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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.33
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.33

           Elizabeth Lowell
 
Jeff flinched. “I didn’t know anything about where the rubies came from then. I just wanted to see the necklace. Anyway, I still don’t believe my father knew about the mugging.”

  Walker switched his attention to Davis.

  “Who else knew the big ruby was in your safe?” Walker asked.

  “No one. I’m the only one with the combination. Except Jeff, now.”

  Jeff shifted uncomfortably. He still got a sick feeling when he thought about how he had forced his father to sign over power of attorney.

  “When did you give your son the combination?” Walker asked.

  Davis thought about ducking the question. The memory of that scene in the library was too painful. He rubbed his bristly chin, winced when his split lip protested, and dropped his hand back to his side.

  “Just before you got here,” Davis said unhappily. “Jeff made me agree to give him power of attorney.”

  “How?” Walker asked bluntly.

  “It had nothing to do with the rubies,” Jeff said quickly. “It was personal.”

  “So is being murdered.” Walker fixed his cold blue eyes on Davis and waited.

  “Hell,” Davis mumbled. “He wrestled me to the floor and wouldn’t let me have a drink until I signed.”

  Walker’s estimation of Jeffs backbone went up. “Where is the ruby?”

  “I don’t know!” Davis said hoarsely. “I told him and told him, but he didn’t believe me either. Goddammit, the ruby is gone!”

  “No sign of forced entry or dangling earphones?” Walker’s voice was matter-of-fact, but the line of his mouth was thin and flat.

  “Nothing.” Davis covered his face with his hands, hissed at the pain of touching his nose, and dropped his hands again. “Nothing,” he said in despair.

  “Who was the guy you told again and again that the ruby was gone?” Walker asked.

  “I don’t know his name. About a week after the consignment arrived, I got a phone call. The man spoke English but in a foreign kind of way. I assume he works for Tarasov.”

  Faith watched Walker. It was like watching Archer when he was all business and no compassion. Uncomfortable.

  “What kind of accent?” Walker asked.

  “Russian, probably,” Jeff said impatiently. “That’s where the shipment came from, isn’t it?”

  “I didn’t ask you. I asked your daddy.”

  “Look,” Jeff retorted. “If you’re not going to believe his answers, why badger him?”

  Walker spun with the deadly grace of a hunting animal. “I like you for standing up for your daddy. It’s an admirable thing in a son. Do you know anything about rubies, Russians, and robbery that you haven’t told me?”

  “No.”

  “Then shut up.”

  “Who the hell are you to-”

  “Faith,” Walker interrupted without turning away from Jeff, “go holler up Special Agent Peel. Jeff wants to talk to folks with badges. Good thing, too. He’s sure going to see a lot of them.”

  “No,” Jeff said quickly. “I just don’t like watching you after Daddy like a cat after a rat.”

  “Then close your eyes, sonny.”

  Faith flinched at the soft words.

  So did Jeff.

  Walker looked back at Davis. “What kind of accent did your nameless caller have?”

  “It wasn’t French or German or English,” Davis said. “That’s all I could tell.”

  “What did he want?”

  “The big ruby. Right now.”

  “How long had you known it was missing?” Walker asked. “I don’t know when it was taken, honest. It could have been any time in the last week.”

  “Bullshit. Anybody with a stone like that takes it out and rolls it around in his hand at least twice a day and three times on Sunday,” Walker cut in savagely. “The nice lady with the badge isn’t going to watch Mel make coffee much longer, so cut the crap.”

  “Three days. Four, maybe. Hard to remember. I got so I didn’t believe I ever had it in the first place.”

  “Yeah, too much bourbon is hell on the brain cells,” Walker said without sympathy. “What did you say when this guy demanded you give the ruby back?”

  “I was really scared,” he whispered. “He said he would kill me slow and painfully if I didn’t tell him where the ruby was, and I didn’t know!”

  “What did you tell him?” Walker asked. Davis looked longingly at the bourbon. This was the part he didn’t like, the part that made him hate to see himself in the mirror. “I said…” He cleared his throat and tried again. “I said I had sent it out on consignment.”

