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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.6
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.6

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  Motionless, Walker forgot the ache in his leg and simply absorbed the painting. One of his goals in life was to have enough money to afford a Susa Donovan landscape. Until then, he didn’t mind waiting in her oldest son’s office.

  “Cut the crap, Jersey,” Archer said. “That shipment is four weeks and four days late. Either you deliver in three days or the contract is void and you owe Donovan International six hundred big ones in penalties.”

  The receiver met its cradle with a soft, final sound.

  Walker wondered if the guy on the other end was still talking. Probably. Not that it would have done any good. One of the things people had a hard time understanding about Archer was that he meant what he said and said what he meant.

  That was why Walker got along with him.

  Archer’s gray-green eyes took in the man standing quietly on the other side of the desk. Right now Walker looked like a backcountry gem expert and bush pilot, duties he often fulfilled for Donovan International. Jeans, blue work shirt, fleece-lined waterproof jacket, scarred hiking boots.

  And a low-tech wooden cane. Archer had the feeling the cane was a precaution rather than a necessity. Even recuperating, Walker was catlike on his feet. Quick mind, too, though he did his best to hide it behind a good-ol’-boy drawl and dark, close-cut beard. Archer’s own beard had a bit more length; his wife liked the way it felt on her skin.

  “Faith was burning up the phone lines,” Archer said.

  “Didn’t like my replacement?” Walker asked innocently.

  “She’s coming here to yell at me in person. And to hear all about how I yelled at you. At least, that’s what she hopes I’ll do. So tell me, am I going to yell at you?”

  Walker almost smiled. Archer wasn’t the yelling kind. He got better results without opening his mouth. He had a way of staring at people that made them hunt for a hole to hide in. “Yell away, boss. It will make your little sister feel a whole lot better.”

  Archer raked his fingers through his hair. “You’re pretty cocky for someone who could barely stand less than a week ago.”

  “I was lucky. Those bandits were too poor to buy bullets for their Kalashnikovs.”

  Archer smiled thinly. “Kalashnikovs? Russian antiques.”

  “You load ‘em and they shoot real fine.”

  “They make pretty good clubs, too.”

  “No argument here,” Walker said dryly. “I’ve got the lumps to prove it.”

  “You’re lucky those clowns didn’t have knives.”

  “They did.”

  Archer’s eyes narrowed. He pulled a thin sheaf of papers out from under a stack of file folders. He flipped through the papers quickly. Three pages summarizing three months of work. Walker was famous for his terse reports. “I don’t see anything here about knives.”

  Walker shrugged. “They didn’t cut me, so why waste words?”

  “I suppose if you didn’t have any bruises, you wouldn’t have reported the ambush?”

  “You and Kyle are hell-bent on getting some high-quality rubies that haven’t been cooked in the Thai cartel’s furnaces. My job was to scout the possibilities, not bitch about the conditions.”

  Archer pulled out the last page of the report and began reading aloud. “‘Chance of reaching ruby miners and/or smugglers before the Thais do: real slim.’” He looked up, pinning Walker with the kind of look that made most people uncomfortable. Walker didn’t react. That was one of the reasons Archer liked him. “Anything to add?”

  “Fucking.”

  “What?”

  “As in real fucking slim. I didn’t want to offend the data input pool.”

  “Mitchell does all my private reports. He doesn’t offend easily.”

  “I’ll keep that little thing in mind,” Walker said, his voice slow and amused.

  “Anything else you left out of the report?”

  “It’s damn cold in Afghanistan at this time of year.”

  Archer’s eyes narrowed. “How far did you get?”

  “Just to the mines at Jegdalek and Gandamak.”

  “Travel conditions?”

  “The southern route is still littered with land mines. The northern route is decent enough until you get to Sorobi. Then it unravels into a Jeep trail that swallows itself in dry washes and rockslides. A lot of the travel is done by the local equivalent of a mule because you can fuel a critter easier than a truck. The bandits are real active. The clans are slitting throats right and left, trying to catch up from all those years when the Soviets owned the real estate and the guns.”

