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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.8
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.8

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  “Close enough. If I cook these just right, I’ll change the color to a purer red. I’ll lose softness of color in the process, but you can’t have everything. Next to uncooked Burmese rubies, Thai rubies look hard. Cold, despite their color.”

  Archer looked at the varieties of ruby rough spread out on the table. He pointed to a bright red piece. “That one’s pretty just the way it is.”

  Walker smiled. “It’s spinel. Used to fool a lot of folks, including royalty. One of the British crown jewels is spinel.”

  Faith pointed to another piece. It was one of the pebbles. “I like that color.”

  “You have a good eye. When it comes to color, that’s the best of the batch. Too bad it’s manmade.”

  “Glass?” Archer asked.

  “Nothing that unsophisticated. It’s made in a furnace that imitates the conditions that create natural rubies. The labs make them flawless for ruby lasers. The crooks make them with flaws for the gullible.”

  “Same chemical composition as a natural ruby?” Faith asked.

  “Exactly.”

  “Then how can you tell the difference?”

  “Under a microscope. Manmade rubies grow in curves instead of straight lines, and the tiny gas bubbles are stretched out rather than rounded. This one was churned in a rock tumbler and passed off as placer goods, along with some genuine and inferior stones.”

  “You buy them?” Archer asked.

  “Yeah. It’s called a learning experience. I had lots of them for the first few years as I worked my way around the ruby trade. I have a whole collection of fakes. I try not to add to it,” he said, deadpan.

  Smiling, Faith sorted through rounded pebbles of ruby, both synthetic and natural. “They’re heavy for their size.”

  “Like gold,” Walker agreed. “That’s why rubies sink to the bottom of rivers and from there down through gravel made of lighter rocks. When the rivers gradually shift their courses and the jungles move in, the gravels stay behind, buried beneath triple-canopy greenery, waiting for a man shrewd or desperate enough to risk his ass digging in a narrow, un-shored, dirt-walled pit.”

  She stared at the rough bits of color in her hand. Time and rivers flowing, changing, becoming jungle, and only hard bits of crystal remaining changeless, timeless, forged in elemental fire…

  Teasing hints of design swirled in her mind, as untouchable as silk within a fine ruby.

  “This looks like a good hunk,” Archer said. He lifted the rock, which was white studded with a red crystal the size of his thumb. “Color isn’t bad.”

  “Afghanistan, from a hard-rock mine. The white is marble. The red is ruby, but the stone itself is good only for cabochons. Too riddled with fractures and flaws. Strictly low-end-jewelry stuff. They have better rough in some of the mines, but damned little of it.”

  Faith looked at the stone with new interest, imagining what she could do with it. She loved the unfaceted cabochon cut. It gave a soothing, satiny glow to any stone, no matter what its value.

  “But you’re right,” Walker agreed. “The color is good. Too bad they get so few clear ones in the Afghani mines. And most of what they get isn’t fine. Too orange.”

  While Archer listened and Faith dreamed of designs, Walker went through each piece of rough, explaining its origins. Kenya, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Myanmar, India, Brazil, Afghanistan, Thailand; names and descriptions came easily, concisely, as did the list of each locality’s limitations when compared to the fabled pigeon-blood gems from Burma. To make his point even more clearly, Walker put a cut and polished – and cooked – version of each locale’s ruby in front of the rough. Many of the gems were quite red, quite clear, quite beautiful.

  Then he put one of Faith’s badly cut Burmese rubies in front of the others. Light seemed to flow into it, fill it, and shimmer out like a dream.

  Archer grunted. “It’s like the difference between dyed Akoya pearls and a fine South Seas natural. Once you see the real thing, you’ll never go back.”

  With a sigh, Faith agreed. Nowhere in the world was there a ruby to compare with the Montegeau stone. She groaned.

  “What?” Walker asked.

  “You’ve ruined me for other rubies, and I can’t afford my taste as it is.”

  He smiled slowly. “If things work out, you’ll see plenty of these beauties. I’m sure your brother will give you a good price.”

  “Okay,” Archer said. He stood and went back to his desk. “I’ll insure the thirteen Montegeau rubies for a million. You go with Faith to Savannah and see if you can cut some kind of deal with her friends on any family jewelry they want to sell, plus any they have in inventory from other estates. Start hitting estates yourself. If that doesn’t pan out, get a really long spoon and head for Eastern Europe.”

  Her brother’s words yanked Faith out of her concentration on the extraordinary ruby. “I don’t need Walker to go to Savannah. I can – ”

  “If you want me to insure those rubies,” Archer cut in without looking up from a handful of papers, “you’ll go with Walker and you’ll do everything you can to help him.”

  Once she would have argued furiously, stormed out of her brother’s office, and kept fighting until reality set in. She was older now. Reality was her constant companion. She needed those stones insured. Archer was the only one who could do it fast enough.

  “Fine,” she said through gritted teeth.

  Three seconds later the office door closed behind her. Softly. Too softly.

  Walker whistled. “I’ve seen wet cats in a better mood.”

  “She’ll get over it.”

  “Easy for you to say. You don’t have to spend the next week or two with her.”

  Archer grinned. “Yeah. Good luck, Walker. You’re going to need it.”

  8

  That night Walker sat in front of his computer with a pizza dripping grease in one hand and an icy bottle of beer next to the keyboard, as he scrolled once more through the lists of stolen rubies. Nothing had changed. Nothing had been added.