  Walker knew the answer to his next question, but he had to ask anyway. He had been wrong too many times already. “Who did you nominate for dying slow and painfully in your place?” he asked coldly. “No one! I wouldn’t – ”

  “Bullshit,” Walker said. “You knew you were a dead man if you didn’t have the ruby. Who did you select as your stand-in?”

  Faith knew before Davis opened his mouth. “Me,” she said. “He told the Russians I had their gem.” Walker watched the older man the way a cat watches a rat. “Davis?”

  “I didn’t know what else to do,” Davis said, weeping slowly. “He was going to kill me.”

  Walker wouldn’t have minded doing the job himself. “Seems like a lot of folks are trying to kill you, Mr. Montegeau,” he said. “That’s what comes from playing marbles on the wrong side of the schoolyard. But the bottom line is that the rubies you gave to Faith were in the same consignment as the big ruby, right?”

  Davis closed his eyes. His mouth flattened as though in pain or in anticipation of pain. “Yes,” he said hoarsely.

  “Part of the same necklace?” Walker asked, wanting no possibility of misunderstanding.

  “Yes.”

  Walker asked the multimillion-dollar question as casually as a man asking for a match. “Where is the big ruby now?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Bad answer.” Walker’s voice was cold, as cold as the fear in his belly. He looked at Faith as though to make sure she was still safe. Then he glanced at Jeff.

  “Get a lawyer,” Walker said. “Your dear daddy just might live long enough to need one.”

  31

  Two hours later, April Joy showed up on the shabby front porch of the Ruby Bayou mansion. A tight-lipped Cindy Peel briefed April over cold coffee in the parlor while Davis Montegeau’s lawyer drafted a plea and protection agreement in the kitchen. The terms of the agreement were clear: In return for Davis’s full cooperation, all charges would be dropped against the entire Montegeau family. As soon as arrangements could be made, the FBI would take Davis into protective custody so that he would stay alive long enough to put Sal, Joe, and Buddy in federal prison.

  If the choice had been April Joy’s, she would have wrung the old bastard out herself, but she knew the FBI would squawk all the way to the president if she tried to steal their witness. Turf battles irritated her, especially when she knew it was wiser to let the other side win. The best she could do for now was to send Max Barton to listen in on every interview the FBI had with Davis.

  The real reason April didn’t pull rank and set off a federal pissing contest was that Davis didn’t appear to know anything about the only thing that mattered to her: the Heart of Midnight. The old drunk kept insisting that he’d lost it. Cindy Peel claimed to believe him.

  April hoped that Faith Donovan knew more than she admitted. That hope was the only reason April had left Seattle in the first place.

  “All right,” she told Peel in a frosty voice, “the drunk is yours. But you send copies of every sentence he says about the Russian pipeline the moment he says them. If he so much as hints that he knows anything at all about the Heart of Midnight, you get me ASAP. Agreed?”

  Peel was a realist. April Joy might be petite and damned gorgeous, but she hadn’t gotten where she was on her looks. She was smarter and tougher than anyone – man or woman-Peel had ever known. If April wanted to make life he
ll for someone, she could. And would.

  “Of course,” Peel said smoothly. “We’re always glad to cooperate with other federal agencies.”

  April snorted and shoved her hands in the pockets of her sleek black slacks. “Sure you are, sis.” She shifted her shoulders beneath her carelessly draped scarlet jacket. The clothes were off-the-rack, but on her they looked like custom designs. Her long, intensely black hair was held back in a severe knot at the nape of her neck. “Where are the rest of the civilians now?”

  “Junior is upstairs. The rest are eating dinner.” There was an envious edge to Cindy’s voice. Camping in the swamp had been bad enough. Now they were outcasts in a house with the most incredible cooking smells wafting through every room. “Smells good,” April agreed.

  “Walker brought us some leftover biscuits about dawn. I’ve been thinking about food ever since.”

  For a moment April considered the problem of Owen Walker. There were some interesting gaps in his file, gaps that she hadn’t had the time to fill before she flew out. Even without hard information, she was assuming that Walker’s easy, drawling style was an act. Archer Donovan didn’t employ dolts, not even amiable dolts. Walker had rapidly become invaluable to the Donovans.

  Which meant that Walker was the sort of man who could get the job done, no matter what the job.

  “I think I’ll give dinner a try,” April said. “Maybe I’ll be able to steal some leftovers for you.”

