Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.35Elizabeth Lowell
“Maybe. And maybe the child was stillborn. Didn’t Tiga say she had never heard her baby cry?”
Faith let out a long breath. “Stillborn. Yes. That has to be it.”
Gently Walker’s hand smoothed over her hair. Like her, he would prefer to believe that the baby had been stillborn.
“Tiga’s birthday was on the same day her father died.”
Faith made a low sound. “What a bitter present.”
“That’s it,” Walker said suddenly. “He was getting her present out of the Blessing Chest when he was killed.”
Faith tried to regret the man’s death. She couldn’t. “Maybe when he gave Tiga rubies for her birthday, his wife knew who had gotten her daughter pregnant.”
Walker didn’t say anything. He was remembering other rumors from his childhood, people whispering that the daughter had seen her father murdered and had never been right in the head after that. If Tiga had indeed been present, she was the last living person to see the Blessing Chest.
“Get dressed, sugar.” He dropped a handful of clothes on Faith’s belly.
“Any particular reason?”
“I’m fixing to take a look around Tiga’s bedroom and I figured you’d want to come.”
“You figured right.” Faith hesitated. “I suppose you’re not going to ask permission before you search.”
Faith opened her mouth, then sighed. “What about April Joy?”
“I don’t care if I ever see that lady again, with or without my clothes.”
Faith snickered. “I meant, are we trying – er, fixing – to keep this a secret?”
“I looked in a little while ago and saw the predatory Ms. Joy was debriefing the FBI and Davis. Poor ol’ Davis. His lawyer’s face was the color of boiled crawdads. I guess Mrs. Butterworth had never met anyone like our April, who doesn’t give a damn about noble Lady Justice, much less that cold bitch Mercy.”
Walker did an interesting little jig with the smuggler’s briefs and their expensive cargo, getting everything into a relatively comfortable place. “Ms. Joy knows what she wants – the Heart of Midnight – and no silver-tongued southern lawyer is going to get in her way. I’m figuring not to distract her until I have something in my fist instead of in my briefs.”
Faith tried not to think about helping Walker adjust his underwear. To distract herself, she started pulling on her own clothes. “What about Tiga?”
“I’ll knock first, but she spends more time in the marsh than she does in the house.”
“That leaves Jeff and Mel. What makes you think they won’t notice us sneaking around upstairs?”
“Their bedroom door was closed.” Walker pulled his jeans into place and buttoned quickly. “I’m betting they’re consoling each other same way we did.”
“Consolation?” Faith pulled her blouse on the same way it had come off – half-unbuttoned and over her head. “Is that what you call it?”
He gave her a sideways glance. “I call it the best I’ve ever had. It’s worrying me, sugar girl. I keep thinking about matching leg shackles.”
“Shackles, huh?” She grimaced and buttoned her jeans. “No wonder you’re worried. Only a moron would sign up for a life in chains. Neither of us is that stupid.” She looked up, pinning him with eyes that were misty blue and very, very certain. “So forget it, Walker. No strings, no promises. I mean that.”
He knew she did.
He just didn’t know why it made him feel worse, not better.
Tiga’s bedroom was at the far end of the hallway. The door was half-open.
Walker knocked softly. “Miss Montegeau? Tiga?”
No one answered.
He knocked again, less gently.
“Let me go in first,” Faith said quietly. “A man might frighten her.”
Walker stepped aside.
“Tiga?” Faith said, walking through the doorway. “Is it all right if we talk?”
Walker was right behind Faith. The bedroom was empty. Several small bulbs burned dimly. Walker shut the door. When he looked for a lock, there wasn’t any. This was a child’s room, with nightlights but no lock.
“Stay by the door,” he said. “I’ll do the searching.”
“You could be a long time. The Heart of Midnight might be a giant as rubies go, but there are a thousand places to hide it in here.”
“The Blessing Chest is harder to hide.”
Faith made a startled sound. “Do you really think you’ll find it in Tiga’s bedroom?”
