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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.36
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.36

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  “Tiga never showed up with another ruby bauble?” Davis’s laugh was as brittle as the crystal glass he held. He emptied it with a toss of his head and watched Walker with pale, haunted eyes. “My dear, crazed sister with a handful of rubies? Hell, no, that would have been too sane. She was out of her head. She took the Blessing Chest somewhere out there – ” he waved the empty glass toward the windows “ – in that maze of marsh and bayou, buried it, and never bothered to remember where.”

  “I take it you asked her,” Walker said. “Asked, coaxed, scolded, threatened.” Gingerly Davis put his fingers just above the bridge of his nose and massaged the headache that wouldn’t go away. “None of it made a difference. She just looked through me with those sad, fractured eyes and started talking like a girl, then she would scream and hold her hands over her mouth and say, ‘Mustn’t scream, mustn’t, good girls don’t scream’.”

  Faith’s nails dug into her palms. She didn’t even feel it. Davis made a rough sound and closed his eyes. “I stopped asking. I couldn’t bear sending her back to that time when he was alive and she was – ” His voice broke. “Christ Jesus, how could a man do that to his own daughter?”

  There was no answer. There never had been. There never would be.

  A faint flicker of movement at the edge of Faith’s vision made her turn her head toward the hall door. Walker’s hand tightened in hers as a warning. He didn’t want Davis distracted right now.

  “On the theory that lightning doesn’t strike twice,” Walker drawled, “we’d like to lock Mel’s necklace in your safe until the wedding.”

  Davis would have laughed if his lip didn’t throb so much. “I can guaran-damn-tee that Jeff won’t be opening it. Neither will I. Our bungling-burglar days are behind us.”

  “There you go.” Walker stood and held out his hand. “Why don’t you just open the safe and watch us put the necklace in. Boomer, move your lazy butt.”

  A nudge from Walker’s foot got the hound to his feet. He gave Walker a hurt look and moved closer to the fire.

  Painfully, with Walker’s help and using Walker’s cane, Davis stood and hobbled over to the safe. Walker made a point of turning his back and moving off a few feet while Davis fiddled with the dial. Both Faith and Walker were careful not to look at the doorway, where they hoped an eavesdropper hovered like a flesh-and-blood ghost.

  “She’s open,” Davis said.

  Walker reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out the chamois-wrapped necklace.

  “It was in your pocket all the time?” Davis asked, shocked.

  “More or less.” Gently Walker took the necklace from its protective wrapping.

  Gold glowed in sheltering curves, whispering of angel wings and eternal safety. Rubies shimmered as though they were alive, gathering light, transforming it into silky, incandescent red.

  Thirteen curves, thirteen souls.

  Davis’s breath came in with a whistling sound that was close to a cry of pain. “Lordy, Lordy, would you look at that. It’s as beautiful as anything my ancestors ever wore.”

  “More beautiful,” Walker said. “Faith designed it.”

  Desperately Faith wanted to look over her shoulder, to see who, if anyone, was eavesdropping. Instead, she watched Walker hand over the necklace.

  Davis took it reverently, placed it in the safe, and spun the dial. “Almost hate to lock it up. I only ever saw one thing more beautiful.”

  “The Heart of Midnight,” Walker said.

  Davis nodded. He glanced toward Faith. “You did a fine piece for Mel. Shame she won’t get to keep it.”

  “Is the FBI going to use it as evidence?” Faith asked.

  “They don’t give a damn about the Russian stones. It’s Sal they want.”

  “They’ll get him, thanks to you,” she said. He grimaced and shifted against the pain that throbbed through his body in time with his heartbeat. “Yeah. I sure do hope they kick that mean bastard’s ass hard. Real hard. As for the necklace, well, I’m figuring Ms. Joy will have something to say about it. I guess the goods I’ve been getting from Tarasov came from museums and such.”

  Walker hoped that he would be in a position to bargain with the lovely Ms. Joy. Part of that bargain would include Mel keeping the necklace; it was too beautiful a piece to be trashed just for its rubies. But all he said aloud was, “There’s a lot of housecleaning going on in the former Soviet Union. Hard currency is scarce.”

