyle’s gut was in overdrive. So was Walker’s. The more he thought about the dead Seattle street person, the dead Savannah tourist, and the fact that Buddy’s knife was clean of everything except steak juice, the less Walker liked any of it. But he didn’t want to tell Faith that a murderous knife artist might be after her, so his hands were tied when it came to good arguments to get her to leave.

  Faith ignored all of his arguments, good or bad or ridiculous.

  Walker didn’t give up. He spent the short drive to Hilton Head Island and Ruby Bayou trying to talk her into leaving.

  “It’s not too late to get you on a plane,” he pointed out. “Hilton Head has a nice little airport not two miles from here. Modern, good landing strip, plenty of room for one of the small corporate jets. I’ll deliver the necklace. You can check your shop’s inventory personally, just like you were screaming to do before we left.”

  “I know what’s missing.”

  “Kyle and Lianne might have overlooked something. Nobody knows what’s in that shop as well as you do.”

  “When I tried to stay home in the first place, you and Archer kept pointing out how I promised Mel I’d be at her wedding.”

  “That was then. This is now.”

  “Now, there’s a reasonable argument if I ever heard one.”

  “How about this one?” Walker’s back was to the wall. “The same folks who knew you were at the expo know you’re going to Ruby Bayou. You’re safer in Seattle and so are the Montegeaus.”

  “I pointed that out to Daddy Montegeau on the phone, just before we left the inn, but he wouldn’t hear of it.”

  “Neither one of you is thinking real clear.”

  Faith ignored Walker, just as she had ignored all his attempts to ship her back to Seattle. She had no intention of going home. There was too much to see, to feel, to absorb right here. Designs shimmered and condensed in her mind as she studied the exotic landscape of salt marsh and palmetto alternating with live oak, pine, and deciduous trees on the drier ground. At low tide the marsh had a heady, earthy, primeval scent, as though time had slowed to the speed of a big reptile sunning on the side of a drainage canal.

  “That alligator looks like a big truck tire that’s come unwrapped,” Faith said as they passed a road-killed gator.

  Walker sighed and knew he wasn’t going to get any further on the subject of her going back to Seattle. “Tires don’t have teeth.”

  “I didn’t say I was going to walk up and pet it.”

  “Well, thank God for small favors.”

  “Someone I know i
s in a snit.”

  “Shit,” he hissed under his breath.

  “No, snit.”

  Smiling despite himself, Walker reached out and tugged lightly on her hair. “You’re a brat.”

  “Thank you.” Then she laughed softly and reveled in the freedom of being able to tease a man and not worry about his tender ego. “You’re fun, Owen Walker. Like having a brother without years of baggage to juggle.”

  Walker’s smile turned down slightly. “That’s me, sugar. Everybody’s brother.”

  Faith smiled out at the winter-brown marsh basking in the sun, but her smile faded when she remembered that she once had asked Walker if he was an older brother. He had answered, Not anymore. At the time she had let the subject drop. But now she didn’t want to. She wanted to know more about Walker with an urgency she didn’t question.

  “You never talk about your family,” she said.

  He didn’t answer. He was still wondering how long he would be able to keep his hands off Faith. Not long enough, he was afraid. Not unless she went back to Seattle real soon. An hour, max.

  Just the scent of her nearby in the car had made him hard as stone.

  “Walker?”

  He bit back a searing curse. This was what came of letting her think he was a kind and smiling brother type.

  He shouldn’t want her.

  He shouldn’t touch her.

  And he wouldn’t be able to put her off the subject of his family without making her mad, which he couldn’t afford to do and still stay close enough to do his job.

  “My parents gave up on each other when I was twelve,” he said flatly.

  She waited, but he didn’t say anything more. “Did you stay with your mother?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Did you see your dad much?”

  “Not until I was sixteen.”

  “Then what?”

  Walker gave her a narrow look. “What do you think?”

  “If I knew, I wouldn’t ask.”

  He hissed a word under his breath and concentrated on his driving. Silence grew until it was a living presence inside the car. Walker wanted to put his fist through the windshield, but he controlled the urge without really noticing it. Faith had done nothing to earn his anger. She sure hadn’t asked to have him panting after her like a dog after a bitch in heat.

  “Steve, the guy who moved in after Ma and Dad split,” Walker said carefully, “didn’t like having two teenage boys underfoot, eating food and such. So she bought two bus tickets and dumped Lot and me on Dad.”

  “Lot? You have a brother?”

  “Not anymore.”

  This time Faith didn’t let Walker’s bleak expression warn her away. “What happened?”

  “He died.”

  She closed her eyes. “I’m sorry.”

  “So am I,” he said bitterly. “But sorry doesn’t get him back, does it?”

  When the silence in the car began to eat at Walker, he glanced toward Faith. The stricken look on her face made him feel lower than a gator’s tail for lashing out at her over something she had nothing to do with. His fingers clenched around the wheel. Slowly he forced them to relax.

  “It was a long time ago,” he said finally.

  “I don’t think – ” Her voice broke. She swallowed and tried again, only this time she forced herself not to visualize her own family, the pain of losing someone who was as much a part of her as her own blood and bone and memories. “I don’t think there’s enough time on earth to get used to losing a sibling.”

  Walker couldn’t disagree, especially when he had been to blame for Lot’s death.

  “Was he like you?” Faith asked softly.

  “Like me? How?”

  “Smart. Gentle. Good-looking. Dark. A smile like a flash of light.”

  Walker let out a long, silent breath. Later he would sort out how he felt about being smart, gentle, and good-looking. For now it was all he could do to allow himself to remember his younger brother.

  “Black hair,” Walker said, his voice huskier than he knew.

  “Yellow cat eyes with eyelashes so long they tangled. Too mean to he pretty, but still almost beautiful. The devil’s own looks. Tough in a lean, long-boned way. Street-smart in some ways and dumber than a rock in others. Women started staring at him when he was twelve. When he was thirteen he found out why. He was twenty when he died.”

  “Jealous boyfriend?”

  “A deal that went sour.” Walker’s voice warned her not to go any further.

  Faith ignored the warning. “What kind of deal gets a kid killed?”

  “The kind where he’s counting on his older brother to cover his ass and his older brother fucks up big time and the trusting younger brother dies with a surprised look on his face.”

  “I don’t understand.”

  “Lucky you.”

  Walker turned down one of the narrow, winter-dusty side streets that led off into the Hilton Head Island scrub. Pine straw clung to everything like long, spiky brown moss, covering roofs and overflowing the gutters of ramshackle houses that were half hidden by overgrown vegetation.

  A high, sheer veil of clouds condensed across the sun. Wind stalked the marsh and pounced on the narrow channels that wound among clumps of man-high grass. The road turned sharp angles along old property lines and climbed up on a low, sandy ridge that was covered with wicked palmetto and vine-shrouded trees. Pools of brackish water winked like alligator eyes in the scrub, marking the slow dissolving of land into marsh and marsh into sea.

  Another turn, another low rise, and live oaks bearing burdens of shriveled resurrection ferns and silvery Spanish moss appeared among the palmetto and pines. Pools of black water became a slow creek coiling across the nearly flat land, imprisoned like an immense snake between banks of dense trees. Then the marsh took over. Sometimes there was only mud marking the margin of the creek. Sometimes oysters clung to every wet surface like dirty white ruffles.

  Bronze, shimmering, dark, secretive. The winter salt marsh was all of that. It was also as graceful as a dancer, as untamed as the flight of a hawk.

  “It’s beautiful,” Faith said softly.

  Walker grunted. “Tell me that when you’re covered in bug bites.”

  “Don’t you like it? You were born here.”

  He shrugged. “The Low Country is like family. Doesn’t much matter how you feel about it. It’s bred into your bones.”

  Her smile came and went as quickly as a cat’s-paw of wind. “It helps if you like it.”

  “I went hungry too often to like it.”

  “After your parents divorced?” she guessed. Absent fathers too often forgot about supporting their children.

  “Even before. Pa was a drinker, a mechanic, a plant thief, and a gator hunter. Ma was a waitress at a shrimp shack. Sometimes she stole food for us when hunting was lean.”

  Faith almost flinched at the deadly neutrality of Walker’s voice. “Good for her. What does a plant thief do?”

  “Steal plants.”

  “From?”

  “Marshes. Swamps. Government land, mostly. Wherever the rare plants grow, the endangered species, the ones people will pay money to collect or to grind into folk remedies for everything from gallstones to brewer’s wilt.”

  “Gallstones, I know about. Brewer’s wilt, I don’t.”

  “That’s when too much beer wilts what a good ol’ boy is most proud of.”

  Faith blinked, then laughed as she understood. “Brewer’s wilt, huh? Never heard it called that. So your dad helped out men where they, um, needed it the most.”

  Walker’s smile flashed briefly. “Looked at that way, he was a real do-gooder. Pa figured the various government agencies had enough plants so that they wouldn’t miss a few here and there. Mostly they didn’t.”

  “What happened when they did?”

  “Ma worked double shifts until the fine was paid or Dad got lucky hunting gators.”

  “Which was also illegal, right?”

 
“You bet. They paid real good, though. Tasted good, too.”

  “So does anything, if you’re hungry enough.”

  “We were hungry enough to eat mud. I had a trapline when I was six. What I caught, we ate. When the traps were empty I caught the kind of licking that taught me not to come home without food for the table.”

  She heard the simple truth underneath Walker’s casual tone. The thought of him as a lonely, skinny boy haunting the swamps for anything edible sent a shaft of sadness through her. She didn’t like thinking of him as hungry, poor, caught between a drunken father and the need to survive.

  “It got a little easier after Lot was old enough to have a trapline of his own,” Walker said, remembering. “Then I could concentrate on hunting. Pa wasn’t much account when he was drinking, but sober he was a fine hunter and a better mechanic. He took off for Texas when I was twelve. Said he would come back and get us when he found work.”

  “Did he?”

  “Find work?”

  “Come back.”

  “What do you think?”

  “I think you didn’t see him until your mother bought you and your brother bus tickets to Texas.”

  “You’re learning, sugar.”

  She looked out the window, but she no longer saw the countryside. She kept thinking of a young boy taking on the swamps and bayous and marshes in order to eat.

  “Don’t look so grim,” he said finally. “It sounds worse than it was. Lot and I had some fine old times hunting and fishing and hell-raising. We weren’t long on polish, but we knew the country better than the teacher’s pet knew multiplication tables. When Steve was riding a mean, Lot and I just went out in the swamp until he was too drunk to make a fist.”

  “Your mother’s boyfriend beat you?” Faith heard her own shock and said quickly, “I’m sorry. That’s sounds so naive. I’m not. Not really. It’s just the thought of a man raising his hand against children and their own mother allowing it…”

  Walker shrugged again, although it cost too much to be casual. He had never understood his mother. In time, he had given up trying. “Ma needed a man nearby, and she didn’t mind a drinker. That’s why when it came time to choose, she chose that drunken, woman-beating son of a bitch.”

 
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