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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.31
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.31

           Elizabeth Lowell

  At least there was nothing left to throw up in his bruised stomach but the blood he had swallowed since Buddy smashed his nose. Now his entire face was so swollen that he could barely see. The rest of his body joined in the chorus of agony that stabbed through him with every breath, every beat of his heart.

  Sal had watched the whole process with all the animation of a man watching paint dry. He hadn’t even spoken until Buddy began to stomp Davis, who by then was curled around himself on the floor.

  That’s enough, Buddy. The stuff he brought is worth a week’s interest on what he owes. But if I don’t have the principal, half million, in seven days, you can stomp him into tomato paste and spread him on a pizza.

  Tears of pain, hopelessness, and terror streamed down Davis’s face like blood from his split lip. The bumpy drive made him whimper. He kept going anyway. There were several dizzying times when he came close to passing out before he finally saw the big, decaying house. He hung on to the wheel and steered around to the rear.

  After a few fumbling tries he managed to turn off the engine. Then he looked longingly at the broad gallery that circled the lower floor. Only twenty feet to the house. Maybe thirty. Six steps up to the porch. Through the kitchen, out, turn in to the library.

  In his mind he could already see the clear bottle, feel bourbon’s hot oblivion searing away the taste of blood.

  But he couldn’t even open the car door. Through eyes glazed with pain, he looked up at the old live oak that shaded one side of the house. The moss on the thick, twisted branches looked dusty, and the resurrection ferns growing on the broad limbs were shriveled. Like him. Dimly he wondered if blood would revive the ferns even better than rain did.

  “Daddy Montegeau, is something wrong?”

  Mel’s light, sweet voice called out from the screen porch. The door slammed as she hurried down the steps to the car.

  He wanted to turn toward her, but it hurt too much. She opened the car door for him. “Oh, God! What happened?” she asked anxiously.

  With an effort, he summoned the energy to speak. “Fell.”

  “Can you walk?” Without waiting for the answer, Mel turned and shouted toward the house. “Jeff, come quick! Your daddy’s hurt!”

  Walker had caught Faith halfway up the path. He was still out of breath from his sprint when they both heard Mel’s cry through the scrub. Faith reacted out of instinct, gathering herself to run for the house.

  “No.” He grabbed Faith’s arm. “From now on you’re staying close to me.”

  “Just because that skiff drifted off doesn’t – ”

  “It didn’t drift,” Walker said curtly. “Somebody set it adrift. Somebody who followed you. Or me.”

  “But - ”

  “But nothing,” he cut in. “Give me your word you’ll stay close to me or you’ll find out exactly what tie and stuff means.”

  His eyes told Faith she would lose the argument. “Fine,” she said tightly. “Consider me your bloody shadow.”

  “I’m holding you to that.”

  He took her hand and together they broke into a run, heading for the house. Walker’s leg had begun giving him a twinge somewhere during his sprint through the sand. Now it ached, but he ignored it. As he passed the battered dock, he saw both skiffs tied off to a post, but he didn’t slow down. Ahead he could see Davis Montegeau’s big white Caddy parked carelessly on the grass. The driver’s door was open and Mel was trying to help Davis out of the car.

  “Mel, let me,” Walker said, pulling her aside. “You’re in no shape to lift anything.”

  “Jeff must be in the shower. He didn’t hear me when I yelled.”

  Walker hunkered down and took a good look at Davis. The man’s face looked like he had been hit with a baseball bat. He seemed to be barely conscious.

  Faith came and put her arm around Mel.

  “What happened?” Walker asked.

  “He fell,” Mel said quickly.

  Walker’s dark eyebrows lifted, but he didn’t say anything except, “Where?”

  “He had a doctor’s appointment in Savannah,” Mel said.

  “They got a funny way of drawing blood in Savannah,” Walker said neutrally.

  Mel made a nervous sound that could have been a laugh. “Daddy Montegeau? What happened?”

  Slowly Davis gathered his concentration. “Happened after the doctor. Going down to the river. Tripped.”

