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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.29
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.29

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  Like him, the FBI had night-vision goggles. Theirs were better than the ones he had picked up at the Savannah sporting goods store, but his were good enough, and certainly better than anything he could buy in Russia.

  But now, in the daylight, regular binoculars worked quite well. They didn’t even attract any attention from the locals. There were a lot of birdwatchers in the area.

  This way, little girl. Come to me. Closer. Closer. I promise you it will be quick.

  The smile beneath the binoculars was cold. Some promises were meant to be broken.

  Faith glanced around uneasily. The feeling of being watched had crept through her, overcoming the peace she had felt for a time. She was sure she was being watched, but the beach seemed empty for at least a mile behind her. With an impatient sound, she looked ahead. The beach soon gave way to marsh. She looked back over her shoulder again, where the sand stretched on for miles, empty but for a scattering of people strolling the tide line, taking in the warm winter day.

  Maybe that was why she felt watched. Ruby Bayou seemed very remote, but civilization crowded right up to its boundaries. If she went with the broad, inviting beach, she would soon encounter the condos, hotels, and private homes that lined the ocean side of Hilton Head Island. More people, but no inspiration, only concrete condos.

  Sun beat with surprising intensity against her shoulders as she turned away from the condos and headed down the beach toward the marsh. The calm water and strength of the sun kept taking her by surprise. She had been in Seattle too long. Tony had always wanted her to be handy when he came back from a trip, and his schedule was unpredictable. So she had stayed in one place and lost touch with the rest of the world.

  Faith took in a deep breath and blew it out, cleaning the past from her mind. She had chosen to do as Tony asked, always, because she believed that was the way to make their relationship work.

  Bad choice.

  Never again would she settle for a relationship where respect and understanding were a one-way street. She knew now what it was like to have respect flow both ways.

  Like Walker respecting her jewelry designs. Like Walker seeing her sadness and holding her instead of scolding her for sulking.

  Like her holding Walker and understanding him even when it hurt. Like making him laugh when his eyes were haunted.

  A two-way street.

  Too bad it was such a short street.

  The sharp edge of a shell dug at her bare foot, reminding her that she should look where she was going, not where she had been or where she couldn’t go.

  She leaned down to pick up the fragment and saw that it was the top of what had once been a whelk. The spiral design of the shell was elegant, like a tiny galaxy spinning against a vast universe of sand. Much of the shell had been broken by tumbling storm seas, but enough remained to reveal the smooth, shiny, curving center that had once supported life. The inner colors were neither peach nor cream, but a luminous mixture of both, like sunrise.

  The first, niggling possibility of a design began to form in Faith’s mind. She was hardly aware of it. She simply stared at the lustrous fragment as though it contained the answer to an urgent, wordless question.

  After a time she put the shell in the pocket of her jeans and walked along the edge of the sea. She made slow progress, because she kept spotting fascinating fragments of shells, shapes that teased her with their mute poetry.

  Then, just above the waterline, she came across a long, twisting ribbon of shells. They looked like fragments, yet when she crouched down to examine them more closely, she discovered that they were whole, nearly perfect miniatures of the larger pieces she had already found. Their balanced beauty was breathtaking, a thousand thousand tiny ballerinas spinning gracefully to music only the dancers could hear.

  If she could have described the tiny shells in words or song, she would have. But she couldn’t. She could only absorb them and let them shape her dreams and designs.

  “I knew they would draw you, precious,” said a woman’s soft voice.

  Faith’s heartbeat doubled when she felt something caress her hair as lightly as a breeze. She shot to her feet and spun around. She was close to where the beach merged with the marsh. The gentle voice and touch belonged to Tiga Montegeau.

  “My God,” Faith said, putting her hand over her heart, “you scared me out of my skin.”

  Tiga smiled. Her graying blond hair lifted in the faint wind like mist off a midnight bayou. Her eyes mirrored the humid, shimmering sky, both shallow and bottomless, unfocused, a pale color that shifted from gray to blue with every turn of her head.

