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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.5
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.5

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  “Too late.” He grinned. “The Donovan beat you to it.”

  Faith laughed. “That’s Dad for you. He’ll hover over his daughters like a helicopter and then turn around and hire a woman with a gun to protect him.”

  “Hey, be fair. Your father hasn’t hovered over Honor lately.”

  “Why bother? She has Jake now. He’s a world-class hovercraft.” Faith handed Ray his coffee. “Now, sit over there by the espresso machine and pretend to be invisible. I’ve got some paperwork to clear up before my three-o’clock appointment comes in. Afterward I’m going to close up shop and go rip a bloody strip off Owen Walker and Archer. With luck, I’ll catch them together.”

  Ray knew she would, because Walker had told him he had a 3:20 appointment with Archer. But that wasn’t Ray’s business. Protecting Faith Donovan was, for the moment.

  He took a sip of the coffee, sighed deeply, and said, “The only thing you do better than making coffee is making jewelry. Those matching rings you designed for my parents’ fiftieth anniversary were just plain perfect.”

  “More flattery? I just made you coffee. You angling for seconds?”

  “Not yet. And it’s fact, not flattery.”

  Ray walked over to a chair near the coffee machine. As he sat, he unbuttoned his sport coat so that it wouldn’t get in the way of the shoulder harness he wore. Resting his left ankle on his right knee, he shifted around until his gun didn’t dig into his ribs. The motions were entirely automatic. He had been retired from Los Angeles PD for four years. Twenty years of detecting all the ways man screwed his fellow man had been enough.

  He pulled a magazine from his hip pocket and began reading about upcoming sales of the antique Christmas ornaments that he and his second wife collected.

  For a few minutes the only sound in the shop was the whisper of pencil over paper and the creak of the swivel chair Faith sat in. Neither she nor the guard looked up when a lay preacher across the street in Pioneer Square started yelling about Armageddon. Since the millennium had already turned, there wasn’t much of an audience for prophecies of sacred blood and gore.

  The door buzzer rang. Faith looked up and saw a well-dressed man of medium height standing on the other side of the break-proof glass door.

  “Know him?” Ray asked, eyeing the sleek, expensive leather coat whipping around the man’s calves. Hat and gloves. European, likely. Most Americans liked their leather coats hip length.

  “I’ve never met the man, but I’m guessing his name is Ivanovitch. He has a three-o’clock appointment.”

  “He’s early.”

  “What’s eight minutes among friends?” she asked dryly.

  “Let him in. The sooner I’m finished, the sooner I can get my hands on my brother.”

  Ray put the magazine aside and went to open the door. “May I help you?” he asked politely.

  “Yes, thank you.” Ivanovitch summed up Ray with a quick glance. A guard, armed, alert. Not unexpected, but hardly welcome. “I am Ivanovitch.”

  As an ex-cop, Ray didn’t like overcoats. They could hide too much, and anybody who wore a long coat in L.A. probably had a lot to hide. As a Seattle guard, he had become accustomed to seeing overcoats. They were no longer a reason for instant suspicion.

  But he still didn’t like them.

  “Come in, Mr. Ivanovitch,” Ray said. “Ms. Donovan is expecting you. May I take your coat?”

  “Thank you, no. I have not long to stay.”

  Ray eyed the man’s thick shoulders and the beginning of a belly. Now he really wished he could see beneath the coat. But he couldn’t, so he would just watch the leather-gloved hands and the blue-gray eyes and wait for any telltale signs of nervousness.

  Smiling, Faith walked forward. When she held out her hand, Mr. Ivanovitch bowed briefly over it instead of shaking it as she had expected.

  European for sure, Ray decided. He stepped back a few feet but didn’t go back to his chair. He had been trained to fade into the background without moving more than a few inches. He was good at it.

  “May I offer you coffee?” Faith asked.

  “Thank you, no.” Despite a raging case of jet lag compounded by vodka and anger, Ivanovitch managed a creditable smile. “Please excuse. My time is small and my need is big.”

  She hoped her smile hid her relief. She really didn’t feel like courting a customer over coffee and small talk.

