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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.7
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.7

           Elizabeth Lowell

  “They’re called ‘silk’ in the trade,” Walker said. “Or if you want to be technical, they’re tiny exsolved inclusions. Too many and you have an opaque stone.”

  “ ‘Silk’ works for me.”

  “Works for the color, too,” Walker said, “if you have just the right amount. See, when it comes to faceting, rubies are touchy. If you cut the facets too deep or too shallow – and Thai cutters do it all the time to get the maximum carat weight from each piece of rough – then you get windows and extinction along some of the facets.”

  Faith came around the table and peered down at the tiny, intense scrap of red Archer was examining through the binocular lenses of the scope. She couldn’t see the inclusions with her unaided eye.

  Archer could see them, but not the rest of what Walker was talking about. “Windows? Extinction?” Archer asked. “Try it in English. Pearls are my specialty, not hard stones.”

  “Windows happen when light just goes through a faceted gem without being refracted,” Walker explained. “The stone becomes a windowpane. The result is a pale spot in the gem where the window is. Extinction is when light coming into the stone escapes out the side rather than being refracted back into the center. It makes a dark spot. What you want is an even distribution of color. With rubies, it’s a bitch kitty to get.”

  Coming closer, Faith leaned past Walker to look at the ruby glowing like a live ember in the steel grasp of the microscope. She put her hand on her brother’s shoulder and nudged, but he didn’t take the hint.

  Walker didn’t move either. He just savored the warmth and scent of Faith standing inches away from him. Then he dragged his thoughts back to the rubies.

  “A good cut minimizes extinction,” Walker said, “but nothing stops it. It’s just the way rubies are. The beauty of Burmese rubies, and what makes them so valuable, is that their natural silk transmits light to facets that might otherwise dim out because of extinction. The result is a softer ‘feel’ to the color. It’s warm and velvety, like a woman’s mouth.”

  Faith gave him a startled look, but he didn’t seem to notice.

  “Don’t Thai rubies have silk?” Archer asked.

  “Not like Burmese rubies from Mogok. Nothing does. Even the really good Vietnamese rubies. Great color, but every faceted stone shows dark areas of extinction, no matter how carefully they’re cut. Here. Look at this through the loupe.”

  Archer shifted his attention to a faceted red gem Walker held in a pair of long tweezers. When Archer used the loupe on the stone, he saw that not all facets were equally bright, equally red. Viewed by itself, the stone was still quite beautiful. But compared to the Burmese ruby…

  There was no comparison. Once you had seen a high quality Burmese ruby, the others were simply cut red stones.

  “When you add the Burmese ruby’s natural fluorescence,” Walker said, “you’ve got the gem of fables, the stone that glows with its own internal light. It’s alive. There’s nothing in the world like it, nothing at all.”

  The certainty and passion in his voice made Faith take a long look at him. She felt the same way when she finished a sketch that she knew would create beauty out of a handful of metal and stones. There was no high to equal that. The memory of that exhilaration kept her going even when everything else in her life was flat. The idea that Walker could feel that depth of emotion about anything was both surprising and intriguing.

  He was right. That southern drawl was like quiet, deep water; it concealed a lot more than it revealed about whatever lay beneath.

  “Watch this,” Walker said.

  He took the tweezers and put the second stone over the UV light source. Then he unwrapped another of Faith’s stones and did the same. The first ruby showed no change. The Burmese ruby burned with an unearthly crimson light.

  Faith gasped softly.

  “Fluorescence,” Walker said. “Burmese stones fluoresce very strongly in the red to orange range. Red is more valuable because it deepens the desired color. This stone is fine. Really fine. Nice size, too. It should fetch forty thousand a carat, wholesale. More if the buyer is eager.”

  “What would a twenty-carat stone of that quality be worth?” Faith asked. “One with a Mughal inscription. Secular only, please. Nothing religious.”

  Walker’s eyes narrowed. He had some carved Mughal rubies in his own collection, but nothing more than ten carats, and nothing of the quality of the Montegeau ruby. “Any particular reason for asking?”

