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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.37
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.37

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  He switched positions and grabbed an oar. There was no room to turn the boat around. He would have to pole stern-first. It was going to be awkward, especially with Faith in the way.

  “Sit down and don’t move if you can help it,” he said.

  For once, she didn’t ask questions. She just sat as fast as she could without dumping both of them over the side. Walker poled quickly, powerfully, but Tiga was gaining.

  They burst out into the main channel a few seconds before she did. Walker looked around quickly and spotted the only possible cover, a dense clump of marsh grass. He nosed the skiff into the grass as Tiga’s bow appeared a dozen yards away. They froze and sat motionless.

  Faith felt as naked as a heron’s legs. She held her breath as the sounds of Tiga’s oars grew closer. The old woman’s skiff would pass a few yards from theirs. She would surely be able to see them, even without goggles. And if she did, she would be able to double-back before they could stop her, snatch the trap, and disappear again into the marsh, this time forever, with a million dollars in gems plus God only knew what else.

  But if Tiga noticed anything wrong, she didn’t show it. She simply rowed toward Ruby Bayou with an easy rhythm, as though she was headed home after a pleasant night on the water.

  Walker waited until he was certain Tiga had gone before he backed the skiff out and looked around.

  Nothing but marsh, wind, and night tinged green by the glasses.

  His grin flashed, pale against the darkness. “Let’s go see what’s for dinner.”

  He made quick work of getting through the tight channel and into the opening beyond. The float that marked the crab trap’s location was so covered with mud and algae that he looked for five really long minutes before he found it. He wondered how Tiga had managed without high-tech aids.

  The line attached to the float was dark and overgrown with slime. It was as slippery as fish guts and just as cold. He wrapped the line around his hands and pulled. Drops of pale green water whipped off the nylon rope as he drew it in. “Well?” Faith asked after a few seconds. “Doesn’t feel like crabs.”

  “How do you know?”

  “Experience.”

  She would have danced with impatience if there had been room. She forgot to be afraid of the skiff and almost tipped them over trying to stand up.

  “You fixing to dunk us?” he asked without breaking the rhythm of pulling up line.

  Before Faith could answer, the crab pot broke the surface of the water. Streamers of green glowed as water sheeted off the pot and back to the marsh.

  Walker grunted as he heaved the pot aboard. “Tiga’s stronger than she looks.”

  Faith didn’t say anything. She stared at the black, rectangular box that all but filled the trap. It didn’t look at all like silver. “Is it…?”

  “The Blessing Chest,” Walker said. “She’s had it all along.”

  “It doesn’t look like much.”

  “Wrong. It looks exactly like silver that’s been in brackish water for forty years.”

  The hinges of the chest had long since corroded through. The lock was equally useless. With a few flashing motions of his knife, he cut the line that was wrapped around the chest. Automatically he sheathed the blade again. Gently, carefully, he sat facing Faith with the cold, heavy chest on his thighs. “Why don’t you ease that lid off, sugar?”

  “Sure thing.” She brushed her lips over his mouth, teased the outline with her tongue. “Sugar.”

  His blood leaped. “You’re fixing to get in trouble.”

  “Sure am. Later.”

  He grinned. “I’ll hold you to it.”

  The chest was about fourteen inches by eight. Faith reached for the lid, then hesitated. “What wrong?” he asked.

  “I’m thinking about Pandora,” she admitted.

  “The lid on this box of trouble was lifted a long time ago. There’s nothing but good luck left.”

  “I hope so.” She let out a breath, grasped the lid carefully, and tugged upward.

  Nothing moved.

  Walker took a better grip on the bottom, which was a lot cleaner than the rope had been. The deeply incised design on the chest gave him a good hold. “Go ahead.”

  Faith clamped her hands on the cold metal and lifted. With a gnashing sound the lid came off.

  Wearing a halo of pearls, the Heart of Midnight lay on the top of a gleaming pile of jewelry.

  Pushing aside his night glasses, Walker lifted the big stone out. Night stole color from the ruby, but couldn’t fully quench its fire. It shimmered blackly, like fresh blood welling up in moonlight.

