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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.27
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.27

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  “Mel?” Faith cried. “Mel, where are you? What’s wrong?” The thought of Buddy Angel and a deadly Russian thug put wings on Walker’s feet. Halfway down the hall, he caught up with Faith and grabbed her arm. “What-?” she began.

  “Stay here until I find out what’s wrong,” he said curtly, cutting across her protest. “But-”

  “But nothing. This could be an ambush. They might be after you. Stay here.”

  “What about you?”

  She was talking to his back. He went down the stairway like a ghost. When he turned at the landing, light from a sconce spilled over him. She saw him draw the knife and shove the sheath into a hip pocket. There was a shadowy pattern of fading bruises just above his waistband at the small of his back. She didn’t know which shocked her more, the knife or the bruises.

  She started to call out to him. Then what he had said about an ambush registered. Her stomach rolled over. She bolted back to the bedroom, snatched the little canister of pepper spray from her purse, and raced downstairs on silent bare feet.

  Though Walker listened, he heard no second scream, no sounds of struggle. He was still wary. The old house was big enough to absorb all but the loudest noises.

  He sensed Faith coming up behind him. Furious, he spun around and glared at her. She glared back stubbornly. Her eyes said that arguing with her was useless.

  He hauled her close and said very softly into her ear, “Sugar, if you get any of that shit in my eyes, you won’t sit down for a week.”

  She nuzzled against his ear and spoke with equal softness. “If I get any of this shit in your eyes, sugar, you won’t be able to see to catch me for a week.”

  With a jerk of his head, he signaled her to get behind him. Her chin lifted, but she stopped trying to push past him in the hall.

  Together they slipped silently through the lower floor of rooms, listening. Together they heard a mutter of voices from the direction of the kitchen.

  Walker bypassed the library and headed swiftly for the back of the house. Faith was right behind him. The kitchen door was ajar. He put her on the hinge side and took the open side himself. They listened.

  “… dead!” Mel cried in a low voice.

  Faith started forward. A look from Walker stopped her cold.

  “No, he isn’t, darlin’,” Jeff said. “See? His side is moving real regular like.”

  “Are you sure?”

  Walker eased the kitchen door open to look inside. Mel and Jeff – wearing pajamas – were on the floor beside Boomer. The kitchen lights and the growing daylight showed Boomer stretched out on the linoleum like a thick, limp rug.

  “I’m sure,” Jeff said soothingly. “Give me your hand. Feel him move? He’s breathing long and deep. He’s just fine.” But there was an edge of worry in Jeff’s voice that he couldn’t entirely disguise.

  “Why didn’t he wake up when I tripped over him?”

  Letting out a long, soundless breath, Walker sheathed the knife and clipped it to the waist of his jeans.

  “Y’all got a problem?” he asked as he walked into the kitchen.

  Jeff jerked as though he had been stung. Mel just looked up, tears streaming out of her big brown eyes.

  “It’s Boomer,” she said simply, looking back at the dog. “He won’t wake up.”

  As Walker crouched over the hound, Faith followed him into the kitchen. The pepper spray was in the pocket of the shirt she wore.

  “Are you all right, Mel?” Faith asked, kneeling near her friend. “I thought I heard you scream.”

  “I was hungry, so I came down to the kitchen for some crackers,” Mel said without taking her eyes off the hound. “I guess I was so sleepy I didn’t see Boomer lying here. I must have yelped when I tripped over him. I know I screamed when I thought he was dead.”

  “I came running at the first scream,” Jeff said, stroking Mel’s shoulder as gently as she was stroking Boomer’s head. “Did you fall?”

  She shook her head.

  “You sure?” he pressed. “You didn’t hurt yourself or the baby, did you?”

  “I grabbed the counter so I wouldn’t fall,” Mel said. “Why won’t he wake up?”

  Walker examined the hound with gentle hands. “No blood. No swelling or broken bones that I can feel. Heartbeat is steady if a bit slow. Same for his breathing. Seems okay, but you should call a vet.”

  When Walker stood, he signaled quietly to Jeff to follow. The other man hesitated, looking at his fiance, before he got reluctantly to his feet.