  Faith thought of the steep, narrow stairways down the bluff from Water Street to the river below. The footing was tricky at best and in some spots the cobblestones were lethal. Shaking her head, she bit her lip in silent sympathy. Davis was lucky he hadn’t broken his neck.

  Walker looked at the older man’s hands. They were trembling but unmarked.

  “Waterfront stairs, huh?” Walker said easily. “No wonder you look like you tangled with a truck. Let me help you move over to the passenger side. I’ll drive you to the hospital.”


  The women were surprised by Davis’s response. Walker wasn’t. It fit the picture growing in his mind.

  Archer wasn’t going to be happy.

  “Are you fixing to go inside soon, or do you want to sit out here awhile longer and get your breath?” Walker asked mildly.

  “I want a drink.”

  “I’m sure you do,” Walker agreed. “Doubt that you’ll keep it down, though. Your stomach is going to be twitchy for a time.”

  Davis groaned.

  “Hurt anywhere else?” Walker asked. “Your back?”

  Davis shook his head.

  “How about your kidneys?” Walker asked.

  The older man nodded. “Knee, too.”

  Walker wasn’t surprised. “Mel, why don’t you get my cane for Mr. Montegeau. Right now he needs it more than I do.”

  “Where is it?”

  “Last time I saw it, it was in the shorter skiff tied at the dock.”

  Mel hurried off down the path to the ragged little dock. A few moments later Jeff called from the house, looking for his wife.

  “Out back,” Walker called in a carrying voice. “Your daddy had a little accident. He’ll be needing help getting into the house.”

  Jeff appeared about thirty seconds later. His hair was still wet, his jeans were buttoned wrong, and he was barefoot and shirtless. He took one look at his father and went pale. “Daddy? Good Lord, what happened?”

  “We’ll go into that later,” Walker said. “Right now, help me get him to bed.”

  “A drink,” Davis said roughly.

  Jeffs eyes narrowed. “Looks like you already had more than enough.”

  “It wasn’t booze,” Davis said painfully. “Damn stairs.”

  “Uh-huh,” Jeff muttered.

  Together Jeff and Walker half carried, half supported Davis as far as the library. There they stretched him out on the couch. Faith came in from the kitchen with a pan of warm water and a wad of clean dish towels. She washed away enough blood to assess the damage to Davis’s face. Walker took his knife out of its concealed sheath and carefully slit his host’s ruined right pant leg up to the knee. It was swollen, bruised, ugly as a nightmare.

  “Got any ice?” Walker asked.

  Jeff headed for the refrigerator. With vicious jerks he broke ice cubes from their plastic trays and went back to the library.

  Mel arrived with Walker’s cane. She turned as pale as one of Ruby Bayou’s ghosts at the sight of her father-in-law’s knee.

  “Sit down, darling,” Jeff said as he wrapped ice in damp dish towels. “Daddy’s going to be just fine.”

  Faith gave Jeff a sideways look and kept dabbing gently at Davis’s nose and split lip. “Some ice would help here, too.”

  “Drink,” Davis said.

  “Water,” Walker said calmly. “If you keep that down, we’ll go on to something with more kick.”

  By the time they were finished cleaning up Davis, he had kept down a cup of water and a double shot of bourbon. While Faith gently stuffed a pillow und
er his head and Mel covered him with a colorful afghan, Walker led Jeff out of the library, through the kitchen, and onto the back porch where the women couldn’t overhear.

  “I still think we should take him to the hospital for X rays,” Jeff said unhappily.

  Walker shrugged. “X rays won’t show soft-tissue damage, and that’s where he’s hurting most.”

  “What about his knee?”

  “Wrenched but not broken.”

  “You sure?”

  “He couldn’t walk. But these guys were pretty careful. They aren’t through with your daddy yet.”

  Jeff started to talk, then stared. “What are you talking about?”

  “The rubies weren’t in the safe.”

  Jeffs eyes narrowed. “Is that supposed to mean something?”

  Walker bit back a curse. He had been hoping that Jeff wouldn’t play hard to get. “It means that whoever robbed your safe came away disappointed. No ruby necklace. There was enough inside to make the mob go away for a day or two. Maybe even a week. But they’ll be back.”