  Faith watched him stare at the stone for a long, long time while wind whispered secrets to the marsh. The look on his face was one of utter fascination and a kind of reverence that made her throat tighten with emotions she couldn’t name. She only knew that she would have given a thousand stones like the Heart of Midnight if Walker would look at her the way he looked at it.

  “You could go a lifetime and never touch a gem half so fine,” he said, his voice deep. “Damn, but she’s beautiful. Every ruby hunter’s dream lying in the palm of my hand…”

  Finally he pulled the chamois pouch from his pocket and put the Heart of Midnight in it. Standing, he unbuttoned his jeans and slid the ruby into the hidden pocket of his shorts.

  He sat down lightly, then reached inside to shift everything into a more comfortable position. It wasn’t easy. Faith’s teasing little kiss had sent blood rushing to his crotch.

  “Need any help?” she asked blandly.

  He shot her a look. “Later.”

  “I’ll hold you to it.”

  “Sugar, I’m counting on it. This is a night worth celebrating.”

  She smiled despite the sadness wrapping around her throat like a ruby rope wound too tightly over soft flesh.

  Walker pulled his goggles into place and picked up the oars. Fifteen minutes later, the dock at Ruby Bayou appeared in the night. The lights in the big house were still on when he brought the skiff to the rickety wharf. Boomer was inside, baying his fool head off. He had caught a hot scent and he damn well wanted to chase it.

  “I’ll steady the boat while you get out,” Walker said. Faith climbed out more skillfully than she had scrambled into the skiff an hour before. Her jeans were clammy and slick from sitting in the bottom of the boat, she wouldn’t have paid a penny for another ride, but at least she was no longer terrified at the thought of being in a small boat.

  That’s worth something, she told herself. Not as much as the Heart of Midnight, nowhere near as much as Walker’s love, but she wasn’t going to howl at the moon over it. Tony had taught her that wishing for something didn’t make it happen. You were better off enjoying what you had and leaving the yearning for people who hadn’t learned just how little wishing was worth.

  “You falling asleep?” Walker asked. He set the Blessing Chest on the wharf with a soft thud.

  “Nope.” Faith set her goggles aside and rubbed her burning eyes. “Just tired. All the excitement, I guess.” She started down the narrow wood strip toward the scrub-lined trail. “I’ll go tell April Joy that her ship has come in.”

  “Hold on, sugar. The tide is dropping. I have to loosen the line on the skiff.”

  Faith turned back toward Walker and waited.

  Neither of them saw the shape separate itself from the scrub and glide down to the wharf. Neither of them sensed the danger until much too late. Suddenly a strong arm encircled Faith’s neck. Before she could scream, a hand clamped over her mouth.

  “Do not struggle, Miss Donovan,” Ivanovitch said calmly. “The slightest movement and I will slit your throat.”

  35

  Walker saw instantly that the Russian was in control. Faith was a breath away from dying. Like his brother Lot, she had made the mistake of trusting the wrong man.

  An icy, lethal rage swept through Walker. “She doesn’t have the ruby.” He wrenched off the lid of the Blessing Chest and dropped it on the
dock. “I do.”

  “The Heart of Midnight?” the Russian demanded. The night goggles he wore were smaller and less effective than theirs, but worked well enough. “You have this?”

  Their only chance was to shift Ivanovitch’s attention away from Faith. Walker dug into the cold chest and came up with a handful of gleaming jewelry. “It’s right here.”

  He opened his fingers and let the gems fall back into the tarnished silver chest before Ivanovitch could see any more than a tumble of glittery light.

  “Bring the ruby here,” the Russian ordered.

  That was the last thing Walker intended to do. The instant Ivanovitch got his hands on the Heart of Midnight, Faith was dead and so was he.

  Faith knew it as well as Walker did. She tried to move. She couldn’t. The least motion choked her. Her shoes were soft, useless as a weapon. Nor could she slam an elbow or fist into his balls. The man holding her was much more experienced than she was. He knew all the moves and had already countered them.

  “No ruby until you let her go,” Walker said.

  “Bring it here or she dies now.”

  “Kill her and you’re a dead man.”