  “Stay with Mel,” Walker said quietly to Faith.

  She nodded.

  As soon as the kitchen door closed behind Jeff, Walker asked softly, “Have you been poisoning varmits lately?”

  Jeff shook his head. “There’s nothing worth saving in the garden, and there’s not enough poison in Hilton Head to keep the house clean of mice.”

  Walker grunted. “Where’s the nearest phone?”

  “Library. I’ll show you.”

  “I think ol’ Boomer was drugged,” Walker said as he followed the tall blond down the hall.

  Jeff stopped in his tracks in the library doorway.

  Walker looked past him into the room. “And I think I see why.”

  He went to the wall where Black Jack Montegeau’s huge picture stood propped against the wainscoting. On the wall above, the door to the big, rectangular wall safe stood half-open. Papers and an old family Bible were scattered around.

  A pair of small headphones dangled from the safe handle, as though they had been set aside and then forgotten after their job was done. Thin cables ran from the headphones to a small rubber suction cup that had been used to attach an amplifier to the safe.

  Archer used a set of earphones just like that when he had occasion to get in somebody else’s safe. To his credit, it didn’t happen very often.

  “Call the sheriff,” Walker said after a glance into the safe. “Looks like you’ve been cleaned out.”

  25

  The veterinarian had come and gone, but the patrol deputies were busy breaking up a family brawl in one of the fancy waterfront condos. So it was Sheriff Bob Lee Shartell himself who walked up the back steps of Ruby Bayou. He was flanked by his chief deputy, a laconic snuff chewer named Harold Bundy.

  By then, everyone except the senior Montegeau had showered and dressed. Davis still hadn’t hauled himself out of bed. Jeff was relieved. It wouldn’t take a sensitive nose to smell alcohol on his father, which would only add to Davis’s growing reputation as a drunk. The island was a small place. Word would spread quickly, making it all the more difficult to resurrect the family status.

  Fortunately, Tiga hadn’t made an appearance yet. Her loopy monologues would just add to the gossip.

  The vet had revived Boomer with a shot of something that encouraged him to give a groggy woof when lawmen knocked at the back door.

  “Quiet, Boomer,” Jeff said sharply. “You’ll wake up the rest of the house.”

  Walker gave Jeff a glance. Despite the expensive slacks and freshly pressed shirt, he looked edgy as a cat in a wolf pack. Not that Walker blamed him. Being dragged out of bed at dawn by your lover’s scream, then finding your dog drugged and your home burgled, wasn’t a great way to start the day.

  But Faith was the one who should have been snapping at everyone in sight. The stolen pieces could be paid for by insurance, but they never could be truly replaced. Despite that, she had kept her worries to herself and had spent her time soothing her friend, since Jeff seemed too upset to do it himself.

  Boomer woofed again and tried to get to his feet.

  “Stay,” Walker said, his voice as calm as his hand pressing the dog’s head back to the floor. He pulled the blanket into place again, covering the big hound’s shoulder. “Take it easy, boy. Right now you just need to sleep off your drunk.”

  Boomer huffed, grumbled, and gave Walker’s hand a sloppy lick. He stroked the hound’s silky ears. They were warming up. The vet had been right. Boomer was alre
ady throwing off the shock of the drugs. He would recover quickly.

  “Sheriff Shartell,” Jeff said, opening the back door with a jerk, “thanks for coming out so early.”

  “It’s my job,” the sheriff said, “but I wouldn’t mind coffee if it’s handy. One of these days, folks around here will figure out if they want twenty-four-hour protection, they got to pay for more deputies. This here is my chief deputy, Harold. He’s taking over for Trafton, who finally got smart and took up bass fishing fulltime.”

  Harold nodded toward the civilians. The deputy was a long, lean drink of water. The sheriff wasn’t. He had been a varsity wrestler in high school. Forty years later, his stocky frame was thicker and his light brown hair had thinned to gray wisps. The forty years had also added a measuring edge to his blue eyes and ready smile.