  “Then I’ll do my best to help you quickly, Mr. Ivanovitch. You mentioned something about a carved stone, but not a modern one?”

  “A ruby, yes,” he said, watching her intently, seeking any of the usual signs of nervousness. He saw clear skin, a trace of impatience that had nothing to do with nerves, and forthright blue eyes. “A gift, you comprehend? To my mother. She cherishes such things. To celebrate her eightieth name day, I wish to make a proper gift.” He leaned forward, measuring every nuance of Faith’s expression. “I am told a designer of your high quality has such stones.”

  Faith ignored the flattery and forced herself not to step back from the man’s intense eyes and manner. She felt surrounded by him, almost threatened. She reminded herself that conversational distance varied from culture to culture. Putting more space between herself and her client could easily be interpreted as rudeness.

  She held her ground. “I have a few carved rubies. My brothers travel all over the world. They keep their eyes open for special stones for my jewelry-design business.”

  “Excellent.”

  “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll get them.”

  Ivanovitch nodded in the manner of a man who was accustomed to being waited on. While Faith went to the closet-sized, high-tech safe, he glanced through the contents of her glass cases. Whatever he might have thought of the unusual designs didn’t show on his broad face.

  Discreetly Ray watched the client when the safe door swung soundlessly open. For all the reaction Ivanovitch gave, Faith could have been opening a closet full of cleaning supplies. Nor did he seem to care that she closed and locked the safe behind her when she brought out a handful of boxes.

  Ray moved to a different angle when she set out the boxes on top of one of the glass display cases. He was pleased to note that Faith stayed on the opposite side of the case from the unknown client. Apparently some of his safety pointers had stuck in her stubborn Donovan mind. Or maybe she just didn’t like the smell of stale cigarettes that clung to the man’s expensive clothes.

  Shifting slightly, Ray moved to a position where he could get between Faith and her customer in one step. Not that he expected to. Like unbuttoning his jacket when he sat, it was simply second nature to position himself to be in the right place in case things went wrong.

  Ivanovitch noticed and understood every move. Fortunately, he was prepared to buy the ruby at any price. Tarasov had made it clear that he didn’t want any incidents, any publicity, any hint that the ruby had ever left the Hermitage. Ivanovitch knew the cost of failing. He had no desire to become wedded to the Neva’s icy surface, only to vanish forever with the spring thaw.

  “I have only three carved rubies that aren’t modern,” Faith said. “They’re fairly rare. Most of the carvings were done by Mughals or Persians, and they favored emeralds. In addition to being a holy color, emerald is softer, and therefore easier to carve than a ruby. Nothing is harder than a ruby except a diamond. Today, of course, modern machinery allows any stone to be carved. The Germans excel at it.”

  Ivanovitch listened politely, but his eyes never left the box that Faith was opening. He was waiting for the first sign that the Heart of Midnight was within reach.

  Seeing his intensity, Faith almost smiled. No matter the nationality, a collector was still a collector – avid to acquire something new. She was willing to bet that beneath his expensive leather gloves, his palms were sweating. No matter what he had said before, he wasn’t buying a stone for his eighty-year-old mother’s name day. He was buying for himself.

  He wasn’t the first client to use a sentimental occasion
such as a wedding anniversary or a birthday in an attempt to shift the bargaining in his favor. At least Ivanovitch hadn’t claimed a dying fiance, as one would-be client had, hoping to get a special price and earnestly swearing to sell it all back to Faith as soon as his poor fiance died.

  Sometimes people really did believe that blond hair had a negative effect on a woman’s IQ, With a subtle flourish, Faith removed the lid of the box.

  A glance told Ivanovitch that his search wasn’t over. The ruby resting on bronze velvet was perhaps six carats. The gem was much longer than it was thick, and rudely faceted around the edges. The carving was on the back and had to be viewed from the top to make sense, always assuming the viewer understood Arabic.

  “This is a quote from the Koran that-” Faith began.

  “No,” Ivanovitch interrupted bluntly. “It will not do. It is too small. Too pale. You comprehend? I must have a very fine stone.”

  Without a word she put the lid on the box and set it aside. Some anonymous, long-dead artisan had labored for weeks or months over a hard stone to inscribe a sacred verse that could be read only with a magnifying glass, but that didn’t seem to impress the impatient Mr. Ivanovitch.