  Like everything else pale, Ivanovitch’s smile looked green. “I’m not afraid of you, little man. Bring me the ruby.”

  “I’m not the one who’s fixing to kill you,” Walker drawled. “Marat Tarasov will take care that. But I imagine he’ll amuse himself first. He wouldn’t want the man who lost the Heart of Midnight to die an easy death.”

  “Bring it now!”

  Walker lifted the chest like a man ready to fling water from a bucket. “Let her go back to the house or I’ll scatter this jewelry all over the bayou. You won’t be able to do a damn thing about it.” His voice was like his stance, matter-of-fact. “You might get lucky and find the Heart of Midnight again, but not in time to do you or your boss any good. I’m counting to three. One.”

  A combination of fear and fury made Ivanovitch tremble.

  “Two.”

  Both Faith and the Russian saw Walker turn toward the dark waters, preparing to throw all the gems into the bayou.

  “No!” Ivanovitch said. He turned and shoved Faith from him so hard that she staggered up the path toward the house. “See this? She is free!”

  Walker didn’t look away from the Russian.

  One down, one to go.

  But first he had to get Ivanovitch close. “Get going, sugar.”

  “But-”

  “Now,” Walker said.

  As Ivanovitch started for Walker, Faith turned and sprinted toward the house. She knew just where the Montegeaus kept their infamous shotgun. A minute away, two at most. Two for running back. Four minutes.

  Surely Walker could hold the Russian at bay that long.

  But she was very much afraid he couldn’t. Ivanovitch was strong and frighteningly precise. He knew exactly how much pressure it took to subdue, to stun, or to destroy.

  She took the steps to the back porch in a single leap and slammed through the screen door. The kitchen was dark, the hall light was almost blinding. She ripped the goggles from her eyes and kept running. She burst into the library, where April, Peel, and Farnsworth were taking turns working Davis like a tag team. The lawyer had given up and gone home. “What the hell?” Farnsworth said, reaching for her. She twisted free and grabbed the gun off its pegs. “Get out of the way!” As she spun around, she automatically shifted the shotgun so that its barrel pointed toward the ceiling. She may not have been a fisherman, but she had listened while her brothers taught her to handle guns. “Ivanovitch has Walker on the wharf!” She ran for the door.

  Farnsworth didn’t ask for explanations. He just started after Faith. But as quick as the agent was, Faith had an edge. She knew where she was going. She beat him through the house, out the kitchen door, and onto the path. Farnsworth’s eyes had to adjust to darkness. Faith’s didn’t. One-handed, she yanked the goggles back into place and lengthened her stride. Running hard, she burst out of the shrubbery at the base of the dock just as the soul-chilling wail of Crying Girl rose like black mist ahead.

  “Walker!” Faith screamed.

  The wharf was empty except for a huddle of clothes. “Walker!”

  Crying Girl’s scream was the only answer, rising and falling, rippling like dark water through the night. “Walker,” Faith said raggedly. “Where are you?” When Farnsworth lifted the shotgun from her hands, she didn’t fight him.

  The gun was heavy, double-barreled, and fully loaded, as Farnsworth discovered after a quick check. It was far more effective than the service weapon on his hip. He cocked the twin hammers and pointed the gun toward the end of the wharf.

  “What’s that on the dock?” Farnsworth asked evenly.

  Faith was afraid it was Walker. “I don’t want to know.”

  “Then give me the goggles.”

  Faith ignored him.

  The terrible cry rose for a third time.

  “Christ,” Farnsworth muttered. “Makes me hope they use silver bullets around here.”

  The bundle at the end of the dock stirred, then seemed to grow into human form. The green-tinged reality of the goggles showed a woman’s pale, wild eyes and equally wild hair gleaming above darkness. Then a dark cape parted to reveal the pale clothing beneath.

  “Tiga,” Faith said in disbelief. “It’s Jeffs aunt.”

  As though answering, Tiga threw back her head and wailed, Crying Girl come to life.

  “You see anyone else?” Farnsworth asked, watching the path over his shoulder.

  “No. Here.” Faith took off the night goggles and yanked them over the agent’s head. “I’ll see if Tiga knows anything.”