  Archer glanced at the report. Walker’s arduous trip through the backwaters of Afghanistan rated one line: Primitive transport and mining conditions. “How primitive is the mining?”

  “A handful of men with pickaxes, a white limestone ledge with occasional nodules of red crystal showing through in the weathered parts, and a portable, sixty-pound pneumatic jackhammer that shakes itself apart once an hour, if they’re lucky enough to find fuel to run the compressor that long. Dynamite is easier to haul, so that’s what they mostly use. After the explosion it’s pick, hammer, and chisel work.”

  “Any quality to the stones?”

  “The ones that survive the blast?” Walker drawled.

  Wincing, Archer thought of greedy, unskilled men mining priceless ruby crystals with explosives. The picture was unpleasant.

  “Rumor has it that someone is digging on the sly in the Taghar mine,” Walker said. “That’s the one that the mujahideen buried to hide it from the Soviets. I saw one or two rough stones that were nearly pigeon-blood quality. One was twenty carats. The other was sixteen. A good cutter would §et ten and eight carats. Fine, really fine stones.” Walker shrugged. “By now, they’re cooked in Bangkok and wearing a ‘Burmese ruby’ tag. The other rough I saw varied from good to second rate.”

  “What was it selling for?”

  “The Thais have a lock on the legal output, and if you’re pushy and buy under the table, somehow the bandits find out. Bad news, boss. Really bad. Those ol’ boys are as hard as the mountain passes they control.”

  “But you brought out some rough gems anyway.”

  “That’s what you pay me for.”

  “I don’t pay you to get killed,” Archer retorted.

  “You want good rubies, you pay the going price. Burma’s Mogok mines are either played out or locked up tighter than a sultan’s virgin daughter. That leaves Cambodia, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Kenya.”

  “Justin and Lawe are working on Kenya. From what you’ve told me, the rest belongs to the Thais – lock, stock, and barrel.”

  “For now, anyway. No cartel lasts forever.”

  “Tell it to DeBeers.”

  Walker laughed softly. “They’ve ridden their diamond tiger real far, haven’t they? Been an inspiration to us all.”

  Archer didn’t look inspired. He looked irritated. He and his siblings – and now Jake, Honor’s husband – owned Donovan Gems and Minerals, a very loose affiliate of Donovan International, the family corporation. DeBeers’s control of the diamond market pretty well limited the rest of the world, including the Donovans, to smuggled or inferior diamonds. The ethnic Chinese Thais had become middlemen to the world for rubies. China and Japan had a stranglehold on pearls. The drug cartel or local warlords had a lock on Colombian emeralds.

  At the rate the planet was being carved up into gem fiefdoms, Donovan Gems and Minerals would be lucky to be selling “cultured” turquoise in a few years.

  “What’s on your mind, Walker?” Archer said. “And don’t bother with that shit-kicking country-boy shuffle. I saw through it the first time you cleaned me out at poker.”

  Walker managed not to smile. “Have you thought about the ruby resale market?”

  “The Thais don’t leave much room for anyone else to make a profit. Not in America, anyway. We just won’t pay as much for quality rubies as the rest of the world will.”

  “I’ve been thinking about that. There’s another way to
end-run the Thais.”

  “I’m listening.”

  “Mine old jewelry instead of old mines,” Walker said simply. “Buy estate jewelry from all over the world, take out the good stones, recut them if necessary, and sell them loose. You should be able to have a nice little high-end business, because you can guarantee Burmese rubies that haven’t been heat-treated. That’s about as rare these days as a natural pearl.”

  For a time Archer was silent. “Is there that much old jewelry floating around for sale?”

  “Gems have always been an aristocrat’s savings account. Think about all those centuries of European and Russian and Middle Eastern royalty. Think about all those nasty revolutions, wars, and financial crashes. Think about the cold economics and even colder economies of the former Soviet Union. Yeah, there are lots of family jewels for sale. Some of them are well worth buying.”