  “A man was in the shop today, looking for one. He was irked when I told him I didn’t have one. He was sure I was holding out, trying to drive up the price.”


  “Apparently someone assured him that I had a high-quality inscribed ruby.”


  “He didn’t say.”

  “Did you ask?”

  Her eyes narrowed at the cross-examination. “No. Does it matter?”

  “Likely not,” Walker drawled. “It’s just that I collect ruby oddities. Maybe I could help him out with something of mine. What was the guy’s name?”

  “Ivanovitch, Ivan Ivanovitch.”

  Walker and Archer exchanged a swift look. Ivanovitch was the Americanized Slavic equivalent of Johnson – Son of John. A generic sort of name. Common as dirt and just as forgettable.

  In all, a great name to hide behind.


  “Let me know if this Ivanovitch comes back,” Walker said after a moment. He worked to make it sound like an easy request rather than a demand.

  Archer’s steel-colored eyes said that he felt the same way, but nothing useful would come of letting Faith know it. After Tony, she fought every request from a man, no matter how reasonable it might be.

  “How much would a stone like Mr. Ivanovitch wants be worth?” Faith asked. “Millions?”

  “A gem is always worth whatever you can sell it for,” Walker said neutrally. “Don’t worry. If I come up with one for Ivanovitch, I’d give you a finder’s fee.”

  “You bet your butt you would,” she retorted.

  Only Archer’s presence kept Walker from saying she could have his butt any way she wanted it, including naked, if she’d return the favor.

  Archer went back to comparing rubies. “How could an appraiser ever mistake Burmese rubies for any other kind?”

  “Easy,” Walker said, forcing his thoughts away from Faith and bare butts. “You’re looking at an anyun, which is the name in the trade for a top-quality Burmese ruby that is two carats or more. An appraiser could go a lifetime without seeing one.

  The lesser Burmese stones are easily confused with other rubies, especially if they’ve been cooked. If I hadn’t spent a few years dealing with ruby goods from all over Asia, I wouldn’t be able to spot the difference so fast.”

  “Cooked?” Faith asked Walker.

  “Yeah. Literally. It’s an old practice that, until a generation ago, was the ruby trade’s dirty little secret. Like showing rubies against a bronze plate in order to make the red look more intense.”

  “What does, uh, cooking do to a stone?”

  “Changes the color for some stones, the clarity for others. Often both.” He reached into one of the other small boxes he had brought and took out some faceted red stones. He lined them up on the table.

  “Rubies?” Faith asked skeptically.

  He nodded.

  “They look dull,” Archer said.

  “And too… blue,” she added.

  “Right on both counts,” Walker said. “Eight hundred years ago, I’d have cooked them for anywhere from an hour to a week. Rubies were originally formed in the earth’s fire. Sometimes you can clean them up in a manmade fire.”

  The idea caught Faith’s imagination. Fire creating. Fire cleansing. Fire transforming. Beautiful red fire… “How does it work?”

  “Too much heat destroys the ruby, so you have to be real careful,” Walker said. “The right amount of heat changes the chemistry of the stone itself. The blue tinge is literall
y burned away, leaving only the red. Same for some inclusions and flaws. Too much silk? No problem. Cook it and drive the clouds away. Of course, you screw up the fluorescence, too, but the end result is still more valuable with heat treatment than without.”

  “Wonder who discovered it,” Archer said.

  “The first woman who built a cooking fire on dull alluvial gravel and found cold, bright red embers in the ashes,” Walker suggested dryly. “As long as there have been rubies, there have been primitive ways of making them look clearer, brighter, and redder. Today’s high-tech labs can do a lot more about ‘finishing up’ inferior stones than the clay stoves of centuries past.”

  “Then heat treating isn’t considered cheating?” Faith asked.

  “Not so long as you tell the buyer. But remember, when you’re buying gems, you’re buying rarity as much as beauty. Fine untreated stones are far, far more rare than fine-treated stones.” Then Walker shrugged. “But today, everybody in the trade assumes that all rubies are cooked. Therefore, there’s no point complaining. As in, don’t mention it to the customer and maybe the fool won’t think to ask.”