  As always, the sheriff admired Mel’s casual elegance. Though she wore nothing fancier than dark maternity slacks and a. loose red blouse, she looked like a duchess visiting the downstairs help. The kitchen itself was as big as most apartments and showed all the scuffs and odd angles of a room that had been remodeled with every generation except the last. The floor was hardwood and the appliances were thirty years old, scrubbed clean as a young hound’s tooth.

  “Morning, Miss Buchanan,” the sheriff said, touching his hat to Mel, who was sitting on a kitchen chair near the blanket-wrapped hound. “How’s the dog?”

  “Getting better all the time,” Mel said, trying to smile. It wasn’t a very successful effort. “How are your wife and grandchildren?”

  “Susie’s tolerable and the kids are hellions.” He grinned. “Everyone says the older boy is just like me. What did Dr. James say was wrong with the dog?”

  “Sleeping pills,” Jeff said curtly. “But not enough to hurt him.”

  “That’s real good. A lot of these burglars don’t care if they kill a good dog on the way to the money.”

  Jeff flinched. “Have you had many burglaries lately?”

  The sheriff shrugged. “Lots of new money on Hilton Head. Money attracts thieves. We keep busy. First time one of the old places has been hit, though. Sure do hope it’s not a trend. Scare some of those old widow grannies near to death to find someone creeping around their prize silver.”

  “I’ll get the coffee,” Mel said.

  “You stay with Boomer,” Faith said. “I know where the coffee is.” With a nod to the sheriff and his silent deputy, she headed for the coffeepot.

  The sheriff looked closely at Walker. Jeans that were neither new nor old. A well-used dark cotton work shirt. A look of easy strength and an intensity that could be either good or bad. A wooden cane that suggested some weakness that wasn’t readily apparent. “You’re a Walker, aren’t you? Owen and Betty’s boy.”

  “A long time ago.”

  “Not so long when you’re my age. You have the look of your father. Good man when he wasn’t drinking. That brother of yours always took after his mother’s side. How’s Lot doing?”

  “He’s dead.”

  The sheriff shook his head. “Can’t say as I’m surprised. That boy was hell-bent on destruction from his first step. Sure a good-looking kid, though. His smile could put the sun to shame. Pity he had no more sense than a duck.”

  Faith winced and set down the coffeepot. She knew it was painful for Walker to talk about his brother. “Cream or sugar?” she asked firmly, drawing the sheriffs attention away from the past.

  “Both, ma’am,” the sheriff said. “Double them up, if you don’t mind. I missed breakfast.”

  “Black.” It was the first word the deputy had spoken, but even that single word tagged him as an outsider. Worse, a Yankee. “Thanks.”

  The sheriff turned to Jeff and said, “Now, what’s been going on around here? And why don’t you start with yesterday. Any outsiders coming around, besides your guests?”

  “The wedding coordinator was here,” Jeff said. “Something about measuring the library and shrinking the flowers.”

  “Her little piano wouldn’t fit and it’s too late to tune the spinet that’s here,” Mel said, “so we’re going with taped music.” Nothing in her voice or expression suggested the disappointment she felt that their plans for a big Savannah wedding had fallen through. She was enough of a businesswoman to understand cash-flow problems.

  “That would be Miss Edie Harrison who’s doing the wedding?” the sheriff asked.

  “That’s right,” Jeff said almost impatiently. “We’re getting married in two days. I thought I made that clear on the phone.”

  “I understand that you’re a bit upset by all this, but it would help if you answered a few more questions. What time did y’all go to bed?”

  “Mel went to bed about ten. I went maybe half an hour later. She got up after dawn and went to the kitchen to find some crackers. She tripped over Boomer and screamed. I came running. So did Walker and Faith.”

  Nodding, the sheriff listened while the deputy took notes. “Who found the open safe?”

  “I did,” Walker said.

  “What did you touch?” the sheriff asked.

  “Nothing.”

  “You sure? Most folks would be fishing around in the safe just to see if it’s really empty.”

  “I watch television,” Walker said easily, shifting to let the cane take more of his weight. Nothing reassured a cop like the appearance of weakness. “Didn’t want to mess up the crime scene.”

  “Thank you,” the sheriff said as Faith delivered mugs of coffee. Shartell took a long swallow and sighed. She made a good cup of coffee, even if she did dress like a man in jeans and blue cotton shirt. “Just right, ma’am.” He turned back to Jeff. “Who went into the library first?”

