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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.32
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.32

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  “Don’t look at me,” Davis said roughly. “Hell, if I was robbing jewelry shops, I wouldn’t be broke, would I?”

  Walker stared at both of the men. They could have been lying like parlor rugs, but he didn’t think so.

  “Well, damn,” he muttered. “Archer was right. This is a real Charlie Foxtrot.”

  “Why would they want to rob my store?” Faith asked.

  Walker looked over his shoulder. “If you’re asking the Montegeaus, they don’t know. If you’re asking me, make a list and put it in your pocket. I’ll answer every one of your questions when we’re alone. That’s a promise.”

  Faith started to ask what good his word would do her, but she bit back the angry question. Walker might not have told her he was guarding her, as well as the rubies, but he hadn’t outright lied to her. If she had been too stupid to see what was in front of her face, it was her problem.

  “All right,” she said. “Later.”

  Walker saw the coldness in her eyes, heard it in her voice; but it was the hurt beneath the anger that made him feel like bayou slime. He turned back to the Montegeaus.

  “We’ll try something closer to home,” Walker said softly. “Who planned the burglary at the B and B?”

  Jeff gave him another blank look.

  Davis avoided Walker’s eyes and reached for the decanter. Jeff moved quickly, putting the bourbon beyond his father’s reach. Davis closed his eyes and sagged back against the couch.

  “Daddy?” Jeff asked.

  “I don’t know, boy.”

  Jeff pinched the bridge of his nose as though to give himself a pain that he understood. He wanted to believe his father.

  He was having a hard time.

  Walker had no such problem. He was certain the old man was lying.

  “Was it Sal Angel?” Walker asked.

  Davis didn’t answer.

  “The Donovans have some influence with the Feds,” Walker said. “We have good lawyers, too. We can help you or we can bury you. So let’s try it one more time, and if I don’t believe the answer, I’ll give you to the Feds and let them hang you high. Was it Sal Angel?”

  “He’ll kill me,” Davis groaned.

  “I’ll take that as yes.” Walker’s voice was as grim as his eyes. “Were they after the ruby necklace?”

  Davis looked at the bourbon.

  “No,” Jeff said in a low voice. “It’s too late for that.”

  “Yes,” Davis said hoarsely. “The necklace.”

  “Was it Sal who set up the expo robbery?” Walker asked.

  Faith stared at Walker but didn’t say a word. Anger seethed just beneath her calm. With every question Walker asked, he showed just how much he knew.

  And how little he had told her.

  She was used to highhanded brothers doing what they thought was best for her, but she made allowances because at least they loved her. Walker simply didn’t trust her to have enough sense to come in out of the rain.

  “I guess it was Sal or his partner,” Davis whispered. “Sal didn’t talk about that with me.”

  “You just told him where Faith was and when, is that it?”

  Davis nodded.

  “Did you know they were planning to murder her?”

  The shock on Davis’s face was just as real as Faith’s. She made a low, strangled sound and stared at Walker as though asking for a reason why people she didn’t know should want her dead.

  He didn’t have an explanation that would make her feel better. When she insisted on staying in the room, she bought in to the whole ugly mess. He hated that almost as much as he hated himself for not keeping her clear of it. She was too classy to be dragged through this kind of muck.

  But here she was.

  And here he was, doing the dragging.

  “I – I – ” It was all Davis could manage.

  Walker glanced at Jeff. No help there. The son looked almost as broken as his father was. With a silent curse, Walker realized that nothing about the situation was going to be clean or easy. Not one damned thing.

  He turned back to the elder Montegeau. “Did you set up the mugging at the shrimp shack?” Walker’s voice was as calm as a man discussing the weather.

  “This is ridiculous!” Jeff said. “Dad wouldn’t do anything that would hurt someone.”

  Walker’s head swung back toward Jeff. “Scared men do a lot of things they wouldn’t normally do. Your dad is scared to the soles of his feet. He has reason to be.”

  Davis shifted, groaned, and reached for the towel-wrapped ice that was sliding off his knee. Walker caught the ice, put it back in place, and waited with the patience of a hungry hunter.