  “So it’s like money,” Archer said. “The bad will drive out the good.”

  “Or like pearls,” Faith said. “Cultured pearls have driven natural pearls out of the marketplace.”

  “Pretty much,” Walker agreed unhappily. “Natural Burmese rubies are damn near as rare as uncultured pearls. But there still is room at the high end of the gem trade – the very high end – for untreated stones.” He glanced at Faith. “Like the ones your friends sent you.”

  Her honey-colored eyebrows shifted in a frown. “Davis didn’t say whether or not they were treated.”

  “What did he say?”

  Faith hesitated.

  Walker’s casual tone was at odds with the bleak intensity of his eyes.

  Archer sensed the sharp edge to the question, too. He gave Walker a narrow look, wondering what was on his independent employee’s mind.

  “All Davis told me is that he and his son have a business buying and selling estate jewelry,” Faith said. “That’s in addition to other family businesses.”

  “So that’s how he got these rubies?” Archer asked. “Estate goods?”

  “If he did, it wasn’t recently. He said these rubies had been in the family for a while and he decided to celebrate the birth of the next generation by making a pretty necklace for his future daughter-in-law. I gather that the Montegeaus are big on family continuity. Davis has only one child, Jeff, who is my friend Mel’s future husband.”

  “Make a pretty necklace, huh?” Walker said softly. “You bet. As in pretty damned spectacular. Especially with you doing the design.”

  She blinked, surprised. Everyone in her family seemed to take her skill for granted. Or if they noticed it, they rarely said anything to her about it. But then, her mother was an internationally recognized artist. Next to that, the daughter’s accomplishments might seem hardly noticeable.

  “Okay, he says they’re old family goods,” Archer said. “You can date diamonds by their cut. Can you do the same for rubies?”

  “Sorry, boss. Asians cut for maximum size, even if that means irregular, clumsy facets. Their methods of cutting and polishing haven’t changed in a thousand years. Corundum paste and a wheel driven by foot treadle as often as by electricity.”

  Archer grunted. “What about the rest of the Montegeau rubies? Are they all this good?”

  “All of Faith’s rubies sure are. Basically the stones have great color, clarity, and fluorescence. Size, too. The smallest is over two carats. If the Montegeau stones were recut to maximize brilliance, it would increase their value by half, at least. I can’t speak for whatever else old man Davis might have buried in the bayou.”

  “Excuse me?” Faith said.

  “Old southern custom, like pecan pie. You take the family proud-ofs and – ”

  “Proud-ofs?” she cut in.

  “Sure. Like that classy silver and aquamarine pin you’re wearing. Back in the bayous, that’s a proud-of. You’re proud of it. Local legend has it that the Montegeaus buried the good stuff in one of the bayous, along with folks who asked too many questions. Lots of Yankee ghosts howling through the marshes and swamps of South Carolina. A few Montegeaus, too, if half of what I heard is true. They have some real skeletons in their attic.”

  “What would you know about local legends?” she asked.

  “I was born three miles from Ruby Bayou. Lived there until I was sixteen and went to West Texas.”

  “You know the Montegeaus?” Archer and Faith asked simultaneously.

  He smiled thinly. “The way a peasant knows gentry.”

  “Somehow I can’t see you bowing and yanking on your forelock,” she said.

  “Yeah, well, that’s what I like about working for your brother. He doesn’t think kissing anybody’s butt is part of the job description.”

  “Still important, though,” Archer said blandly.

  “Then I’ll never be CEO. I flunked butt kissing in every grade from kindergarten through eleven.”

  “What about grade twelve?” Faith asked. “Finally get it right?”

  “In a manner of speaking. I quit going. Never had a problem with it again.”

  Though Walker’s tone was mild, she sensed the automatic defiance beneath. He was standing in a room with two university graduates and he didn’t even have a high school diploma.

  Yet he was the one teaching them.

  Archer went back to the microscope. “Pretty, but a million bucks for thirteen badly cut rubies is still a bucketful of money.”

  “Fourteen if you count the one that’s Faith’s fee.”

