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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.25
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.25

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  Anything but this.

  Taking care to avoid all the squeaky boards, Jeff went down the hall to his father’s room. Boomer padded alongside, pleased to have company in the middle of the night. Behind his father’s door, thick snoring vibrated through the walls. Jeff knew the Marine Marching Band wouldn’t have awakened Davis Montegeau.

  The door was closed, but the crystal knob turned beneath Jeff’s damp palm. He had a flash of memory more than thirty years old… a young boy racing down the hallway, pursued by nightmares, flinging himself through the door. His parents welcomed him, held him, soothed him, tucked him into bed between them. His mother smelled of jasmine, his father of the seaweed fire he had built to steam crabs and corn for a beach picnic that night. The child snuggled between his parents’ big bodies. With his hand cradled in his father’s, he slept deeply, certain that he was safe.

  God, it was so long ago.

  And it was yesterday. He could close his eyes and smell the powdery jasmine scent of his mother. He understood her absence, her death, but he didn’t understand where that boy had gone.

  Or where the boy’s father had gone.

  “Daddy?” he whispered.

  The oblivious snoring of a drunk answered him.

  Impatience and anger snaked through Jeff. Some of it was for himself. The boy of his memories was as dead as his jasmine-scented mother. Now the boy was a man with his own child to protect. And if the man wished he could crawl into bed right now with his parents as the boy had that long-ago night, too bad. The world wasn’t going to go away. Ever. That was what being an adult was all about.

  Abruptly, viscerally, Jeff understood why his father drank. It made the world go away.

  As his hand closed around the doorknob, he thought he saw something from the corner of his eye. He spun toward the pale blur that he had sensed more than seen.

  Nothing was there but the closed door of Tiga’s bedroom, and the doors of rooms that were no longer used. He looked at Boomer. The hound was completely at ease.

  Jeff let out a soundless breath. Though he had occasionally seen Ruby Bayou’s resident ghosts, he really didn’t want a spectral experience tonight. He had all he could handle and then some.

  Opening the door fully, he walked into his father’s bedroom. It reeked of stale whiskey. At a gesture, Boomer followed Jeff inside and flopped down on the thick rug.

  Quietly he shut the door and moved to his father’s bed. Nothing but the sheets had been changed since his mother died. The same perfume bottles reflected tiny shards of moonlight on the vanity table. The curtains with their big magnolia flowers and trailing vines were so faded that the pattern existed only in his memory. The rug was faded, too, but it had happened two hundred years ago. Like driftwood, the rug had a silver dignity that time couldn’t steal.

  It was a pity that men weren’t rugs.

  “Daddy,” Jeff said in a normal tone of voice.

  Nothing.

  “Daddy.”

  Still nothing.

  Jeff turned on the bedside light, shook his father, then shook him again. Hard. The snoring subsided into grumbling complaints. He kept on shaking the slack body that was so unlike the sheltering parent of his memory.

  “Wha1? Wha’? Jeffy, wha’ you want, boy? You have a nightmare?”

  Pain sliced into Jeff. He hadn’t been called Jeffy since he turned thirteen. Knowing that his father remembered him as a boy didn’t make the present any easier to bear. It made it worse.

  “Wake up, Daddy. We have to talk.”

  Davis blinked, then blinked again. Slowly he focused on the face of the man who had once been his little boy. With returning memory came a desire to escape back into sleep or booze, whichever blacked him out first. He rubbed his gritty eyes and tried to get past the dead skunk taste in his mouth. He didn’t have nearly enough saliva to do the job.

  “Need a drink,” he muttered.

  “That’s the last thing you need,” Jeff said impatiently.

  “Need a drink!”

  “We need to talk about how to raise the money for Sal. going to mortgage Ruby Bayou, the shrimp boats, the jew-store – whatever it takes.”

  Davis looked at Jeff as though he was speaking in tongues. “You can’t.”

  “Watch me,” Jeff shot back. “That’s what power of attorney means.”

  Davis shook his head, winced at the lancing headache, and said simply, “They’re already mortgaged.”