  “Surprising, though,” Davis said. “Except for the Heart of Midnight, most of the stuff I saw was, well, ordinary, the kind of thing any wealthy woman might have owned in the eighteenth or nineteenth century.”

  “Museum basements are stacked full of fairly ordinary things,” Faith said. “Especially state museums. Only the best goes on display.”

  Walker was more worried about a Russian assassin than the quality of goods in Russian museum basements. He had a lot to do tonight. The sooner they left the library, the sooner he could begin.

  “You’re looking like a man who would rather be in bed,” Walker said to Davis. “I’ll help you upstairs.”

  Davis glanced at the bourbon decanter, then firmly looked away. “I’d appreciate it.”

  As soon as the two men left the room, Faith shut off the light and swept open the drapes that covered the French doors leading to the gallery. She left the hall door open for good measure as she hurried after the two men.

  Walker had been very definite about two things: First, the trap had to be baited with real rubies. No sleight-of-hand switch this time, no artificial stones.

  And second, once the trap was laid, Faith had to stay in his sight.

  Always.

  Dressed in clothes that blended with the dense, cloud-covered night, Walker crouched in a thicket of azaleas, camellias, and feral rambling roses that once had been the far edge of the Montegeau garden. The night was alive with a warm wind that sent leaves to rubbing and whispering over each other and made grass and long-needled pines sound like dancers wearing long silk skirts. The air smelled damp, earthy, with an overlay of brine and secrecy.

  But even on the darkest night, there is always some light. The night-vision goggles Walker had borrowed from Farnsworth and Peel sucked up every bit of stray illumination and turned it into a sickly green glow. The lenses gave him a surprisingly clear view of the interior of the library.

  Peel’s night-vision goggles were buckled around Faith’s head. Like Walker, she was wearing dark clothes. Unlike him, she was wearing a dark cap as well, concealing her telltale pale hair. She was watching the back door of the house and the path that led to the bayou and salt marsh. Without the glasses, she would have been seeing ghosts every time the wind stirred trees, marsh, and water. With the glasses, she only jumped half the time.

  Until the past few hours, she had never guessed how much a sapling resembled a human being.

  “Bingo,” he said very softly.

  Faith stiffened. “The library?” she asked, her voice as low as his. “Yes.”

  “Who is it?”

  “Can’t tell. Just a dark silhouette with two arms, two legs, one head. Not limping, so it isn’t Davis. No way he could do anything but hobble.”

  Faith tried not to think of her hard work and beautiful design vanishing into a thief s pocket.

  “Don’t worry,” Walker murmured, guessing her thoughts. “I’ll get it back for you.”

  “You should have let the FBI do this.”

  “We’ve been over that twenty times. They’re city cops, not bayou hunters.”

  She bit her lip. He was right. She just didn’t like it. “No necklace is worth your life.”

  Walker’s teeth flashed in a pale curve against his black beard. “I’m not fixing to die.”

  “Who ever is?”

  “Hush. The French doors are moving. The thief will be in the gallery real quick. Then he could come out anywhere.”

  Faith readjusted the goggles and watched the back of the house. Although the lower gallery had fou
r exits – more if you counted the possibility of simply going through one of the rotten screens – Walker was betting that the thief would head for the bayou rather than the front road. He was right. “Got him,” Faith breathed. “Where?”

  “In back, just like you said.”

  “Go inside real quick and quiet,” Walker said softly. “Get next to April and stay there.”

  “No,” Faith murmured without looking away from the back of the house. “We’ve been over that twenty times, too. I’m staying with you.”

  “Even if it means going facedown in a leaky, smelly skiff?” She hesitated “Whatever it takes.”

  “You’d be safer here.”

  “So would you.”

  “Damn it, Faith,” he said in a soft, desperate voice, “I can’t guarantee you won’t get killed.”

  “Did I ask you to?”

  Walker’s mouth flattened. It was too late to argue anymore. He could only follow the thief and pray that Faith wouldn’t regret trusting her life to him.