  “You’re making less sense than Tiga,” Jeff snapped.

  “Then listen up, boy. Your daddy is in deep shit with some real nasty folks. That’s why they beat him half to death.”

  Jeffs eyes widened. He rubbed his face as though to prove to himself that he was indeed awake. “No.”

  “If he had tumbled down cement stairs, he’d be bruised front and back. He’d have cut up his hands breaking his fall. But his hands are smooth as rose petals and the back of his head doesn’t have a mark on it. He’s been worked over by a professional. And he knows if he goes to a hospital, they’ll have to call the cops and he’ll have to answer their questions, not ours.”

  Jeff closed his eyes and struggled for self-control. “All right. I’ll talk to him.”

  “We both will.”

  “No. It’s none of your – ” Jeff clamped back the hot words and said stiffly, “That’s not necessary. This is a Montegeau problem.”

  “Wrong. Until Montegeau insurance covers that ruby necklace, it’s a Donovan problem.”


  “Shut up,” Walker cut in coldly. “Faith’s store was robbed in Seattle. The expo safe in Savannah was robbed. She was mugged. She lost three pieces of her art jewelry when your safe was robbed. All in all, I’m slam out of patience with this home-fried southern circus. Either I get answers or I give your daddy to some folks he won’t like any better than the ones who just worked him over.”

  For the first time Jeff looked past Walker’s open, amiable exterior to the man beneath. “Who are you?”

  Walker wasn’t in any mood for long explanations, so he went for the one that would cause the least questions. “Faith’s bodyguard.”

  Jeff swallowed. “I thought you were her boyfriend.”

  “So does she. It keeps things easier all around.”

  “I’ll just bet it does,” Faith said from the kitchen door, “sugar.”

  Shit. She was supposed to be in the library taking care of Davis. “I’ll explain later,” Walker said through his teeth.

  “Don’t bother. There’s a woman at the front door who wants to see you.”

  “Me?” Walker said.

  “You. Her clothes look like she’s been sleeping in them, but she has a really shiny badge.”

  Walker felt like kicking something. He had been hoping that the FBI would stay back in the swamp.

  Wrong again.

  “She asked for you by name,” Faith continued, smiling at Walker’s anger. “Said you knew her.”

  “At least it isn’t April Joy,” Walker muttered as he stalked past Faith.

  “How do you know April Joy?” Faith asked. “And why would she want you?”

  Walker didn’t answer.

  Faith had a feeling that it would be the first of many questions he ducked.

  Not that she was going to be asking any. She had the only answer that mattered.

  Cindy Peel thought about it for all of ten seconds before she arrived at the same conclusion Walker had: Davis Montegeau’s bruises weren’t a random collection gathered bouncing down a flight of cement steps. He had been worked over by a pro.

  “Who did this to you, Mr. Montegeau?” she asked.

  Davis gave her a sullen look. “I fell.”

  “They’ll be back,” Peel said. “Next time they’ll break both knees. You’ll spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair. Unless they decide to kill you.”

  She moved in closer, filling the old man’s view. She had confronted uncooperative witnesses before, but never with her own career so clearly on the line. April Joy wanted that ruby and she wanted it a week ago. Anyone who didn’t deliver it could expect a lifetime assignment in Fargo, North Dakota.

  Davis closed his eyes, shutting out the FBI agent. She couldn’t say anything he wanted to hear.

  Peel looked up at the other people in the room. “Does he have a lawyer?”

  Jeffs handsome face flushed with shame or anger or both. “Since when is it a crime to fall down stairs? Or to get pushed, if it comes to that?”

  “The FBI has documented your father’s dealings with two known members of the Atlantic City mob,” Peel said evenly.

  “What dealings?”

  Peel didn’t answer.

  “Land scams,” Walker said succinctly to Jeff. Then, to Peel, “You going to arrest anyone right away?”

  “I have probable cause,” she said. “It’s an option.”

  “Well, as long as it’s still just an option, why don’t you and Mel go make some coffee or something while I have a little heart-to-heart with the Montegeau men.”