  “No need to fear,” Tiga murmured, touching Faith’s cheek as though they were mother and daughter rather than near strangers. “You know I’d never hurt my precious little baby.”

  Faith opened her mouth to point out that she wasn’t Tiga’s precious little baby. Then she remembered Mel’s advice: Just treat her like a pet cat. If she wants to talk to you, listen and try not to look confused.

  “Of course you wouldn’t,” Faith said reassuringly. “I just thought I was alone.”

  “Silly, sweet child.” Sun-browned, saltwater-toughened hands repeated the ghostly caress over Faith’s hair. “We’re never alone. Your great-granddaddy hung a man just over there,” she said, pointing to an ancient oak growing back toward the house. “You can still hear him screaming when the moon is dark. Guess he didn’t like it.”

  Faith couldn’t think of any response.

  Tiga didn’t notice. “Up yonder,” she said, looking toward the marsh and its still, black water, “a girl drowned. Least, folks think she did. She came thirteen and went oystering alone. When there’s moonrise and mist, you hear her calling like a bird, let-me-go, let-me-go, please-let-me, let-me-please.”

  Tiga’s soft fluting imitation of a ghostly bird made the hair at the nape of Faith’s neck stir.

  “She’s still there,” Tiga said, “let-me-go, let-me-go, please-let-me… Don’t know why she cries. Browning’s easier than hanging, least that’s what they say.”

  “They?”

  “The spirits, precious. You hear them.”

  “Actually, I don’t.”

  Tiga’s smile was sad enough to make Faith’s eyes sting with tears.

  “Of course you do, precious baby,” Tiga said, almost touching Faith, almost not touching. “You’re one of them. So am I, sometimes. Crying, dying, let-me-go, please-let-me…”

  The certainty in Tiga’s voice and eyes held Faith rooted. Desperately she tried to think of Tiga as a pet cat. It wasn’t possible. No cat this side of hell had such wise, unearthly eyes.

  “Sometimes they wear rubies,” Tiga whispered confidentially. “That’s how you know.”

  “Know?” Faith managed.

  “Your kin, precious baby. A bracelet wide, cold gold, souls fixed in gold by the hundreds, red tears, red blood. A circle, a crown of thorns, drops of blood at every point, blood frozen to ice and polished to shining, crying, sighing let-me-go, let-me-go.”

  Faith gave up trying to picture a chatty cat. Somehow that was more unnerving than simple human madness. And beneath the madness… pain.

  She wished that she couldn’t sense Tiga’s pain so clearly, like darkness at midnight.

  “A long ruby rope, burning hate, burning hope,” Tiga said, pinning Faith with her uncanny eyes, “twisting round and round, let-me-go, please-let-me. Souls as big as pecans, hanged in silver rope, swinging like dead men from her ears. They don’t cry, can’t sigh, dead as only a hanged man can be. The king of all, or even the queen, too big for a cat or a child to swallow, dear Lord, the red, and so cold, so old, surrounded by angels’ tears white as blood is red, angel tears for my dead baby. It speaks. To me. Find the rest of the queen’s court, the thirteen curves, the thirteen souls, the blaze of hope.”

  With startling speed and strength, Tiga’s fingers wrapped around Faith’s wrist. “You must bring it to me, precious. It belongs in the Blessing Chest, not a noose around your
neck. I can’t bear hearing you scream, let-me-go, let-me-go….”

  Faith did the only thing she could think of. “Of course I’ll find it,” she said in a low, soothing voice. “Will you walk with me now, back to the house?”

  Slowly Tiga’s fingers slipped away. As though orienting herself, she looked at the sea, then the sun, then the marsh. When she looked at Faith again, she blinked in surprise.

  “Hello,” Tiga said in a normal, if girlish, voice. “What are you doing here? Did you come to play with me? I’m so very sorry. I can’t. The crabs are waiting to be blessed.”

  Tiga smiled vaguely, turned, and walked back toward the marsh. Her strides were long, certain, the movements of a woman thirty years younger. Very quickly she vanished back up the path that led to the ratty skiffs at Ruby Bayou’s dock.