  “I did,” Jeff said. “I wanted to use the phone to call the vet. Walker came with me. That’s when he saw the open safe and the – what are they, earphones? – dangling from it. He took one look and said we’d been robbed.”

  “Knew all about that safecracker stuff straight off, did you?” the sheriff asked Walker.

  “I knew the safe was open.” Walker smiled obligingly and leaned harder on the cane. “I assumed the junk hanging off the dial had something to do with it.”

  The sheriff made a sound that could have meant anything. “Where was the hound last night, out chasing coons?”

  Jeff shrugged. “He started whining about midnight, so I let him out.”

  “That happen often?”

  “Every time he can con one of us into believing he just can’t wait,” Mel said. “We’ve got it down to once a night, usually. I think Daddy Montegeau and Tiga just let him run at night, so he’s not used to holding it.”

  “Any sign of forced entry?” the sheriff asked.

  “We haven’t looked,” Mel said, startled. “I’ll-”

  “Sit down, darling,” Jeff said quickly. He went to her, tipped up her chin, and kissed her gently. “Let me take care of everything. I don’t want you getting upset.” He turned back to the sheriff. “Walker and I checked. The lock on the French doors in the library was broken.”

  “Anybody hear anything?” the sheriff asked.

  “The library is a long way from the bedroom suites,” Jeff said. “We didn’t hear a thing.”

  “How about your father or Miss Antigua?”

  “They’re still asleep. Or Tiga might have gone out already to check her crab pots and fish traps.” Jeff made an abrupt gesture. “If they heard anything, they would have awakened us.”

  The phone rang. Jeff turned away. “Excuse me. That will likely be our insurance agent.”

  Looking concerned, Mel followed her future husband out of the kitchen. Her voice floated back to the kitchen. “Was there anything valuable in the safe, Jeff? I thought it just held old papers and things.”

  “Nothing for you to worry about, darling.”

  The sound of their voices faded when the library door closed.

  “Mr. Montegeau told me on the phone that you left some jewelry in the safe,” the sheriff
said, looking at Faith.

  “Yes.” Her mouth flattened at the fresh reminder of her loss.

  “Valuable, I expect.”

  “Yes. I have photographs and written descriptions of each piece, as well as separate appraisals of the gemstones. I’ll give them to you, if it would help.”

  “That’s real handy, ma’am,” the sheriff drawled. “Most people aren’t that well prepared for a robbery. Should hurry up the insurance payment.”

  Walker’s eyes narrowed. He had had enough experience with small towns and local prejudice to know that outsiders were guilty until proven innocent. He might not like it, but he expected it.

  Faith wasn’t so understanding. She turned and looked Shartell right in the eye. “I’m a jewelry designer,” she said distinctly. “I always have photographs and descriptions for Potential clients. I came to Savannah for a trade show, looking for new clients, so I brought multiple copies of all kinds of Pertinent information.”

  The sheriff grunted.

  “She was the only designer west of the Rockies invited to strut her stuff,” Walker drawled. “Did real well for herself. Sold all but three of the pieces. Those are the ones she put in the safe,” he added, jerking his thumb toward the library.

  “The most valuable jewelry of the lot, I suppose,” the sheriff said.

  “Nope.” Walker shifted his weight on the cane and smiled like the country boy he once had been. “The high-ticket stuff went faster than ice cream in August. The small stuff was all that was left. It was a real moneymaking trip.”

  The sheriffs gray eyebrows shifted as he absorbed the fact that Faith might not have needed the insurance money. “So what are we talking about in the way of losses? A couple hundred? A thousand or two?”

  “More like sixty-eight thousand dollars,” Faith said. “Materials only. I’m still a relatively unknown artist. No insurance company is going to repay me for the months of work that went into the pieces. So when that burglar opened the safe, I lost three months’ pay and three designs. They can’t be replaced. They were unique.”

  “You aren’t an unknown artist, not after that show,” Walker said. “I’ll have a talk with the insurance folks myself. They’ll add a zero, maybe two, to get you fair market value.”

 
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