  Peel managed not to say what a swell person April was.

  Faith had just taken the last, creamy spoonful of she-crab soup from her dish when Tiga marched in from the kitchen with a huge platter of barbecued ribs and another of deep-fried hush puppies. A big bowl of coleslaw followed, the real kind of slaw, where the cabbage was crisp and the dressing was light and clean.

  “Cold grape pie for dessert,” Tiga said, smiling at Faith, “so be sure to leave room, Ruby angel.”

  Faith managed to turn a grimace into a smile. She had given up trying to convince Tiga that her name was Faith.

  “I’ll do my best,” Faith said.

  “You always were a good one. Never a sound from the moment you were born.” She set the platter down beside Faith, then looked at the young woman intently. “I wanted to keep you, truly I did, but Mama said you were already gone, so long, sad song, wrong wrong, he never should have, but he could, so he did and did and did…”

  The singsong voice sent chills over Faith, yet she managed to smile at Tiga.

  “I heard you crying in silence, trying, sighing, dying, precious Ruby child. So good to see you, be with you, me with you, forever in the sea with the she-crabs and the red souls. The three small gifts were pretty, but not enough, not enough. Thirteen new souls just for me, and the fourteenth to set you free, a soul as big as your sweet little fist. I wish you could see it, Ruby angel. When you give me the thirteen, we’ll both be free. Take more food, precious baby. The marsh is a hungry place.”

  Speechless, Faith watched while Tiga stacked her plate with food. Walker waited until Tiga drifted down to her end of the table before he swapped plates with Faith and started eating. With the first bite, he made a rumbling sound of pleasure. Tiga might be nutty as a pecan farm, but she was one hell of a good Low Country cook.

  For once, Mel wasn’t hungry. She took a little slaw, a hush puppy, and a single rib. Then she pushed it all around on her plate as though trying to decide where the food looked best. Jeff wasn’t at the table. He couldn’t bring himself to eat with Faith, the woman who had so completely fooled him. But he didn’t want to upset Mel, who still refused to believe Faith was a thief. So he avoided the issue entirely by avoiding Faith.

  “Eat something, Mel,” Faith said quietly. “The baby needs it even if you don’t.”

  Mel looked up, smiled despite the shadows in her brown eyes, and put a sliver of pork in her mouth. “I’m sorry Tiga keeps calling you Ruby.”

  Faith shrugged. “No harm done. Who was Ruby, anyway?”

  “Her baby.” Davis answered the question from the doorway. He had changed out of his ripped and bloody clothes, but he was still a long way from well dressed. His white shirt was almost transparent with sweat. The waistband of his brown slacks had wilted. He leaned heavily on the cane Walker had loaned him.

  Mel’s head came up. “Her baby? As in her child?” Wearily Davis nodded. He walked slowly to the table and eased himself into his normal chair. Boomer crawled out from under the table and nudged the old man’s hand. Absently he fondled the hound’s long ears.

  “I didn’t know Tiga was married,” Mel said. “She wasn’t. The baby was a bastard.”

  “Then the man who abandoned her was the bastard,” Faith corrected. “The baby was innocent.”

  Davis looked at her. “Oh, the father was a righteous son of a bitch, sure enough, but that’s not why he didn’t marry her. He was already married. To her mother.”

  For a moment Faith thought she had misunderstood. Then she was afraid she hadn’t. She set her fork down with a clatter. It bounced from her plate and went spinning off the table.

  With a lazy motion, Walker caught the fork. “Davis, you have a purely uncivilized turn of table conversation.”

  Davis’s laugh was as dry as his throat. He hadn’t had a drink for three hours. As far as he was concerned, it wasn’t an improvement. “Don’t like the truth, boy? Stop up your ears with good bayou mud, then.”

  “Daddy Montegeau, please don’t,” Mel said.

  He leaned his elbows on the table and gave his future daughter-in-law a look that was both sad and impatient. “Don’t worry, darlin’. Jeffy ain’t anything like the randy bastard his grandfather was. Neither am I, thank the good Lord. Besides, it happens in the best of families.”

  “Incest?” Faith asked in disbelief.