  “I didn’t know about any murder or mugging,” Davis said shakily. “Honest to Christ.” Tears leaked from the corners of his eyes. “Nobody was supposed to get hurt. If the land had just sold faster, none of this would have happened. There would have been money to put in the golf course and the marina and then the rest of the lots would have tripled in value and we’d all be rich.”

  “But the lots didn’t sell faster,” Walker said, “and you went to Sal for money. Or was he with you from the start?”

  “He and Joe. Partners.” Davis covered his face with his hands. “No one else would lend me money and everything else was mortgaged twice and the land was going into foreclosure unless I closed the deal. It would have worked if – ”

  “The lots had sold faster,” Walker interrupted with little patience. So far he hadn’t learned anything new. “So the development went tits up and your partners lost money. How much?”

  “Quarter of a million. Plus interest. Half a million total.”

  Jeff shot his father a startled look. “One hundred percent interest on a one-year loan?”

  “That’s the thing about the mob,” Walker said. “They don’t report to the federal government. You borrow twenty bucks on Friday and you owe forty on payday.”

  “If the lots had sold – ” Davis began.

  “They didn’t!” Jeff said savagely. “They never do and you never learn!” Then he looked at his bruised, bloody father and regretted his temper. With a sound of frustration and pain, Jeff turned away. “Never mind. We’ll survive somehow. We always have.”

  “It won’t be on insurance money from the ruby necklace,” Walker said. “Because you were real careful not to be responsible for insuring it while Sal was trying to steal it.”

  Davis didn’t answer.

  “Was Sal going to split the money from the necklace with you?” Walker asked, then added dryly, “Minus extra interest, of course.”

  With a sigh, Davis nodded.

  “Christ, Dad, why didn’t you just sell the rubies and pay off Sal?”

  Davis closed his eyes.

  “Were you trying to avoid taxes?” Jeff persisted.

  Davis leaped for that answer as though it was a glass of bourbon. “Yes. Taxes. Don’t leave nothing for an honest man.”

  “Is that why the FBI is knocking at the door?” Jeff asked Walker. “Back taxes?”

  “There’s a whole other branch of the government that takes care of taxes,” Walker said. “But I’m thinking your daddy had a different reason for not selling the rubies.”

  “They were on consignment,” Faith said suddenly. “You can’t sell what you don’t own. But you can arrange for someone else to steal it and then split the money with them.”

  Walker looked at her.

  “It wasn’t a question,” she said coolly. “Or am I supposed to be as silent as the wallpaper you think I have the IQ- of?”

  By the time Walker sorted out her barbed question, Jeff was talking.

  “Any gems that valuable would go through the jewelry store’s books,” he said. “I’d have noticed inventory like that. I didn’t. Dad said they were from the last of the Montegeau stones, the ones that hadn’t vanished with the Blessing Chest.”

  Davis didn’t say a word.

  Walker was getting an idea he really didn’t like, one that wo
uld explain how April Joy intersected with two over-the-hill boys from the Atlantic City mob.

  Shit.

  “We’ll come back to the rubies,” Walker said grimly. “Right now we’re working on Sal. He came up empty in Savannah every time he tried to grab the necklace, even though you fingered Faith for him.”

  Wearily Davis nodded.

  “Whose idea was it to cancel the Savannah wedding and get married in Ruby Bayou?” Walker asked. “Yours or Sal’s?”

  “Mine,” Davis said tonelessly. “Sal told me to get Faith to Ruby Bayou or else.”

  “Figures. Did he give you the burglary tools to make it look like an outside job?”

  “Yes. Oh God, my knee’s killing me.”

  “Take more aspirin,” Walker said curtly. He looked at Jeff. “When did you get in on the fun, or were you in on it from the start?”

  Jeff looked at the bottle of bourbon as though considering a drink himself.

  “He didn’t know anything or do anything,” Davis said, struggling to sit up. “It was me all the way.”

  “You weren’t the one to talk Faith into leaving her jewelry in your safe,” Walker said.