  “Her fee is going in the safe at home. Tonight.”

  Faith started to argue, then decided it didn’t matter. The condo safe was just as good as the one in her shop. Better, actually. Kyle had designed the security electronics with skilled twenty-first-century thieves in mind.

  “That leaves the thirteen for the necklace,” Archer continued. “A million is still a lot of cash.”

  “Yeah, I thought you might feel that way.” Walker turned back to the table and opened another small box. “In order for you to appreciate just how fine, and how rare, those Montegeau rubies really are, I want you to look at some samples of ruby rough taken from mines all over the world.”

  Faith and Archer looked at the unassuming pebbles Walker was spreading out across the table. The stones came in all sizes from unpopped popcorn to crab apple. The colors were variations on the theme of red – dilute pink, deep pink, red-brown, red-orange, red-blue, red-purple, and others that were less red than they were brown or blue. Some stones were clear. Most weren’t.

  Walker glanced at Faith and Archer, saw the disappointment in their expressions, and smiled slightly. They both specialized in pearls. Their idea of “rough” was a pearl fresh from the oyster, which was a lot more finished than any gemstone fresh from the mine.

  “Rubies start as crystal formations,” Faith said, nudging a pebble with her fingertip. “Why are some of these round and some sharp-edged? Or when you say ‘mine,’ do you mean placer gravels as well as hard-rock mining?”

  He gave her a surprised look.

  She gave him a look back that said he shouldn’t be surprised. She was, after all, a Donovan.

  “Both,” Walker said. “Many of the famous Mogok mines of Burma are little more than holes dug through the dirt of the jungle floor to the underlying gravel layer. These miners are still in the Stone Age. Skinny guys with breechcloths dig in a pit wide enough for one man and a bucket on a rope. Not enough room to swing a cat, as we used to say back home.” He shook his head.

  Archer grimaced. He wasn’t fond of small places.

  “The poor bastard at the bottom of the pit is usually at least knee-deep in muddy water,” Walker said, “hour after hour, in a jungle that’s hot enough to cook meat. The pit is as deep as the gem gravels or the last cave-in, whichever comes first.

  Silently Faith touched a packet where a cold crimson ember burned within, legacy of an unknown man’s risk and toil. She looked again at the various shades of ruby rough spread in front of her. “Are any of these from Mogok?”

  “No. But the placer stuff – ” he gestured to the stones that were rounded like pebbles “ – all came from pretty much the same kind of mine. Real primitive.” He rolled some of the darker pebbles in his palm, the ones that were tinged with brown. “These are what used to be called Siams.”

  “What are they?” Faith asked.

  She bent closer to see, so close that her hair brushed Walker’s chin. When he breathed in, the scent of gardenias came to him like a lazy southern night. He couldn’t help taking in and letting out another breath. Deeper, slower. Her blond hair gleamed above the elegant curve of her neck. His breath stirred the fine gold strands at her crown.

  He closed his eyes and reeled in his body’s unruly response to her scent, her grace, her heat radiating subtly against him.

  “Thai rubies used to be called Siams,” Walker said, his voice almost curt, “which was another way of saying inferior goods. That was when Burmese rubies were the only ones worth owning.”

  “These are too dark,” Archer said. “Not enough red.”

  “Too much iron,” Walker said absently. His eyes were open again. He was counting the pulse just beneath the soft skin at the base of Faith’s throat. It kicked faster, as though she was as aware of him as he was of her.

  “What?” Archer asked.

  “All sapphires and rubies are made of the same basic thing, corundum,” Walker said, dragging his attention back to his boss. “Pure corundum is colorless, like a good diamond. Add impurities and sapphire comes in every color of the rainbow, except red. If it’s red, it’s called a ruby. You with me?”

  Archer nodded.

  “A ruby’s color comes from the presence of a small amount of a certain impurity – chromium – at the time of crystal formation,” Walker continued. “The blue sapphire’s color comes from titanium and iron. Other sapphire colors – ”

  “Okay,” Archer cut in. “I get the idea. Thai rubies have different impurities than Burmese rubies.”

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