“I’m thinking that Tiga saw her father murdered. That means there’s a real good chance she saw whatever happened to the Blessing Chest afterward. Pretend you’re Tiga. Pretend that feeding the Blessing Chest rubies will set you free. Now, where would you store any rubies you could get your hands on?”
“In the Blessing Chest. If I had it. Big if.”
“Yeah. But so far it’s the best if we’ve got.”
“Right. I’ll search the dresser.”
Walker started to argue, then shut up. The less time they spent in Tiga’s bedroom, the less chance they would be caught there.
Quickly he opened the small closet and started going through its contents. There were a few faded and stained shirtwaist dresses that would fit a grownup, but most of the clothing looked too small, even for someone as slight as Tiga. The little dresses were fussed and fretted with lace and more than a generation out of style. The closet contained one adult-size pair of muddy tennis shoes and a dozen more pairs of smaller shoes, all patent leather, and all cracked and dull with age.
None of the small clothing had ever been worn. Some of it was still tagged, as though it had just come from the local mercantile.
Faith worked almost as quickly as Walker. The chest was a dainty cherry highboy, just right for a child. The first four drawers were stubborn, their brass handles tarnished, as though they had not been touched in years. They were filled with fragile little camisoles and lace-trimmed panties, ankle socks edged with more lace, shades of pink and lavender and mint and baby blue, delicate white kid gloves that were too small for Tiga’s marsh-roughened hands.
The bottom drawer worked more easily. It held four pairs of plain cotton underpants, four pairs of white cotton socks, and two well-washed white tank tops. That was it. No bras. No hose. No perfume. No jewelry. No makeup. Nothing at all to suggest that a grown woman used the chest.
Remembering her own childhood hiding places, Faith removed each drawer. There were no hidden compartments, and certainly not enough room to hide the Blessing Chest, but a lone ruby was a different matter. She checked the top and bottom and sides of each drawer. She found only the peculiar dryness of aged wood. Nothing but time and dust.
Frowning, Faith looked back toward the closet. Walker was going through hatboxes. The hats, like most everything else she had seen, looked too girlish for an adult to wear. Certainly she couldn’t imagine Tiga in any of the fancy, frothy things.
The bed drew Faith next. The canopy was as delicate as the camisoles. Silk ruffles and faded pink flowers. Beautifully dressed dolls covered the lacy pillows and spilled down onto a rumpled and faded silk bedspread that matched the canopy overhead.
When Faith touched one of the dolls, dust rose in puffs. Stepping back, she wiped her hands on her jeans as though removing something foul.
She knew with chilling certainty that Tiga hadn’t touched that bed since the last time her father had dragged her there.
Faith made a sound that drew Walker’s attention. They looked at one another. He could see that she understood, and that her understanding turned her stomach just as it did his. They were searching the room of a girl whose life had stopped the first time her father raped her. It was an endless, consuming nightmare that Tiga escaped only in madness.
And even then, the escape was not complete. Part of her knew, always. That was why the bed was dusty and the lumpy couch beneath the window was threadbare with use.
“I can’t help it.” It’s my fault. I flaunt. “She blamed herself for her father’s brutal lust.”
“Then think about this: the bastard was executed with his own shotgun.”
“Too quick. Much too quick.”
“Yeah. It’s enough to make you pray for hell everlasting.”
Grimly they searched the rest of the room. They found nothing but dust and the ghost of a girl who screamed in silence.
Faith paced the sitting room between their two bedrooms. Her fingers itched for the cell phone, but she had already outlined their plan to Archer. Now it was up to Walker to win her brother’s agreement.
“You’re sure you want to go along with it?” Walker asked Archer. “No guarantees, boss. You could lose a million in stones real quick.”
“Or I could get that Russian killer out of Faith’s picture,” Archer said. “It’s a bargain at twice the price.”
“How is Kyle’s gut feeling?”
Walker hesitated, but he couldn’t think of a better way to get to the Heart of Midnight. “Okay. If I like what Davis tells me, we’ll put the plan to work.”