  She reached for the second box. If six carats was too small, she doubted that seven and a quarter would do, but you never could tell. The color of the second ruby was certainly better. Not up to the Montegeau stones, but then, few rubies were.

  “This stone – ”

  “Too small,” he said curtly. “I told you. Very, very fine. Please, let us not waste time.”

  She slipped the lid back over the box. As she put the rejected stone aside, she hoped Ivanovitch had the money to back up his taste. The next stone was nine carats, had good color, light flaws, and would cost him $75,000. The inscription on the back was another verse from the Koran, this one wishing paradise to the holy and eternal misery to the infidel.

  Ivanovitch saw the flowing Arabic script and dismissed the stone without a word.

  “This ruby is nine point one carats,” Faith said, but the client’s face had already told her he didn’t want it.

  “No. Still too small. What else do you have?”

  Faith covered the box, put it with the others, and looked at the very fussy Mr. Ivanovitch. “I’m sorry. That’s my inventory of carved rubies. If you would like to look at other types of gems, I have several – ”

  “I was told you had exceptionally fine stones,” he cut in harshly.

  “I do.” Faith was used to being interrupted. It came with having big brothers. Even so, she was getting tired of not being able to finish a sentence around this abrupt man.

  “I was assured that you had a stone such as I want. Have you sold one recently?”

  “A carved ruby?”

  He gestured curtly and nodded. “But of course. That is what I seek. A fine, large, carved ruby. Have I not told you?”

  Ray shifted slightly. He really wished he had frisked this guy. It might have improved his manners.

  “I haven’t sold a carved ruby for more than a year,” Faith said. “There isn’t much call for carved rubies except as curiosities or centerpieces for unique jewelry.”

  Ivanovitch looked at the safe for the first time. “You are certain this is all you have?”

  “Yes.”

  He didn’t bother to look convinced. “Please understand me. I can pay you well, very well. I need – want this stone very much.”

  “That’s always good to hear. If you could tell me exactly what kind of stone would suit you, perhaps I could find one for you. I have extensive connections among collectors and buyers of unusual jewelry.”

  “Very fine color,” he said. “What is known as blood of the pigeon.”

  Faith nodded.

  “Flawless, or nearly so.”

  She nodded again, and started toting up the cost per carat. Even if all she did was broker the deal for another jeweler, her commission would be very nice.

  “The inscription is Mughal and secular,” he continued.

  Her eyebrows lifted. “Your, er, mother is quite exacting.”

  Ivanovitch didn’t even pause. “Twenty carats.”

  Faith whistled. “That would be quite a stone. And very, very expensive. Given that size, color, and clarity, your price would be at least one hundred thousand a carat, and could easily be twice as much.”

  The client’s smile was more predatory than warm. “As I said, I can pay you very, very well. Now get the stone from the safe for me, Miss Donovan, and we can discuss price.

  There is no more need to be cautious. We understand each other, yes?”

  “Not quite,” she said dryly. “I don’t carry multimillion-dollar stones in my inventory, Mr. Ivanovitch. I would be delighted to look for such a stone for you, but frankly, if you’re in a hurry, you’d do better to go to Manhattan or London or Tokyo or Thailand. I could give you some contacts that – ”

  “I was assured that you have such a stone,” he cut in. His hazel eyes were narrowed and his mouth looked ready to snarl.

  Ray’s hand slipped beneath his jacket. There was more than insistence in Ivanovitch’s tone. There was real anger, the kind that led to violence.

  “Whoever assured you was mistaken,” Faith said evenly. “I’d love to have such a magnificent ruby. I don’t.” She waved a hand. “As you can see, this isn’t Tiffany or Carrier.”

  For a blazing instant Ivanovitch imagined what Faith would look like beneath his knife, bleeding and pleading and so terribly eager to hand over the Heart of Midnight.

  But such a pleasure must be delayed. Her guard was far too alert.

  Faith watched what could have been temper or embarrassment flare on Ivanovitch’s cheekbones. He bowed briefly, turned quickly, and strode out the door.