  And that he wouldn’t regret it even more.

  34

  The figure that hurried down the path at the hack of the house would have been invisible but for the high-tech night-vision goggles Walker and Faith wore. Knowing that wind would cover most sounds, Walker heeled out of the overgrown garden and fell in a hundred feet behind the dark shape.

  Faith fell in behind Walker.

  He tried not to look back to make sure she was safe, but he found himself doing it so often he finally stumbled. Only the need for silence kept him from cursing savagely. He couldn’t divide his attention and hope to keep up. The thief was moving fast.

  Wind breathed down across the marsh, sending pale green ripples over the surface. At least, the ripples looked pale green to Faith. The trees had a dancing green nimbus of light around them that was frankly spooky. Even as she told herself she would be blind without the goggles, she shivered and wished that some tech wizard had figured out how to correct the color.

  Abruptly Walker yanked her off the path and under the cover of a whispering, wind-trembling pine. Her stomach sank as she watched the dark figure get nimbly into one of the skiffs, cast off, and begin rowing down the bayou toward the marsh.

  “It isn’t Jeff,” Walker said softly. “Too small.”

  “It must be Tiga. You were right.”

  “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.” He stepped out of the tree’s cover, pulling Faith behind him. “I hope you meant it about the skiff, sugar. There’s no going back now without losing her, because I’m not letting you out of my sight.”

  Silently, biting her lip, Faith hurried after Walker to the skiff.

  “Sit on the bottom with your back to the stern and stretch your legs under the rowing bench.” He knelt on the dock and held the little craft as steady as he could while he watched over his shoulder to see where the other skiff was going.

  This isn’t a small boat, Faith told herself desperately. It’s a raft in a swimming pool. That’s not stinking fish hits I’m smelling, it’s chlorine.

  Teeth embedded in her lower lip, Faith scrambled into the boat before she lost her nerve. The skiff teetered wildly. She barely bit off a scream.

  “Easy, sugar,” Walker whispered, balancing the boat. “Slow and easy is the secret of a small boat.”

  She let out a breath and inched over until her weight was centered in the skiff.

  “That’s good,” he said. “Now stay put.” With a skill she could only envy, Walker slid into the skiff as smoothly as if it were on dry land. He pushed off and bent to the oars, pulling the skiff through the water with the limber speed and silence of an alligator.

  “Lean slowly to your right and look past me,” he murmured. “That’s far enough. Can you see her now?” Faith nodded.

  “Let me know if you lose her.” She nodded again.

  Walker watched Faith with equal parts irritation and approval – irritation for her stubbornness and approval for her guts. He knew she was so scared of being in the little skiff she could spit cotton. She would probably look pale green even if he took off the goggles. Yet there she sat, her mouth a flat line of determination as she watched the boat ahead.

  “She’s turning right,” Faith said quietly.

  Walker searched through his memory. It was high tide now, which meant there were several places up ahead where the bayou unraveled into channels that led to the larger marsh.

  Tiga could have chosen any of them.

  “Pick a landmark,” he told Faith.

  “How? It all looks the same to me.”

  “Then don’t take your eyes off the place where she turned.”

  Less worried about making noise than about losing Tiga, Walker quickened his stroke. The skiff shot forward.

  “Just ahead,” Faith whispered.

  Walker glanced over and recognized the dead pine where cormorants roosted during the day, patiently drying their wings after hours of fishing. He rowed on hard, suddenly certain that Tiga wasn’t taking the arm of the bayou that headed out to sea. She was heading into the marsh.

  Even with night goggles it would be too damned easy to lose her there.

  He lifted one oar, pulled sharply with the other, and turned where Tiga had. He found himself in an inky little channel that was passable only at high tide. Very quickly shrubs gave way to dry, tall marsh grass whose thin blades rattled and trembled in the wind. The passage was so narrow that fronds of coarse grass reached out to rasp over the oars. There was barely enough room to row at all, but the marsh was so shallow here that he could use an oar to push off the bottom if it came to that.