“Any sign of Ivanovitch?” Archer asked.
“No. I wish I could feel good about that.”
“Don’t let Faith out of your sight.”
“I may have to. She’s afraid of small boats and I’ve got a feeling I’m going to be taking one into the marsh around midnight.”
Faith frowned. That part of the plan, she hated. The thought of those leaky skiffs made her stomach knot and cold sweat spring out on her spine. But she was damned if she was going to be left behind. She would just have to suck it up and do what had to be done.
“Bloody hell,” Archer muttered. “I forgot about that. Leave Faith with April Joy. I’d back that little shark against any assassin I’ve ever met. If you can’t do that, park Faith with the FBI. Just don’t leave her alone.”
“I hear you.”
From the parlor in front of the house came the keening sounds of a lawyer wrangling with two separate federal agencies. From the blunt lawyerly talk, it sounded as though Davis had been sent away to await his fate while everyone else settled the small details of his life.
Faith let out a silent breath of relief. Walker didn’t need any distractions wearing badges right now. Neither did she. She was going to watch quietly while one good old boy interrogated another good old boy.
Walker and Faith found Davis in the library. He was alone, sitting in an overstuffed wing chair of faded navy brocade. Boomer was stretched out at his feet, snoring softly, his glossy coat reflecting flickers of the fire in the hearth. A piecrust table next to Davis held a Tiffany-style lamp and a tarnished silver tray. A captain’s decanter filled with dark amber liquor sat on the tray. So did several empty cut-crystal highball glasses.
The sparkling glass in Davis’s hand held four fingers of smooth Kentucky bourbon. He was watching the liquor warily, as though he expected it to burst into flame.
“Liquid painkiller?” Walker asked easily.
Davis looked up. Though weariness and pain lined his face, his hair was combed, his clothes were clean, and his eyes looked less haunted. “I’m thinking about it. Doesn’t sound quite as good as it used to, though.”
“Probably because you’re not quite as afraid of getting killed anymore.”
“It makes a difference,” Davis admitted. “That, and knowing Jeff and I won’t have to go to prison.”
Walker nodded. It was what he had expected. Faith had refused to press charges for her missing jewelry and the government wanted information more than they wanted Davis behind bars. As long as Davis delivered Sal and the others with his testimony, he was a free man.
And as long as the FBI and April Joy did their jobs, Davis would be a live man.
“They said I don’t have to worry about the Atlantic City crime family coming after me,” Davis added. “Sal wasn’t real popular. Too old-fashioned, the Peel woman said. As for Buddy, well, that boy is just plain stupid.”
“That leaves the Russians,” Walker said.
Davis lifted the cut-crystal glass to his lips.
“April Joy have any ideas about that?” Walker asked.
“You know, I hear Yankees talking about southern women as steel magnolias and such,” Davis said, sipping instead of swigging on the potent liquor. “But for sheer balls, that little woman in the parlor beats any female raised on grits and gravy.”
“She’s not going to help you?”
“If I give her the Heart of Midnight, she’ll make me a saint. If I don’t, she’ll help my killer bury me.”
“Sounds like the April Joy we all know and love,” Faith muttered.
Boomer twitched and yipped softly, dreaming of the chase. Davis leaned over and stroked the big dog with slow sweeps of his hand. Boomer sighed and relaxed.
Walker sat down on a short sofa that faced Davis’s overstuffed chair. He touched the seat beside him, but Faith hesitated. The love seat was an antique, made in an era when people were smaller. Gingerly she sat down. It was a close fit. And oddly comforting. The solid strength of Walker’s thigh along hers was reassuring. The fact that she noticed it, and needed it, told Faith that she was still shaken by her search through Tiga’s tragic past.
When Walker turned his hand over in silent offering, she put her palm on his. His warmth, like his strength, reassured her on an elemental level.
“We think we might be able to help you out with the stone,” Walker said.