  “Guess he doesn’t want me to look around for his, uh, mother’s gift,” she said dryly to Ray.

  “Guess not.” He watched until Ivanovitch disappeared around the corner. Only then did his hand move away from his jacket. “Wherever he came from, he’s used to getting what he wants.”

  “And fast,” she agreed. “Well, searching for a stone like that will teach him patience.” She looked around the shop. “You’ve got five minutes to finish your coffee. That’s how long it will take me to lock up. Then you can follow me to Donovan headquarters and keep me from killing someone.”

  The man held the phone the way a strangler holds his chosen victim. Plastic is harder than flesh, which was all that saved the black receiver from being crushed like the cigar butts in the ashtray on the bedside table.

  “What do you mean she doesn’t have it?” Tarasov snarled into the phone. “Offer her more.”

  The woman next to him – Tarasov’s most recent girlfriend – grumbled and snuggled deeper into the satin sheets that felt so soft against her bruised breasts. She had labored hard tonight, keeping him up and pumping like a teenager. It was sweaty, difficult, distasteful, and often painful work, but paid better than hustling drinks and foreign nationals in hope of snagging a husband who could get her out of St. Petersburg’s frozen hell to some warm, foreign heaven.

  She was careful not to show any interest in the conversation that had interrupted her sleep. She didn’t want to know how her lover made the money that kept her in Russian sable, Italian leather, Chinese silk, African diamonds, and French champagne. She was just bright enough to figure out that the less she knew, the longer she lived in luxury. Or lived at all.

  As Tarasov listened to his employee’s excuses, his normally ruddy cheeks went even darker with anger. With eyes as cold and empty as the frozen river that coiled through the city, he thought of the many pleasurable ways there were to kill a human being. What he tried not to think about was how very unpleasant it would be to find himself on the receiving end of such knowledge.

  If that ruby wasn’t back in the Hermitage in two weeks, he would find out more than he wanted to know about pain and dying.

  “Bring me that ruby in thirteen days or you wi
ll wish you had been born dead.” He hit the cutoff button and smacked the cellular phone on the bedside table so hard that it nearly cracked the marble.

  Half a world away, Ivanovitch stared at the public phone. Seattle’s afternoon traffic swirled past him. The wind tugged at his sleek leather coat. Slowly he hung up, hit the button that invited him to make another call, and started punching in numbers with a blunt, nicely manicured fingertip. As soon as the slow, husky voice answered, Ivanovitch started talking.

  “She denies that she has the ruby.”

  Silence, the sound of someone swallowing hard. “She’s lying. I sent it to her on consignment.”

  “Get it back.”

  “She must have sold it. That’s why she’s lying. She’s trying to cut me out of my share.”

  “I am not interested in your problems. I will see you in ten days. If I do not have the ruby at that time, I will cut off your cock and push it down your throat.”

  “But I don’t-”

  Ivanovitch slammed the receiver down and vibrated with hunger to have his hands on Faith Donovan’s pale skin.

  6

  The medium-size high-rise overlooking Elliot Bay’s wind-harried water was a long way from the sultry green jungles of Myanmar. Or Burma, as the stubborn gem traders called it. No one would pay a premium for a Myanmar ruby, but a fine bloodred Burmese ruby… ah, that was something worth risking life and limb for.

  At least, that was the theory. It was also the reason Owen Walker was presently leaning on a cane. At least the limb in question, his left leg, was nearly healed.

  “You summoned, master?” he drawled to the man behind the desk, although it had been Walker who had asked to see Archer Donovan, not the other way around.

  Archer slanted him a look, put up two fingers, and kept on talking into the phone. “You told me the same thing last week. Should I just make a tape and play it again next week?”

  Hiding a smile, Walker set the carton down on the floor and looked around the office. Archer’s desk was almost big enough to hold the papers piled on top of it. Newsletters and magazines that dealt with policy changes in global backwaters were scattered across the low sofa that ran along one wall and curled out in a cozy L. The sleek coffee table nestled along the sofa held art glass in controlled curves and vivid sunset colors. The painting on the wall had the same colors, but it was more elemental, more powerful, sunset like a tidal wave of color devouring the land.

 
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