  Faith blew out a long breath, then another. She wished that Tiga’s conversations were completely mad, completely incomprehensible. But the woman’s eerie certainty of her own meaning turned her words into a language that only one person spoke. Sound and meaning, yet no possibility of understanding.

  On the other hand, Faith wasn’t eager to understand a world of hanged men and missing children and souls as red as blood locked in gold.

  The image of Mel’s engagement ring flashed into Faith’s mind, a bloodred ruby set in gold.

  Let-me-go, let-me-go, please-let-me…

  27

  “If your assistant interrupts you one more time, boss, I’m going to do something fatal to him,” Walker said mildly into the cell phone.

  Archer’s laughter cracked over the line. “Sorry. The trouble with working for yourself is you’re always at work.”

  Archer looked up as his assistant rolled in with coffee and a snack tray resting on the arms of his wheelchair. Mitchell passed the tray over Archer’s desk, spun the wheelchair, and left, closing the door behind him. “Okay, now that we’re on a secure phone and Uncle Sam probably can’t listen in, what the hell is going on at Ruby Bayou?”

  “Someone cracked the safe and cleaned it out.”

  “The rubies?”

  “Still next to the family jewels, but only the three of us know that.”

  Archer sipped coffee, took a bite of pesto bread, and thought. “So everyone but you and Faith thought the necklace was in the safe.”

  “Yeah.”

  “You think it was an inside job?”

  “The dog was drugged and the French doors leading to the library were forced.”

  “That doesn’t rule out an inside job.”

  “You’re cynical, boss. It’s one of the things I like best about you.”

  “Thank you. I won’t ask for the rest of the list.”

  Walker laughed. “Smart man. As for the safe, I think whoever opened it expected to find more than three of Faith’s beautiful designs.”

  “Damn! Three of her pieces are gone?”

  “I emailed Kyle the inventory numbers. He said he’d put out photos and warnings where it would do the most good.”

  “The insurance company isn’t going to like that.”

  “Neither do I. I could have told her not to put anything in a safe that’s as old as Methuselah.”

  “You think she would have listened?”

  “Anything is possible,” Walker said wryly. “But I wanted to go fishing and I let her use the stuff as bait.”

  “Explain.”

  “Someone wants those rubies real bad. First that Russian shows up looking for a fairytale ruby in Faith’s Seattle shop. He cases the place, watches awhile to be sure, then goes back and drills out the safe. No necklace, because I was wearing the damn thing.”

  “Back up. A fairytale ruby?”

  “Ivanovitch described a ruby that probably never existed, and even if it did, hasn’t been seen for centuries.”

  “So you think he was just fishing for an excuse to get inside Faith’s shop?”

  “That’s the most likely scenario. If he asked for the necklace outright and then it went missing, he would have a lot to explain. This way we’re linking him with something that likely didn’t exist – the Heart of Midnight – instead of with the Montegeau necklace.”

  “Okay.”

  “If that scenario doesn’t work, I’ll move on to the others. You want to hear them?”

  “Only if the first scenario goes bad. All right, we’re assuming the Montegeau necklace is the target.”

  Walker winced. He knew as well as Archer that assumption was the mother of all fuckups.

  But you had to start somewhere.

  “They hit the bed-and-breakfast where they expected to find Faith, then the exposition safe, and then they mugged Faith trying to get the necklace,” Walker said. “Nobody outside of that Russian has said a word about the Heart of Midnight, so the necklace sure seems to be the real target.”

  Archer made a sound that was closer to a snarl than a word.

  “Yeah,” Walker said, his voice dangerously calm, “I’m fixing to make someone pay for waving a knife at Faith.”

  “Sounds like you already did, from what Kyle told me about the jailhouse doctor’s report in Savannah.”

  “Has that boy been hacking into official computers again?”

  “Is he breathing?” Archer retorted. “From the official description of Buddy Angel’s bruises, contusions, and kidneys, he’s going to be whining like a kicked pup every time he pisses.”