  “I told Jeffy to do it and he did.” Despite the bruises and split lip, Davis managed to look defiant. “He didn’t know what would happen.”

  “So you drugged Boomer, jimmied the French doors, and opened the safe.”

  Jeff flinched.

  “Yes,” Davis said between his teeth. “So go call the Feds and tell them I robbed my own safe. I need a drink.”

  “That your story, too?” Walker asked Jeff mildly.

  Jeff poured his father a drink.

  “Nice story,” Walker said. “Except that Davis was too stinking drunk to crawl down the hall, much less to open a safe.”

  Faith looked at Jeff and remembered what he had said after she put her jewelry in the safe: I have to keep reminding myself that even if something happens, it’s the insurance company that loses, not us, and the good Lord knows they have money to spare.

  “It was you,” she said distinctly to Jeff.

  “It was me!” Davis insisted.

  She ignored him and watched Jeff with growing anger. “You played on my sympathy for you, all embarrassed over your father the drunk, so that I’d – ”

  “That’s enough,” Jeff snarled. He slammed the decanter onto a marble-topped side table with enough force to rock it. “Why should Dad care about justifying himself to a con artist like you?”

  “What does that mean?” Faith demanded.

  “The safe was empty when I opened it, that’s what it means,” Jeff retorted. “And you damn well know it! So let’s just bury the moral outrage. I’m sick of hearing it from a little scammer like you!”

  “My heart bleeds for you,” Walker said sardonically. “But don’t jump Faith. I’m the one who held on to the necklace. So you stole a hundred thousand in glitters instead of a million. Poor baby.”

  Jeff looked at Walker and then laughed hard enough to make his thick blond hair shake. “She got to you, too. Those big sad eyes and long legs and pretty lying mouth. Well, listen up, fool. There wasn’t anything in that safe but papers and the family Bible! Bet her insurance company would be real glad to hear it.”

  “That’s a lie!” Faith said instantly. “I left three of my pieces in there and now they’re gone.”

  Jeff gave her a disgusted look. “You stick with that story, sweet pea. We’ll see who’s buying and who’s lying. I know what I found in that safe. Nothing. Dad had to clean out the vault at the jewelry store to buy Sal off and they still beat him half to death anyway.”

  Faith looked from Jeff to Walker. “I put jewelry in the safe.”

  “The hell – ” began Jeff. A sharp motion from Walker cut off his words.

  “Keep your voice down,” Walker said. “If you accuse Faith again, of anything, you better have a running start. You listening?”

  “So you’re in on it with her,” Jeff said. “I wondered.”

  “Wondering is a good thing,” Walker said gently, “as long as you don’t wonder aloud.”

  Jeff gave him a bitter look. “The safe was empty.”

  Walker was afraid that he believed him. “Who else has the combination?”

  “Dad. Me. That’s it.”

  Walker looked at the elder Montegeau.

  “Forget it,” Jeff said. “When I went to try and talk him out of robbing our own safe, he was passed out and snoring fit to make the house shake.”

  “All right. Let’s go back to the interesting stuff,” Walker said.

  “Interesting?” Faith snarled furiously. “My missing jewelry isn’t interesting?”

  “The Feds wouldn’t break a sweat over it,” Walker said. “But they’ve been staked out around the Montegeau house like cats at a rathole. Watching you.”

  “Me?” Faith’s eyes widened. “That’s ridiculous. Why would they waste time watching me?”

  Jeff snorted.

  Walker shot him a look. “Where did the rubies come from that your daddy sent to Faith?”

  “I told you,” Jeff said through his teeth. “The rubies were taken from the last of the family jewelry, the only decent stones that didn’t vanish with the Blessing Chest.”

  Walker looked over at Davis. “That your story, too?”

  Davis didn’t answer.

  “Remember what I said about the Donovans and lawyers?” Walker asked.

  “Bad luck,” Davis whispered. “Nothing but bad luck since we lost the Blessing Chest.”