  He hoped it didn’t. Some of that mud was deep enough to bury a man alive.

  “See her?” Walker asked as he leaned forward on the oars.

  “Sort of. There’s more room up ahead.”

  “Well, there’s a blessing.”

  Faith peered through the goggles into an eerie, luminous, green-on-green world. The shape of the skiff ahead melted into clumps of marsh grass and then solidified on open stretches of water. Tiga couldn’t see them without night glasses of her own, but Faith still felt naked, vulnerable. She guided Walker with low, terse whispers.

  Ahead a small night heron shrieked and flew up, its hunt ruined by Tiga’s passage. Her skiff never hesitated. Obviously she was used to the marsh at night.

  To Faith, Tiga’s path was marked in swirls of pale green, which was the enhanced light thrown off by the water disturbed by Tiga’s rowing. She was turning again.

  “Left as soon as there’s an opening,” Faith murmured.

  Walker drew on old memory and recent experience. Tiga was getting close to the edge of Ruby Bayou’s holdings. Soon they would be among the high-rise dinosaurs of the twenty-first century, beachfront condos for Yankees who had grown too old for skiing, sledding, and driving in the Northeast’s harsh winters.

  “Here,” Faith said.

  Walker glanced over his shoulder. The opening looked too narrow for a skiff. “You sure?”

  “Either that or we’ve been following ghost trails left by the wind.”

  Walker turned the skiff in to the small opening. There wasn’t room to row. Quietly he shipped one of the oars, reversed his position, and used the other oar as a pole to push the small craft forward. The smell and sheen of the water ahead told him that Tiga was doing the same, stirring up pungent marsh mud with each thrust of the oar.

  Faith leaned to one side and got a face full of marsh grass. She leaned the other way. More coarse edges scratched her arms. Straight ahead of her, Walker was a solid column of darkness outlined by a shifting green nimbus of light.

  “I can’t see,” she said.

  “I can.”

  “Well, hooray for you,” she muttered.

  Walker ignored her. Ahead, the little channel opened into a wider swath of water. Abruptly he quit poling. “She stopped.”

  Faith spit out a piece of grass that the wind had slapped over her face. “What’s she doing
?”

  “She’s fixing to pull a pot.”

  “What?”

  “She’s pulling up a crab pot,” he said.

  The undercurrent of excitement in his voice was as clear as the gusts of wind hopscotching through the marsh.

  “I want to see.” Forgetting her fear of tippy little boats, Faith switched to a kneeling position.

  Automatically Walker steadied the skiff. “Slow and easy, remember? Spread your knees.”

  She started to make a smart remark, then realized that he wasn’t teasing her. Cautiously she inched her knees apart. He was right. It was easier to balance that way. When he leaned slightly to the left, she took the hint and leaned the other way. Carefully.

  Both of them watched as water dripped like pale, liquid emeralds from the line in Tiga’s hands. There was a soft explosion of green as she swung the pot into the boat. The metal cage hit the bottom of the skiff with a solid thump that carried over the sound of the wind.

  “How much do crabs weigh?” Faith said against Walker’s ear.

  “Depends on the catch. From the sound of that, come suppertime tomorrow, Ruby Bayou’s folks will be ass-deep in deviled crabs.”

  “Or something.”

  “Or something,” he agreed.

  Tiga bent over the trap. Her body screened their view.

  “What’s she doing?” Faith asked very quietly.

  “Can’t tell. Could be putting crabs in a bucket and baiting the trap again.”

  “Or…”

  “I’m hoping, sugar. I’m not guaranteeing.”

  “I’m not asking for guarantees, remember?” Faith said.

  “You should.”

  “Why?”

  “You’re worth it.”

  “So are you, and you’re not asking.”

  Walker didn’t know what to say, so he shut his mouth and said nothing.

  A few moments later, the trap made a muffled splash as it hit the water again. It sank rapidly. Tiga straightened, rubbed her hands over her clothes, and picked up the oars again. Expertly she turned the skiff in place and rowed back toward them.

  “Damn,” breathed Walker. “We gotta get out of here.”

 
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