  For a moment Jeff didn’t believe it. “The land, the house, the boats, the-”

  “Everything,” Davis interrupted hoarsely. “That’s how I raised the money to go into partnership with Sal.”

  Jeff looked around the room as though it already belonged to somebody else. If he didn’t carry out his father’s bizarre scheme, it would. He would be forty years old with no job and a crazy aunt, a drunken father, and a pregnant wife who all depended on him for food and shelter.

  The jaws of the trap snapped shut hard enough to make his bones ache.

  Davis groaned. Too many memories, each one sharper and more painful than the last. “I really fucked up, Jeffy.”

  Something like grief twisted through Jeff, but he couldn’t afford it. He had a woman and child to think about. Unlike his father, they were innocent.

  Yet they would pay along with the guilty.

  “Yes, Daddy. You really fucked up.”

  Davis didn’t hear. He had dropped back into his drunken stupor. Before Jeff left the room, snores were shaking the air.

  It was after midnight when a dark figure slipped through the shadows of Ruby Bayou. Nobody upstairs heard the muffled crack of glass and old wood giving way to blunt force. Nobody heard the dark fumbling as four-by-five-foot Montegeau portraits were lifted off the library wall and left leaning drunkenly against the old, polished wainscoting. Finally the cool steel of the safe came through the person’s thin rubber gloves. Sensitive headphones picked up the secret slide and click of tumblers.

  Left. Right. Left. Missed it.

  Left. Right. Left. Now right again.

  Click.

  The big safe door opened for him like an old lover. With trembling hands, he raked around the interior.

  He found nothing but paper, a heavy Bible, and air.

  With a muffled sound, he dragged out the papers and dropped the Bible on the floor. Nothing met his frantic, searching fingers but the smooth steel walls of the safe.

  Empty.

  Completely. Empty.

  With the silence of a man raised hunting in the dark, Walker moved along the upper gallery just as the first light of day started to tint the eastern sky. The luminous pink-coral color reminded him of Faith’s nipples all wet and proud from his mouth. The memory sent both heat and ice through him. The heat was easy to understand, for he had never enjoyed a woman as much as he had Faith. The ice came from the same source: He had no business becoming her lover. She was a woman for sunlight and babies. He was a man for the night, responsible for no one but himself, hurting no one but himself with his mistakes.

  Walker paused and listened for the click of a dog’s nails on wood. He didn’t think Boomer would worry about a restless guest, but he sure didn’t want to surprise the hound into baying. The house was silent. Boomer was either sleeping hard or out chasing something in the swamp.

  Walker eased out onto the gallery that ran along the face of the second story. Moving with great care, he went to the place he had selected earlier. Beyond the house, lost in darkness, spread the garden and the bayou, marshes and sea. In front of him, a blacker piece of night, stood an old oak tree.

  Lightly he went over the railing and settled his weight onto a thick branch. Resurrection ferns crunched and crumbled softly beneath his weight. Soon he was against the trunk, feeling with his foot for the next branch down. Like riding a bike, tree climbing was a skill no one ever forgot.

  He dropped to the ground with a gentle thump. The air was cool and damp, smelling of sea and earth. No songbirds trilled. No frogs
sang throatily for mates. Even the crickets were quiet. Nothing disturbed the silence but the raw cry of a seagull and the distant cawing of crows as they rose from their nighttime roost.

  A wide, sandy beach lay just a hundred yards from where Walker stood, but there was no sound of surf, for there was no wind to build waves. Hushed, seamless, expectant, the air seemed to hold its breath in anticipation of dawn.

  With the ease of long practice, he became part of the landscape. He didn’t need fancy camouflage clothes or high-tech equipment to blend in. He simply wore a slate-colored shirt and black jeans that were old and so soft they had become silent. The rest was a matter of skill and patience. He had both.

  He also had a gunnysack full of peace offerings for the FBI.

  Even in the darkness, it took Walker less than ten minutes to find where the surveillance team had made its cold camp. The watchers were right where he would have been if he had their job – on the dry land above high-tide line yet below the worst tangle of vegetation. The position gave them a view of the long, winding driveway and the floating wharf where two battered oyster skiffs were tied in the brackish water of Ruby Bayou. No one could come or go without being seen.

  One of the agents was rolled up in a light sleeping bag behind a screen of brush. Another blended perfectly into the scrub but was betrayed by the sounds he made as he pissed vigorously against the thick trunk of a palm. Being polite, Walker waited until the sounds stopped before announcing his presence.

  “Mornin’ in the camp,” Walker drawled. “Rise and shine, gents. You’ve got company.”

  Agents cursed and dived for cover and their weapons, but they must have realized instantly that there was no danger. If the man out in the tangle of palmetto and trees had wanted a gunfight, they would already be dead.

  After a moment, a female voice called out from a position deeper in the palmettos. “Nice going, Farnsworth. Were you asleep or what?”

  “I was wide-awake, but I didn’t hear a thing,” Farnsworth called back. He turned toward the darkness where Walker stood. “Who the hell are you and what do you want?”

  “Put away the sidearms. I came here to talk,” Walker said dryly.

  “Do it,” the woman said wearily. “It’s too dark to shoot anyway.”

  Farnsworth let out a disgusted curse. The sound of steel sliding into leather was soft but quite distinct. So was the sound of a zipper being yanked upright.

  Walker stepped into the open, carrying the half-full gunnysack. He made sure his hands were in full view.

  “Have a care coming out of those palmettos, ma’am,” Walker said when he heard rustling sounds. “They can slice like knives.”

  “No shit,” she muttered.

  Walker managed not to grin. Barely. “May I give you a hand?” he asked neutrally.

  “Shove it, cowboy.”

  “I’ll pass on your kind offer, thanks just the same,” he drawled.

  The man named Farnsworth swallowed a snicker. It had been a long time since he had seen his spit-and-polish partner looking less than professional. He rather liked her this way.

  Cindy Peel clawed her way out of the vegetation and stalked toward Walker. She was about five foot six inches tall and wore her salt-and-pepper hair in a short, no-nonsense cut. She was mad as a cat in a rainstorm.

  She looked familiar. She was. Walker had last seen her in the Savannah restaurant, but she had been dressed quite differently. Then she had worn a businesslike dark jacket, cream blouse, and dark skirt. Now she wore a dark all-purpose coverall of the sort that most agents carried in the trunk of their cars. The Bureau uniform of suit and shiny shoes was still required for the office, but the practical agent expected to encounter messy crime scenes and unlikely beds on stakeouts.

  But Walker doubted that the surveillance team had come prepared for a night in the scrub. That was why he was counting on the barter value of the goods in his gunnysack.

  Peel swept debris and dirt off the legs of her black coverall. “Big help, Pete. Real big. Get your beauty sleep?”

  Farnsworth held up his hands in self-defense as he approached her. “Honest, Cindy, I was wide-awake.”

  “He was, ma’am,” Walker said.

  “How do you know?” she retorted.

  “A man his age doesn’t usually piss in his sleep.”

  “Oh, good, a comedian. This is my lucky day.”

  “It could be,” he agreed, “if you feel like exchanging a little information.”

  “Information? About what?”

  “About why you’re here.”

  “I’d sooner have a root canal without anesthesia.”

  He wasn’t surprised. The FBI wasn’t noted for their eagerness to share information.

  In the increasing light, he could see dark, thin scratches on the backs of her hands, palmetto cuts. “You’re bleeding, ma’am.”

  “It’s a long way from my heart.”

  Walker grinned. “Archer says that from time to time.”

  “Archer who?” Peel asked.

  “Faith Donovan’s older brother, the guy I work for.”

  “Faith,” Peel muttered. Then the morning haze in her brain cleared. “Faith as in a woman’s name rather than a religious belief. Faith Donovan. She was with Melany Soon-To-Be-Montegeau at the restaurant. Are you the guy with the famous cane? Savannah PD is still talking about the damage you’ve caused.”

  “I left the cane at the house,” Walker said.

  “Then your name is Owen Walker,” Cindy said curtly. “What’s your relationship to the Montegeaus?”