  “You haven’t managed to dig out on your own,” Walker agreed. “You sure you don’t want a helping hand?” He sounded kind and understanding, unless you looked at his eyes.

  Davis groaned like a man turning on a spit over a big fire. “Jeffy, I’m really sorry, boy. I tried so hard since your sweet mama died. So hard.”

  Jeffs eyelids flickered with pain.

  Walker hooked his boot under a side chair, yanked it toward the sofa, and said to Jeff, “Sit down. I got a feeling you’re not going to like what your daddy has to tell you.”

  Jeff sank into the chair and watched his father with eyes that didn’t want to believe, but already did. The last of the child inside him died as he took his father’s hand between his own and said to him what he himself had so often heard as a boy. “Whatever it is, tell me. We’ll find a way.”

  After a shuddering breath, Davis nodded. Both men ignored the tears welling from the older man’s eyes.

  Faith bit her lip and fought against the sympathy that came when she thought how she would feel if she was in Jeffs place.

  Walker lifted her hand, rubbed his cheek against it in silent comfort, and released her before she could object to the intimacy.

  “The jewelry that I’ve been taking on consignment for the last several years comes from Russia,” Davis said tonelessly.

  Hello, April Joy, Walker thought savagely. But he didn’t say it aloud. “Stolen.”

  “I… didn’t ask.”

  Walker grunted. No surprise there. “But you got a real generous slice of any sale, right?”

  Unhappily Davis nodded. “It kept us out of bankruptcy until I could develop Bayou Estates and sell them. It should have worked. It would have if the – ”

  “Dad,” Jeff interrupted with as much gentleness as impatience. “That’s over. We have to go on from here.”

  “Who was your contact for the jewelry?” Walker asked.

  “Tarasov International Traders. They’re legitimate,” Davis said, but he didn’t sound completely convinced. “I checked. They have licenses and Customs stamps and everything.”

  That was April Joy’s problem, not Walker’s. His problem was figuring out why the Feds were camped on Faith instead of on the folks who were laundering stolen Russian jewelry in America.

  “How about the appraisals on the Customs forms?” Walker asked. “Bet they always came in kind of light.”

  Davis sighed. “That’s where the real profit
was. The stones were always a lot better than the import documents suggested. But it’s much harder to appraise stones that are set, so we never had any trouble.”

  “Especially when the good is mixed in with a lot of routine estate junk,” Walker said. It was an old scam, because it was a successful one. Customs didn’t have many inspectors who were GIA-certified appraisers. A lot of civil servants wouldn’t know top-quality pink amethysts from decent rubies. “So what went wrong?”

  “I guess I got something I shouldn’t have in a shipment. Something really valuable.”

  “A high-quality ruby?” Faith asked sharply. “About the size of a baby’s fist? Engraved?”

  Walker almost smiled despite the adrenaline flooding his veins; Susa Donovan hadn’t raised any dumb ones.

  “Yes,” Davis whispered. “It was the most beautiful gem I’ve ever seen, as good as the best gems that were supposed to be in the Blessing Chest. Bigger than a walnut and surrounded by tear-shaped natural pearls. The rest of the necklace was gold with fourteen Burmese rubies, all at least two carats. They weren’t well cut, but they were very fine as to color and clarity.”

  Jeff stared at his father in hurt and disbelief. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

  “I wanted to keep you out of it,” Davis said.

  “Did it have a name?” Walker asked.

  “What?”

  “The big ruby. Did it have a special name?”

  Davis looked confused.

  “Never mind,” Walker said impatiently. “What did you do with it?”

  “It was made to detach from the chain, so it could be worn as a pin as well as a necklace. I took it off and brought it here, to my own safe. I didn’t want Jeff to see it at the jewelry store. He would have asked… questions.”

  “I sure as hell would have,” his son said bitterly. “Was it as good as the rubies in Mel’s necklace?”

  “Better,” Davis said simply.

  “Jesus. A stone that size would be worth millions.”

  “When were you at the exhibit?” Faith asked.

  “While you were at lunch,” Jeff said.

  “Getting mugged?” Walker asked coolly.

 
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