  “Interesting idea.” Archer looked out at the wind-whipped bay. “Any idea how to go about getting a handle on this resale market?”

  “Faith’s friends – the ones who sent her the rubies she’s working on – might be a good place to start.”

  Archer glanced at the door to his office. On the other side of it would soon be a sister he loved very much. A sister who was mad enough right now to scalp him with a dull knife. “Yeah, she mentioned something about those rubies. Said you stole them.”

  “Road apples. She wouldn’t come with me and I wasn’t going to leave rubies like that in the belly drawer of a bench in an unlocked shop in Pioneer Square.”

  “If I sit here long enough, you’ll tell me something useful.”

  “The rubies Faith’s friends sent her are fine, fine stones.”

  Archer’s black eyebrows went up. “How good?”

  “The best I’ve seen outside of museums and royal treasuries.”

  At first a soft whistle was Archer’s only answer. Then, “How much are they worth?”

  “Retail?”

  “Wholesale.”

  “Every cent of the million she’s trying to get them insured for. A lot more, in my opinion. A big Burmese ruby that hasn’t been heat-treated is more valuable than any other gemstone on earth, including diamonds.”

  “So what’s the problem with getting insurance?”

  “The GIA appraisers are backed up. They can’t guarantee getting the job done in time for Faith to set the rubies and polish the necklace up before the Savannah show. The insurers won’t sign on unless the GIA folks certify the rubies’ worth. No one wants to underwrite what might be a scam.”

  “What kind of scam?”

  “The usual. Fake appraisal, fake gems, fake theft, real insurance claim paid off in real cash.”

  “These rubies came from friends of Faith.”

  Walker thought about how very dead you could get trusting friends you hadn’t seen in a while. He had trusted the man who sent him into ambush. An old friend.

  “Whatever,” Walker said. “Even if you could get the gems appraised through an approved lab fast enough for the Savannah show, a lot of appraisers are too young to recognize natural Burmese rubies on sight, or even after a bunch of tests. Appraisal is almost as much art as science. You need a natural eye or wide experience to catch the nuances. There aren’t that many real, natural, high-quality Burmese rubies floating around.”

  “But Faith’s rubies are real, natural, and high-quality.” Though Archer said nothing more, there was a question buried in his words.

  Smiling, Walker reached down and began to unload the contents of the carton he had carried in. In short order he set up a binocular microscope, a polariscope, and an ultraviolet light on the low coffee table in front of the couch. Then he pulled out several small boxes. Among them was the one containing the gem packets that he had taken from Faith’s shop.

  The intercom on Archer’s desk buzzed, Mitchell trying to sound a warning. A second later the door to the office opened.

  Walker didn’t even look up. He already knew that the lady in the black cashmere slacks, ice-blue silk blouse, and black cashmere blazer was mad enough to take chunks out of his hide and never mind the taste of blood.

  “I’m over thirty,” Faith said angrily, “I own my own business, and I don’t need one of your house apes standing over me like an older brother.”

  “Hello to you, too,” Archer said.

  “House ape?” Walker asked under his breath.

  “The stage at which boys become teenagers with more height than couth,” Archer explained.

  Walker gave his boss a sideways look. “Uncouth, I’ve heard of. You sure couth is a word?”

  “Yes,” Faith said. “Somehow I’m not surprised you’ve never heard the word.”

  “I suppose ol’ road apples was a mountain of couth,” Walker said, turning back to his equipment.

  “Ol’ road apples?” Archer asked, one black eyebrow cocked.

  Red burned on Faith’s high cheekbones. “Never mind.”

  “Her fiance,” Walker said.

  Archer laughed out loud.

  “My ex-fiance,” Faith said through her teeth. “Big difference.”

  “The only one that matters,” Archer agreed. “Did you come to hear Walker’s explanation of why I should insure those rubies for a million bucks?”