  Tiga stood suddenly, shoved back from the table, and said in a clear, childish tone, “I am a naughty girl. He tells me every time how very, very naughty I am. I flaunt myself.” She smiled with a terrible kind of desperation, a prayer whispered in the face of disaster. “I don’t mean to, Papa. Truly I do not. Please. Don’t. I won’t ever. Again.” Her long, pale fingers trembled. “But I do and he does and Mama sees my ruby birthday gift and Papa goes away, away, thunder and lightning. My fault. I flaunt.” She looked vaguely around the room. “It’s blessing time. The crabs, you see. Dinner at eight. Don’t be late.”

  No one spoke after Tiga left. Mel gave a shuddering kind of sigh. “Does Jeff know?”

  “Probably,” Davis said. “Kids always know, even when their parents don’t want them to.”

  “Kids have a way of learning too much,” Walker agreed quietly.

  Faith knew he was talking about himself as much as the Montegeau children.

  “You spend much time hiding behind doors when you were a kid?” Walker asked Davis.

  “Doesn’t everyone?” He swore tiredly. “Papa was a drunk who liked girls best before they were ready. He didn’t much care whose little girl he poked. Even his own.”

  “Pity that burglar didn’t kill him sooner,” Faith said distinctly.

  Davis shrugged. “There are more like him. Lots are worse.”

  “Lots are better,” she shot back.

  “Don’t much matter. It was a long, long time ago.”

  “Not for Tiga. For her it was yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”

  Davis eyed the bourbon decanter. Nearly empty. He would have to hobble into the pantry, rummage in the sacks of rice and flour and sugar, and find his stash. He wondered if he had the strength.

  “Bet it wasn’t a burglar,” Walker said.

  “Huh?” Davis asked, distracted.

  “Did Tiga pull the trigger on your dear old pappy, or did his wife finally stand up on her hind legs and do it?”

  For a moment Davis looked startled, then speculative. “Could have. Ma was hard as a shovel handle before she took sick that last time. But then we wouldn’t have lost the Blessing Chest, would we? She was always screamin
g at him for paying off his little girls with rubies from the chest.”

  Tiga’s words echoed in Faith’s mind, words that almost meant something yet never added up to anything real. The unhappiness was there, always, the fixation on rubies as dead or lost souls. She wondered if Tiga had seen family jewelry on other young girls and known just how the rubies had been earned. It would explain her obsession with them, her belief that rubies were the price of a soul.

  “Maybe after all those girls, the chest was empty,” Mel said softly. “As empty as your father’s heart.”

  “Sweet thing,” Davis said in a weary voice, “hearts have damn all to do with wealth. I saw the Blessing Chest not long before Pa was murdered. There was jewelry in it. The kind that sets a boy to dreaming of being a pirate and having his own silver chest overflowing with rubies and gold.”

  “Sell treasure maps,” April said sardonically as she strolled into the room. “You’ll make more money than passing off salt marsh as a world-class golf course.”

  “Who the hell are you?” Davis asked, looking over the beautiful, confident Amerasian who stood in the doorway as though she was queen of Ruby Bayou.

  “April Joy,” Walker said before she could. “Figured you would turn up sooner or later.”

  “Bet you were hoping for later.”

  “Hope is a good thing,” Walker said, smiling slow and almost shy.

  April gave him a second, narrow-eyed look, and almost smiled herself. “Do men have to pass a handsome test before they’re allowed into the Donovan empire?”

  “No, ma’am,” Walker said promptly. “This ol’ boy would have flunked, anyway. They hired me for my skills, not for my looks.”

  This time April did smile. “Modest, too. I think we’ll do just fine together.”

  Walker was much too smart to show his response to that suggestion. “Have you eaten, ma’am?”

  “Is that an invitation?”

  “For supper, yes,” Faith said clearly. “Dessert is optional.” Walker gave her a smile that was very different from the one he had given April. “Dessert, huh? Is that how you think of it?”

  April measured the two of them and dropped the idea of divide and conquer. Walker had found the woman he wanted, and that was that. Experience had told April that some men strayed easily and others never even looked over the fence. Walker wasn’t looking over the fence. With a shrug, she sat down at Jeffs place, where an empty plate waited for someone to care. “Forget dessert,” she said. “I’d like some of those ribs.”

 
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