  “He can cry on Tony Kerrigan’s shoulder.”

  There was a heartbeat of silence followed by Archer’s opinion of his sister’s ex-fiance.

  That was another thing Walker liked about his boss. He could speak gutter Afghani like a native.

  “When did you see that son of a bitch?” Archer demanded, reverting to English.

  Multiple phones rang in the background at Archer’s office. He ignored them.

  So did Walker. “He turned up during the show. Said he wanted to talk about old times.”

  “Christ.” Archer’s free hand curled into a fist. “Did he bother Faith?”

  “Nope. I introduced myself, we shook hands, went outside to chew the fat, and then I paid for a cab to take him where he belonged. And he only had one li’l ol’ broken finger when I was done.”

  One of Archer’s dark eyebrows lifted. He would love to read the rest of that official summary in its original long form.

  Like the way Tony had looked facedown on cement. “They don’t have cabs to hell.”

  “You’ve never been to Savannah.”

  “Kyle didn’t see a police report about it,” Archer said.

  “Hell in Savannah?”

  “No, your, uh, conversation with Tony.”

  “No fuss, no muss, no bother. It looked to all the world like some poor fool who was so damned clumsy with his cane that he tripped his big friend and then thrashed all over him trying to stand up.”

  Archer smiled, liking the picture in his mind. “Should I put a man on him fulltime?”

  Walker thought about it for a few seconds. “No need. If he gets in touch with her again, I’ll take care of it.”

  “Don’t get caught.”

  “Caught doing what?” Walker asked mildly.

  Archer snorted. “So the man I assigned to guard Faith is such a klutz he’s put two guys in the hospital. The Montegeau rubies are still safe despite numerous attempts to steal them. Three more of Faith’s pieces are stolen at Ruby Bayou, no one was hurt but the dog, and you’re voting for an inside job.”

  “Too soon to vote, boss. I’m still trying to figure out where April Joy’s Russian mafiya intersects with the Atlantic City mob, which is baying after Faith’s jewelry like hounds on a hot scent. Then there’s the FBI.”

  “The FBI? Oh, shit. I’d forgotten about them. Where does the FBI fit in?”

  “They claim they’re following Davis Montegeau, trying to nail Sal Angel any way they can.”

  “You don’t believe them.”

  Walker sighed. “Damn, boss, I’d sure like to. It m
ay even be part of the truth.”

  “But?”

  “But we had Uncle on our ass before we ever saw a Montegeau. Two agents followed us to the restaurant, badged the hostess to get a table, and didn’t leave until we did, even though Mel was still waiting for her car to be brought around.

  Yet Cindy Peel – the agent in charge – claims they were following Mel and got on to us after the fact.”

  “Not good.”

  Walker didn’t argue. He felt the same way.

  “Anything else?” Archer asked.

  “They’ve got Ruby Bayou staked out fairly well, but they claim they didn’t see anything unusual during the burglary. Course, they aren’t swamp rats, so they could have missed something. I sure got close to them easy enough.”

  Silently Archer absorbed the fact that Walker had tracked down the agents in the swamp. “Maybe they didn’t see anything because it was an inside job.”

  “Maybe,” Walker agreed. “The local sheriff seems to think Faith is good for it.”

  “What?”

  “I told him to check out Donovan International before he did anything he’d regret, like saying in public what he was hinting in private.”

  “Judas Priest, what a cluster-fuck.”

  “Don’t take it personally. I didn’t, and he hinted I could have done it, too.”

  “That’s it,” Archer said flatly. “I’m flying out.”

  “Stay with Hannah and celebrate the next generation. And congratulations, by the way. You’re a braver man than I am.”

  “I doubt that.”

  “I don’t. Marriage and kids scare the bejesus out of me.”

  On the other end of the phone, Archer kneaded his neck and raked his fingers through hair that already was rumpled. His office door opened. He turned to snarl at Mitchell, then saw Hannah. The smile he gave her transformed his face from dangerous to simply handsome. Silently he held out his hand to her.

 
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