  For two seconds Faith thought about how satisfying it would be to grab the rubies and walk out without a word. Then she thought about how dumb that would be. She needed insurance. Archer could provide it. But her brother was a businessman. He wouldn’t insure a pig in a poke, even for his sister.

  “I came because the instant Walker left my shop with those rubies, they were effectively uninsured,” she said evenly. “While I’m certain he’s competent enough flying an airplane, most crime in Seattle takes place on the ground.”

  Though she said nothing more, she looked at the cane resting against the coffee table.

  The suggestion that Walker wasn’t fit for security duty seemed to amuse Archer. He was surprised that his sister couldn’t see the gutter fighter disguised in casual clothing. But then, few people did. Being underestimated was one of Walker’s most valuable assets. It allowed him to talk his way out of situations that other men would try to handle with a gun.

  “I’ll be responsible for the rubies while they’re in Walker’s care,” Archer said.

  “But not while they’re in mine?” Faith retorted.

  “Do you want them insured or not?”

  “Of course I want them insured.”

  “Then let our resident ruby expert explain to me why I should accept his valuation. Because I sure as hell won’t do it on the word of some South Carolina dandy who happens to have a jewelry store in the family.”

  “Don’t worry,” Walker said. “The gems are real.”

  “Of course they are,” she said.

  “Archer is just being careful,” Walker said soothingly. “Comes of having to do business with countries where the old order gave way to new criminals.”

  “Since when has Donovan International done business with criminals?” she asked her brother.

  “You have a touching trust in elected politicians,” Walker muttered.

  She ignored him.

  “If you want to do business in what was once the Soviet Union,” Archer said, “and Donovan International does, one way or another you deal with the various mafiyas.”

  “They must be making a lot of long spoons in Russia today,” she said dryly.

  Archer gave a crack of laughter.

  Smiling, Walker looked up at Faith. “Sure enough. Folks who sit down to eat with the devil don’t want to get their pinkies burned.”

  She blinked, surprised at the change a simple smile made in his looks. Not that he didn’t usually smile, but this one was different. She couldn’t say just how it was different. Warmer, maybe, like the one he gave Summer.

  The idea that Walker genuinely enjoyed her sense of humor both surprised and charmed Faith. It was like being with her family.

  “Ex
actly,” she said, grinning back at Walker. Then she realized what she was doing and stopped. She was supposed to be angry, but it was hard when she was smiling. She groaned. “Now I see why fraternizing with the enemy isn’t allowed.”

  “I’m not the enemy, sugar.”

  “That remains to be seen, sugar.”

  “There you go,” he said. “See, we’ve already reached an understanding, exchanging pet names and all. Next thing you know, we’ll be setting a date to get matching leg shackles.”

  Faith shook her head in exasperation. Walker must have been taking lessons from her brothers. It was hard to stay angry at him.

  Smiling, Walker bent over the microscope and finished positioning the first gem. “Ready for a thumbnail education on rubies, Archer?”

  “I’m always ready to learn.”

  “That was the second thing I noticed about you,” Walker said.

  “What was the first?” Faith asked.

  “That your brother hadn’t come up against a better poker player in a long time.”

  “You’re better than Archer?”

  “Hate to admit it, but it’s true,” Archer said. “We got grounded by weather out beyond the Brooks Range in Alaska, looking for the Alaskan version of those Canadian diamond mines. By the time the storm cleared, I was down to my Jockey shorts and the parka he lent me at an exorbitant interest rate.”

  “It’s the drawl,” Walker said, focusing the microscope with great care. “Gets you Yankees every time. Y’all believe something so soft and slow just has to be dumb as a stump.”

  Faith snickered and looked at her older brother. If he had any hard feelings about being trounced at poker, they didn’t show. He was smiling and shaking his head at the memory.

  “Okay, boss,” Walker said, straightening. “Take a look.”

  Archer sat on the couch, leaned over, and looked. After a few moments he asked, “What about those cloudy patches?”

 
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