  Carefully Faith inched down the dock, letting her reflexes adjust to a much darker night.

  Tiga felt the old boards move and turned around. “Ruby? I thought you were gone. Your soul is.”

  Faith looked at Tiga’s feet. The contents of the Blessing Chest were scattered around on the boards. She recognized her three missing pieces, but there was nothing that looked like the Heart of Midnight. Then she saw a pool of something thick and wet and black on the dock. It didn’t look like water. She touched it and shuddered.

  Blood.

  “My soul and I are together,” Faith said to Tiga, forcing her voice to be gentle. “Did you see Walker?”

  The older woman sank down on the dock and began sorting through a fortune in ruby jewelry. If she noticed the blood, it didn’t matter to her. She was intent on putting the Blessing Chest back together. Stones made tiny, almost musical sounds as they tumbled back into the silver box’s cold interior.

  “Tiga? Did you see Walker?”

  “They left, precious.”

  “Where did they go?”

  Tiga flinched at the sharp demand in Faith’s voice.

  “Where did they go?” Faith repeated softly.

  “Out there, with the other dead ones.”

  Faith looked beyond Tiga’s pale, outflung hand to Ruby Bayou. She saw nothing but night. Then she realized that there was only one skiff tied at the dock.

  “They took a skiff,” she said to Farnsworth. “Can you see anything?”

  “No. But don’t worry. Walker is a lot tougher than he looks.”

  “So is Ivanovitch.”

  “Yeah,” Farnsworth said reluctantly. “The man’s a pro.”

  “Professional what?”

  Farnsworth didn’t answer. He didn’t think that Faith would be comforted knowing that Walker and a professional killer had rowed off into the night together.

  Tiga stepped over the Blessing Chest and went to her skiff. “Watch these souls for me, precious baby. I’ll be getting yours.”

  “It’s safe, Tiga. It’s with me. Walker kept us safe.”

  The old woman hesitated in the act of untying the skiff. “Walker? Is he the young man who likes my gravy?”

  “Yes.”

  “Oh.” Tiga looked at the line as though wondering what it was doing
in her hand. “You sure, precious? I can’t rest if you’re unhappy.”

  “I’m sure, Tiga. Go rest. I have everything I need. Thank you.”

  Tiga let out a long sigh. “I’m tired. I haven’t slept for a long, long time.”

  “Then go up to the house and sleep. No one will ever harm you again. You’re safe, and so am I.”

  A slow, warm smile spread over Tiga’s face. “Thank you for coming back, Ruby darling. Seeing you eased my mind. I know you can’t stay long. God has other things for his angels to do. But you be sure to say goodbye to me before you go, so I won’t be roaming the marsh and crying for you.”

  “I will, Tiga. Good night.”

  “Good night, precious.”

  Farnsworth watched the old woman merge with the darkness on the path back to the house. He shook his head, wondering what that had all been about. When he turned to ask Faith, she was putting the lid back on the chest. He saw the gleam and slide of tears on her face and decided not to ask any questions after all. He simply stood close by, watching the night.

  Finally, slowly, a skiff separated from the marsh grasses and headed for the dock. Farnsworth watched intently for several moments, wanting to be sure. Then he was.

  “Dry your tears,” he said softly. “Your man is back.”

  “He’s not mine.”

  “Then he’s a damn fool.”

  “He wouldn’t be the first,” Faith said.

  The skiff slid up to the dock. “You calling me names, Farnsworth?”

  “Just the ones you earn,” the agent retorted.

  “There you go.”

  Faith knew her tears showed. She didn’t care. “Where is Ivanovitch?”

  Walker pulled the night goggles off and rubbed at the sweat that was stinging his eyes. “I lost him.”

  “He must be a hell of a swimmer,” Farnsworth said neutrally.

  “Like a fish,” Walker said. “Just like a fish.”

  One look at Walker’s weary, grim eyes told Farnsworth that the Russian was indeed swimming with the fish. “April Joy is going to be one irritated lady.”

  “Not when I show her this,” Walker said, reaching into his pants.

  When he pulled out his hand again, the Heart of Midnight gleamed on his palm, a baby’s fist surrounded by angel tears.

 
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