  “If you know my name, you know as much as I do about my background. The FBI is real thorough about things like that.”

  “What makes you think we’re FBI?” she demanded.

  “What makes you think I’m stupid?”

  Walker’s voice was so gentle that at first the agent didn’t believe she had heard correctly. Then the strengthening light gave her a decent look at his eyes. She swore under her breath. “Search that gunnysack, Pete.”

  Walker opened the sack. “Nothing in here but a peace offering or two,” he said. As though to prove it, he dipped in and produced a thermos bottle and a roll of toilet paper.

  The woman looked at the two items for a long time, then shook her head.

  “I hate it when the subject is better prepared than we are,” she grumbled as she snatched the roll of toilet paper from Walker’s hand and stalked away into the scrub.

  “Those coveralls must make things tough for a woman in the woods,” Walker said after a moment.

  Farnsworth looked up from the gunnysack. “Agent Peel is tough enough to piss standing up.” With a grunt that said he hadn’t found anything lethal, he handed the sack back to Walker.

  “I take it she’s the senior partner.”

  “You got it.”

  “Bright lady.”

  “You got that, too. Been with her two years. Someday she’ll run the Bureau.”

  “Is that before or after the Second Coming of Christ?”

  Farnsworth swallowed a laugh. “The Bureau has changed.”

  “And your name is Pollyanna.”

  The agent shook his head.

  Walker looked at the man whose features were slowly condensing out of the darkness. Farnsworth was perhaps forty-five, fit, with graying hair, shrewd dark eyes. He was about two inches shorter than Walker. He wore a coverall similar to his partner’s. The front was unzipped and Walker could see that he still wore a dress shirt and slacks underneath the coverall. His shoes would have been more at home on a tennis court.

  A low, blistering curse came from the bushes.

  “Hope she didn’t squat on something sharp,” Walker said blandly. “She might hurt it.”

  Farnsworth rubbed his mouth and tried not to laugh.

  Walker heard Cindy Peel crashing back out of the bushes and reached into the gunnysack. He produced two plastic cups that went with the thermos. He unscrewed the top of the flask and poured. The scent of
coffee curled up like a promise.

  “Hope y’all like your coffee black,” he said.

  “I’ll take it any way I can get it.” Farnsworth took the cup, drank deeply, and sighed. “Thanks.”

  Cindy appeared out of the thinning gloom. “If you didn’t leave at least one cup of that for me, Pete, you’re fired.”

  “Plenty for all,” Walker said.

  He handed her a cup, then dug fresh fruit and a paper bag of leftover biscuits out of the gunnysack. The biscuits were still fresh enough to leave dark greasy spots on the brown paper bag.

  “Forgot the jelly,” Walker said. “Hope you don’t mind.” Then he waited while the agents wolfed down biscuits and fruit. They were on second cups of coffee before Peel looked ready to talk.

  “How long y’all been interested in the Montegeaus?” Walker asked.

  Farnsworth looked at Peel. She looked at her coffee, then at the man who moved like mist through the prickly landscape.

  “Denying it would be kind of silly,” she said carefully. “Look, Walker. We’ve vetted you. There are a few folks out there who say you can hold your mud. I’d appreciate if you kept our interest to yourself.”

  Walker said nothing. He simply watched Peel with eyes that were only now beginning to show a hint of deep, deep blue.

  “Word also is that you know how to keep a bargain,” she said, not quite asking a question.

  Walker nodded.

  She drained the last of the liquid in her cup and thought hard about how much she wanted to put on the table. Not everything, for damn sure. She had never met April Joy, but she had heard about her. A smart person didn’t get in that lady’s way.

  “No one mentioned that you make a mean cup of mocha Java,” she said.

  He smiled almost shyly. “Thank you, ma’am.”

  “God,” she muttered. “I bet there’s a whole world full of people who believe you when you smile.”

  “Yes, ma’am, I believe there is.”

  “Can the ‘ma’am’ routine. Where I come from, ‘ma’am’ is what we call someone when we’re trying to yank their chain. You trying to yank mine?”

 
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