  “What’s in it for me?” Peel retorted.

  “More answers than you’ll get when a lawyer named Samantha Butterworth gets here and advises her client to keep his bloody mouth shut.”

  Peel frowned, considering the offer. “Deal.” She gave Faith a cool look and asked Walker, “What about her? She doesn’t make coffee?”

  “She’s not leaving my sight until I get some answers.”

  Peel’s dark eyes narrowed. “Interesting.”

  “Yeah. Downright fascinating, I’m sure,” Walker said. “About that coffee .?”

  “I make coffee for no man,” Peel said. “But I’ll wait in the kitchen on one condition – Faith Donovan doesn’t leave the house without checking in with me.”

  “What?” Faith said. Her eyes went from summer mist to ice. “Who are you to tell me where I can or can’t go? I’m not the one who fell down the stairs. I don’t have any business with mobsters.”

  “You wish to make a statement to that effect?” Peel asked. “If you do, I’ll be glad to give you the opportunity… in more formal surroundings, like the Federal Building in Savannah, for instance.”

  “Is that an official request or are you just being a – ” Faith began.

  “Let’s try cooperation first,” Walker cut in, putting a hand on Faith’s arm. “It gives us a fallback position.”

  She swallowed the rest of her sentence, looked at him for a long moment, and nodded curtly.

  Walker looked at Peel. “You better have a reason for this. A real good one.”

  “I do.”

  “When I’m done here, you’ll tell me.”

  Peel thought of refusing. Then she shrugged. “I’ll check back with my supervisors. It’s up to them.”

  Walker hadn’t thought it could get much worse.

  Wrong for the third time.

  “Let’s go,” Peel said to Mel.

  Mel looked at Jeff with a question in her beautiful eyes.

  “Go ahead, darling. No need for you to be getting more upset.” He smiled and kissed her cheek. “This is all just a misunderstanding.”

  Mel ran her hands anxiously over the mound of her pregnancy, as though reassuring herself that something was still going well. She gave her fiance a smile that was as fleeting as the one he had given her, but like his, it was real. She kissed him, looked at him for
a long moment, and said to the rest of them, “Y’all call out when you’re ready for coffee.”

  As soon as Mel and the federal agent left, Walker put his hands on Faith’s shoulders and looked at her with a combination of regret and anger and hunger.

  “I want you over on the other side of the room, out of earshot,” he said. “That way you can’t be called to testify about anything.”

  “What’s going on?” she demanded tightly. “The less you know, sugar, the less chance you’ll end up talking to a lot of badges.”

  “Forget the ‘sugars’ and ‘darlings’,” she said in a clipped voice. Her eyes were like her tone, remote. “We both know why you’ve been close to me. I do hope you were getting overtime.”

  Walker’s temper went to flash point. He only had himself to blame. He knew before he ever touched Faith that he shouldn’t become her lover. He had been right.

  He wished being right made him feel as good as being wrong made him feel bad.


  “If I knew what was going on,” she said, talking over him, “maybe I wouldn’t need a bodyguard. Did any of you almighty males think of that?”

  He counted to ten. To twenty. Forty. “I take it you’re staying,” he said neutrally.

  “You take it right.”

  Walker turned his back on Faith and looked at both of the Montegeaus. He didn’t bother to disguise his temper from them.

  He smiled.

  Jeff backed up a step.

  “Good for you, boy,” Walker said gently. “You’re finally getting a handle on just what kind of trouble you and your daddy are in.”


  Walker walked over to shut the heavy library door. He came back across the room and stood a foot in front of the younger Montegeau.

  “We’ll start with the easy stuff,” Walker said. “Which one of you boys set up the robbery of Faith’s store in Seattle?”

  Both Montegeaus stared at him as though he had two heads and neither one of them was speaking English.

  “What robbery?” Jeff asked finally.

  Walker looked at Davis.

  The older Montegeau shook his head, winced at the result, and reached for the bourbon decanter. He splashed some into a glass and drank. It didn’t kill nearly enough of the pain.

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