“The Heart of Midnight?” Davis asked, startled. Walker nodded. “I’m thinking you probably looked for the Blessing Chest from time to time.” Davis paused. “Sure.” Faith had the oddest feeling he was lying. So did Walker. “Turned the house upside down, huh?” he asked sympathetically.
“Jeffy sure did.” Davis smiled, then grimaced at the pain in his split lip. “That boy was a fool for treasure hunting.”
“How about your mama? Did she search?” Walker asked. Davis laughed dryly. “She made life in this house a living hell for a year after Pa died. Tore out walls, ripped up floors, dug holes in the garden. Purely crazy.”
“What do you think?” he retorted. “I’m thinking she was skunked.”
“Amen.” Davis took another sip. Crystal sparkled with light and reflected fire.
“What about Tiga?” Walker asked softly. “Did she go treasure hunting?”
“Why do you suppose that would be?”
Davis took a bigger drink of whiskey and cleared his throat. “She’s not right in the head and never will be. Doctors, pills, we tried them all.” He sighed. “I can’t bring myself to lock her up somewhere. She’s harmless, and she loves the marsh.”
Knowing that a drinker often was more relaxed when others drank, too, Walker reached over to the bourbon decanter, picked a glass off the tarnished silver tray, and poured himself a shot. He tilted the glass against his mouth, inhaled the fragrance of aged bourbon, but didn’t let any past his lips. “Was Tiga always the way she is now?”
“Did it start after your father died?” Walker asked. “Or was it earlier, when he began Taping her?”
Davis’s hand jerked, making liquor lick up the sides of his glass like amber flames. He gave Walker a hard look.
Walker smiled gently. “I hear that Russian is a real artist with his knife. Takes a long time. A long, long time.”
“It started when he raped her,” Davis said hoarsely. “She was always a little fey, but after that…” He shook his head.
“Did you see your papa killed?”
“Did your mama?”
Davis hesitated, thought about the Russian assassin, and said roughly, “Yes.”
Davis closed his eyes. “Yes. Dear Lord, yes. It broke her.”
“Which one pulled the trigger?”
“Does it matter? He’s dead!”
“Do you know which one killed him?” Walker repeated calmly.
“I – I’m not sure. Tiga was screaming about how it was her fault and the Blessing Chest caused it, all those dead little girls in the chest, and how she had to bury them so they could never cause trouble again. I was eight years old and scared like I’ve never been, before or since. While Mama called the sheriff, I went back to bed and pulled the covers over my head and didn’t come out until daylight. And that’s where I told the sheriff I’d been all night, in bed with the covers over my head. He didn’t get anything out of Tiga, either. She was drugged and rambling. Mama took care of everything. There was gossip, but it died out after Billy McBride was caught in bed with the preacher’s wife. That gave all those tongues something new to wag about.”
Boomer shifted and snuffled. He awoke and nudged Davis’s knee, disturbed by the agitation in his master’s voice. Automatically Davis scratched the hound’s long ears in reassurance. With a groan, Boomer flopped down again. “So Tiga took the Blessing Chest,” Walker said. “I don’t know.”
“Sure you do,” Walker said gently. “Your mama tore up the place looking. Jeff tore it up. Tiga didn’t. You didn’t, because you knew your sister had taken it to the marsh.”
“I don’t know where the damn thing is!” Davis took a hard hit of bourbon, coughed, and cleared his throat. “Do you think I would have gotten in bed with Sal if I had the Blessing Chest?”
“No. And you didn’t find it years ago, either.”
“How did you know?” Davis asked. “I never told anyone.”
“No one found any sign that you or your ma started spending money that couldn’t be explained. In fact, you were dirt-poor after your mother sold a ruby brooch – Tiga’s birthday present from her daddy, I suppose?”
Davis nodded and cursed wearily. “It was the only family piece that wasn’t in the Blessing Chest the day Papa died.”
“And you never saw another piece?” Walker asked. “Never,” Davis said grimly. “Not ever.”
Midnight in Ruby Bayou by Elizabeth Lowell / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes