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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.28
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.28

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  She gave him a smile that loosened the tight lines around her mouth. “It’s not the money, it’s just…” She shrugged.

  “I know,” Walker said, taking her hand. He squeezed gently, reminding her that they had agreed not to mention the rash of burglaries and worse that had followed them through the South. He turned to the sheriff. “She’s just a little upset,” he said. “Nothing pisses a body off so much as being robbed.”

  “Sixty-eight thousand dollars. Hoo-eee.” The sheriff shook his head. “And that was just the smaller pieces?”

  “Correct,” Faith said, her voice clipped. “As Walker said, the trip was profitable.”

  “When did you put the jewelry in the safe?” the sheriff asked.

  “Ten. Just before I went to bed.”

  Frowning, the sheriff took another swallow of coffee. “Did Davis Montegeau handle it at any time?”

  “No. I did.”

  “Anyone see you?”

  Faith’s eyes narrowed to glittering silver-blue slits. “No.”

  “Anyone check it after you did?” the sheriff asked.

  “I don’t know.”

  “But you do know the combination.”

  “No. Jeff was worried about the jewelry. He opened the safe for me, then left the room. I put the jewelry in, spun the dial, shoved the family ancestor back into place, and went to bed.”

  The sheriff looked at Walker. “Where were you?”

  “Taking a bath. Eases the ache in my leg.”

  “And y’all heard nothing after that?” Shartell persisted, looking at both Walker and Faith.

  Being reminded about last night defused Faith’s anger. Remembering Walker and the delight of being thoroughly loved, she didn’t know whether to blush or lick her lips in pure feminine triumph.

  There had been sounds, all right, but not the kind that the sheriff was interested in.

  “Not until dawn,” Walker said, but he was remembering the same things Faith was. “Then she heard a scream. She got me up and we went downstairs. You heard it all from there.”

  “So no one heard anyone coming or going. Y’all just got up and the safe was open.”

  Walker nodded.

  The sheriff looked at Harold, who had been taking notes. Harold put away his clipboard and pen, swigged down the rest of his coffee, and waited for a signal.

  “Well, we’ll have a look at the safe and the door, but I gotta tell you, these cases are pretty tough to crack,” the sheriff said.

  “My jewelry designs are quite distinctive,” Faith said. “When someone tries to hock the pieces, they’ll be easy to find.”

  “Maybe, maybe not.” The sheriff finished his coffee and set the cup on the counter. “If the burglar is smart enough to use fancy gear to get into the Montegeaus’ safe, he’s not some druggie looking for a quick score. He’s clever enough to fence the unusual goods somewhere else.”

  “Then the sooner you circulate a description, the better chance you’ll have of solving the crime,” Faith said. “I’ll get the photos for you.”

  “Thank you, ma’am,” the sheriff said dryly, “but don’t get your heart set on seeing anything again. This ain’t TV. Out here, the bad guys yank out the stones, junk the settings, pass the stones on up the ladder, and set up the next break-in.”

  “You’re telling me that crime pays,” Faith said, her voice equally dry.

  “For a while, ma’am, for a while. Then, sooner or later, one of those clever boys gets drunk or high and brags to the wrong person. That’s when we nail ‘em.”

  Faith had the feeling that it would be later rather than sooner. A lot later.

  If ever.

  Walker eased through the scrub, heading for the agents’ camp. As soon as he was out of sight of the house, he walked openly. He hadn’t gone fifty feet when Peel emerged from the deep shadows beneath a pine tree whose needles were three times longer than her hair. She looked a little dustier in full light, and a lot more irritated.

  “What the hell is going on at the Montegeaus’?” she demanded.

  “Try talking to the local sheriff,” Walker said curtly. He had a gut full of badge-heavy cops.

  “Pal, I don’t talk to locals. They get a case of the ass every time a federal agent puts a foot on their turf.” She slapped at a mosquito. “Like anybody who had a choice would want a piece of this stinking swamp.”

  Walker tried not to smile at the agent’s discomfort. “I hear you. You interested in comparing notes?”

  “You show me yours,” she suggested.

  “Okay. Somebody cracked the Montegeau safe last night. Now it’s your turn. Did you see anyone sneaking around?”

  “Other than you?”

  Walker just smiled.

  “We didn’t see anything or hear anything until maybe half an hour after you left. Then we heard a shout or a scream, activity in various parts of the house. Fifteen minutes later a panel van pulls up. A woman gets out with a bag in her hand. She’s inside maybe ten minutes.”

  “A vet,” Walker said. “Somebody slipped the dog a Mickey Finn.”

  “While she’s there, Antigua Montegeau gets in one of those skiffs – don’t know why those tubs haven’t sunk, they’re half-full of water – and goes into the marsh. Twenty minutes after the panel truck leaves, the sheriff arrives. Nineteen minutes after he leaves, Antigua Montegeau comes back with enough crabs to feed an army. Forty minutes later, Davis Montegeau gets in his car and drives off.”

  “Is that where Farnsworth is, chasing Davis Montegeau?”

  “Pete’s watching the house.”

  “How many agents you have working here?”

  “As many as we need. What was stolen?”

  “Jewelry.”

  A subtle change came over Peel. She looked a little like a dog catching an interesting scent on the wind. “What kind of jewelry?”

  “What kind are you looking for?” Walker asked.

  “I can get it from the locals.”

  I don’t talk to locals. Strike two on Cindy Peel. Obviously somebody spoke to the locals and then to her. Walker wondered who, but knew that was one question he wasn’t going to ask, because it wouldn’t be answered. “The burglar, or burglars, took three pieces of jewelry that Faith didn’t sell at the expo.”

  “What kind of gems?”

  “Not the necklace, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

  Peel almost managed to hide her relief. Almost.

  Strike three, Walker thought with savage satisfaction.

  “That supposed to mean something?” she asked casually.

  “I can give you photos of the missing stuff, if you like,” Walker offered.

  “I’ll let you know.”

  “You do that little thing.”

  Walker turned and vanished into the scrub as quietly as he had arrived. He moved fifty yards through the brush, then withdrew into the shadows and waited, listening.

  At first he heard nothing but the faint whisper of air moving through winter-dry grass, saw nothing but the land itself. The dark green of a lone live oak and the dusty green of pines loomed like distant storm clouds above the golden grass and fading green of palmettos. The sky shimmered with humidity, a silver-blue that reminded him of Faith’s eyes when their bodies were locked tight together.

  The sensation of being watched nibbled at Walker worse than the bugs. Slowly, very slowly, he turned his head. Behind him, in a nameless finger of Ruby Bayou, chartreuse duckweed floated over still black water. Three turtles crouched motionless on a sunny, half-sunken log, their heads pointed toward the morning sun. The reptiles looked freshly scrubbed. The yellow accents on their heads were the color of newly minted doubloons.

  Marsh turtles were timid creatures. Nothing had disturbed these three for some time, neither man nor alligator. As if to confirm the impression, an egret glided in on angel-white wings. It settled lightly into the grass, waiting for something edible to make an unwary motion.

  The bugs had found Walker by now
. They buzzed and lit and bit with abandon. He ignored them. He had been bitten before. He would be bitten again. That was life in the Low Country.

  He waited with the patience of a hungry bayou hunter. No sound. No scent. No sudden flight of birds to give away human movement.

  Yet he was certain that he had been followed as he left the FBI agents’ camp. He was equally certain that neither Peel nor Farnsworth could move silently in the swamp. Maybe the agents had brought in a good Low Country man, but he doubted it. The FBI and the Low Country were about as likely to mix as granite and water.

  Ten minutes. Twenty. Thirty.

  Walker waited.

  Nothing moved but nature itself.

  “Must be losing my touch,” he muttered.

  He stepped out from the concealing shadows and started back to the house.

  Behind him there was a pale flash of white, the suggestion of movement sifting through shadows, and then nothing but a primal silence.

  26

  When Walker returned to the house, he found Faith leaning against the railing of the second-story gallery. The late morning sun spilled over the land and water in waves of very pale, shimmering gold. The sunlight was the exact color of her hair and the tears just barely spilling from her eyelashes.

  “Come here, sugar.” He turned her in to his arms and held her close.

  Her arms slid around him as though they had been together for years instead of days. She knew she should worry about that frightening ease, then reminded herself that this time she knew exactly what the game was, and the score. Walker was an honest man. He wasn’t looking for more than sex.

  But he was with her now, and she needed him.

  “It’s been a rough few days for you,” he said.

  She nodded against his chest, then sighed. “I wasn’t getting teary over that.”

  “Then what?”

  “Archer and Hannah just called.”

  Walker leaned back until he could look in her eyes. “Is something wrong at home?”

  “No. Something’s very right.” Tears glittering against her lashes, Faith smiled up at Walker. “They’re going to have a baby.”

  Although Walker shook his head, his smile was the kind that made her wish he wasn’t a solitary kind of man.

  “Always knew that boy was brave,” Walker drawled.

  “That’s male-think. It’s the woman who carries the baby and delivers it. All he has to do is pace.”

  “And think of everything that could go wrong, and how there aren’t any guarantees, and how it’s up to him to keep his family safe.”

  Faith tilted her head to one side and studied him for a long moment. “You’re serious.”

  “Amen.”

  “Walker, a man isn’t in it alone.”

  “What does that mean?”

  “Say you were confronted by two opponents, one a man who wanted to brawl and the other a woman defending her children. Which fight would you choose?”

  He tucked her head under his chin, inhaled the faint gardenia and sunlight scent of her, and wished that life was different. But it wasn’t. “Some women aren’t like that,” he said.

  His bleak tone was a caution. Faith remembered his mother’s failure to protect her children from a drunken boyfriend. She bit her lip with regret for all that couldn’t be changed.

  “Most women aren’t like your mother, or humans would have died out when meat eaters discovered how slow and tasty we are,” Faith said. “Who do you think defended the babies when the men were out hunting or off on some stupid Crusade? What do you think Honor and Lianne and Hannah would do to someone who threatened their kids?”

  Walker almost smiled. “Lianne would karate-kick the tar out of anyone who touched those twins wrong. Honor and Hannah would help her, if she needed it.”

  “She wouldn’t. She regularly dumps Kyle on his butt in workouts. She even throws Archer once in a while.”

  Walker laughed softly. “She’s a quick little thing. Fast thinker, too. Wonder if Kyle ever forgave me for seeing her near naked when she distracted those guards.”

  “I wouldn’t mention it if I were you.”

  “Sugar, I’m a lot smarter than I look.”

  “Then why are you afraid of kids?”

  He pulled back. “What are you talking about?”

  “You. You bring toys all the time, and you smile when you watch the babies, but a few days ago at the condo, Archer practically had to hold a gun on you to make you pick Summer up. Why?”

  “I’m not used to things that helpless. Makes me nervous.”

  “Helpless. Needy. Dependent. That’s how you see families. None of the laughter, none of the love, none of the sharing. That’s sad.”

  He shrugged uncomfortably. “That’s life.”

  “Your life. Your choice.”

  Walker clenched against the unexpected twist of pain in his gut. “I told you last night, Faith, don’t trust me that way. All I can give you is sex.”

  “Can, want to, in the end, there’s no real difference.” She looked up at him and managed a believable smile. “Don’t worry, sugar, I’m not designing matching leg shackles in my dreams. I know you don’t want any more than we already have. And I’m not complaining. I didn’t know it could be this good.” She turned her face against his chest and nuzzled the opening of his shirt. “Wonder if they’ll have a boy or a girl. Or even twins.”

  Relieved, Walker accepted the change of subject. “Lord save us. Twins are hell on four legs.”

  “Oh, Honor and I weren’t so bad. Justin and Lawe were the holy terrors.”

  “You stick with that story. Maybe your brothers will come to believe you.”

  Faith chuckled against his chest, then remembered the rest of Archer’s call. “Speaking of brothers, Archer wants you to call him. He said something about the ‘secondary trade,’ but he didn’t explain.”

  Walker hoped she didn’t feel the adrenaline sliding through him. The “secondary trade” was Archer’s code name for the Russian mafiya.

  “Did you tell Archer about the robbery last night?” Walker asked.

  She sighed. “He was so happy about becoming a father. I figured the bad news could wait.”

  “I’ll tell him. He’s used to bad news from me. Why don’t you slide back between the sheets and take a nap. You didn’t get much sleep last night.”

  “Neither did you.”

  Walker’s slow smile made her tingle.

  “I’m trying not to think about that, sugar.” He nuzzled her neck, then bit very lightly, very hotly. “If I do, Archer won’t be getting his call and you won’t be getting your rest.”

  “Promises, promises.”

  “You ever hear of a rain check?”

  “Yeah.”

  “I’m giving you a whole book of them.”

  Half an hour later, Walker was still trying to reach Archer. Faith gave up attempting to sleep and opened her sketch pad. After fifteen minutes of doodling, she put the pad away. She needed to look at new things, new patterns for inspiration. The old house was too steeped in time and emotion. It was hard for her to relax inside its walls.

  She felt watched.

  “Don’t be ridiculous,” she muttered under her breath. “No one’s here but Walker, and all he’s watching is the phone.”

  Even so, she pulled on her walking shoes and got ready to go out. When she found herself against a wall with her designs in Seattle, she aired out her mind in Seattle’s parks and along the waterfront. She could try the same thing here.

  She waved at Walker as she went through the sitting room on her way to the hall door.

  “Where are you – ” began Walker, but he switched in mid-sentence when an impatient voice came onto the phone. It was Archer, finally. “You need to clone yourself, boy. A man could grow old waiting to talk to you.”

  Softly Faith pulled the hall door closed behind her. She had been promising herself a walk on the beach. Now was a good time. Nobody needed her. At least she hoped
no one did. Mel had been looking too strained and pale. Understandable. No bride – pregnant or virgin – needed a household robbery two days before the wedding.

  Once downstairs, Faith was pleased to find herself alone in the big house. Apparently Mel and Jeff were taking advantage of the warm afternoon to catch up on sleep. Davis wasn’t back and Tiga had been gone all day.

  Faith liked it that way. She needed space, not people.

  Quietly she let herself out the kitchen door and took the path past the rickety dock and leaky skiffs, through the scrub, and across a shallow, sandy swale that was scattered with rough-edged saw grass. On the far side, the path unraveled in the loose sand, but now she could hear the hushed breathing of a gentle ocean and the muted cry of seabirds. She was getting close to her goal.

  She slogged up a sandy ridge and stood on top. The last of the sea grass stopped just short of the high-tide line, which was marked by a small lip of loose sand. The lip crumbled gently when she put weight on it and she half stepped, half slid onto the beach itself. Here the tidal action had mixed the sand with fragments of broken shells and packed it flat.

  The beach was fifty feet wide. Beyond it, the water was pale blue, surprising after the cold blue-green of Puget Sound. Wavelets no higher than her ankles lapped across the compact, water-dark sand. The smell of brine told her that she was looking at the Atlantic Ocean, but she might have mistaken its calmness for an inland lake.

  The quiet water fascinated her. This was open ocean, yet there were no breakers. If she had been on the western shores of Washington or on the ocean-facing side of the Olympic Peninsula, the waves would have been shoulder-high and thunderous.

  Kicking off her shoes, she went to the edge of the calm water and tasted it. Salt. The ocean, without question. She wiggled her toes against the packed sand. It was firm yet resilient, a perfect walking surface. As she turned and headed up the beach, exploring, the troubles of the past few days disappeared.

  Or so she thought.

  Several hundred yards up the beach, where the first condos became a solid glass-and-cement wall lining the water, light flashed off binocular lenses. The watcher sat just below the crest of the low row of sand dunes that separated the buildings from the beach. It was as close as a stranger could come to Ruby Bayou without being obvious. Considering the FBI team staked out in the rough scrub between the condos and the house, the watcher had decided that being obvious was a good way of getting arrested.

 
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