  There were no inquiries about a missing twenty-carat ruby with a secular Mughal inscription.

  Frowning, he sipped at the beer. Then he chose another web site, the one he privately referred to as suckers.com. This site was dedicated to gem history, lore, and modern twists on the ancient idea that anything as beautiful as a gem had to be good for whatever ailed man. Having trouble with your boss or your mother-in-law or your pecker? No problem. There was a gem to cure your ills. Just leave your credit card number, and your own personal miracle would arrive by UPS within ten business days. Faster if you wanted to pay for next-day air service.

  He searched through the chaff until he came to a link that led to a compilation of more or less legitimate gem legends. Using “ruby” and “carved,” he searched the data pool. Most of the references were in Hindi or Arabic, neither of which he could read. Same for Chinese and Russian. He dumped the information into his best translation applications and went on to read the few that were in English.

  They all sounded like they would have suited Faith’s fussy client. Big, bloodred, and flawless. A few were accompanied by solid documentation – appraisals, detailed descriptions of size, color, clarity, and source. Those stones were presently in public collections or in anonymous private ones. The rest were simply legends that had been passed down through time, with or without the accompanying gem.

  Walker took another drink of beer and read through the translations of other ruby myths as they appeared. Some of the machine translations were hilarious, some were inscrutable, but all of them gave enough information for his purposes. Not surprisingly, many of the rubies had ended up as gifts to royalty, as tribute, or as spoils of various wars. Some of the files were accompanied by sketches that were as fanciful as the legends.

  Only two of the rubies were described as having been inscribed in India in the time of the Mughals. Only one of them was the right size.

  The Heart of Midnight.

  He had read that name some
where on the myths and legends page. He was sure of it. He went back, scrolled until he found it, and read carefully.

  According to legend, the Heart of Midnight first appeared in a sixteenth-century Mughal emperor’s court. One of his daughters had a mysterious lover who came to her only at midnight, masked in darkness, and left the same way. After a time, deeply in love and angry that he wouldn’t reveal his identity, the princess agreed to wed a distant prince. The next night, her lover came to her in her dreams as a dead man whose heart had been cut out.

  In the morning the princess was discovered in bed, quite dead. An inscribed bloodred ruby the size of a baby’s fist lay in her cold hand. The elegant inscription read: Beware the Heart of Midnight.

  The stone, replete with its legends of love and death, and the mysterious fire that only the finest rubies own, came to Catherine I from Peter the Great, whose mistress and ultimately wife she became. The ruby was believed to be part of the spoils of the campaign during which Peter the Great conquered the Ottoman Empire. No drawings or paintings of the stone are known to exist. No mention of it has been found since the seventeenth century, when it became part of the Russian imperial collection, though undoubtedly many royal princesses wore the gem to various official functions.

  As with many other gems of such size and quality, dire prophecies attach to anyone who dares to own the Heart of Midnight. Perhaps that is why it fell out of favor in the Russian court.

  For a long time Walker stared at the computer screen, wondering who had told Ivanovitch to look for a deadly legend in Faith’s jewelry shop in Pioneer Square.

  And why.

  Across the street and up a block, Ivan Ivanovitch, dressed in shabby clothing he had purchased at a Goodwill store, approached one of Seattle’s homeless drunks. The man had staked out a recessed doorway as a shelter from the cold, searching wind.

  “Move on,” the Russian growled. “I need this place.”

  “Fuck you, asshole,” the drunk replied. “I found it first.” He raised a shaking fist that was wrapped in rags because he would rather spend the money he got panhandling on booze than gloves.

  Ivanovitch stepped inside a staggering punch and seized the drunk by the throat. The stench of cheap wine nearly made him gag as he slid the long, narrow blade of a dagger between the drunk’s ribs. The point of the knife found the man’s heart. The Russian twisted the blade, maximizing the damage. The victim gasped, more in surprise than in pain. Blood spilled out of the pericardial sac, filling his chest. As he bled to death without spilling a drop, his legs collapsed. He would have fallen to the concrete but for the powerful hand that held him erect.

  “Come along, my friend,” Ivanovitch murmured quietly. “I told you I needed this place.”

  The drunk, now all but dead, didn’t weigh much. It took little effort to carry him around the corner of the old brick building into an alley filled with trash Dumpsters. To the rest of the world, the two men looked like old friends scuttling off to share a bottle of fortified wine.

  Thirty seconds later, Ivanovitch returned alone and took up his watch post in the grimy doorway. He was wrapped in a heavy coat that was cleaner but no less tattered than the blanket he had stolen from the homeless drunk. Like the corpse he had left in a trash bin, Ivanovitch appeared to doze, but he was far from asleep. Beneath the brim of the thrift-store hat, he watched the closed, barred, yet brightly lit window of Timeless Dreams.

  Faith Donovan was in her shop, working on a piece of jewelry. A guard was with her, the same competent man who had been there earlier. It would be too risky to try to grab the woman and slice the truth out of her. He had not risen within the deadly world of St. Petersburg’s mafiyas by yielding to the hot thrill of murder at every opportunity. If the occasion arose, excellent. If not, there were other ways to assure himself that the Heart of Midnight wasn’t locked in the woman’s shop. One of those ways involved another skill of his: burglary.

  Ivanovitch’s personal transition from poverty to wealth had occurred in the chaos of a society that was trying to change from a corrupt tyranny to a quasi capitalism. His rapid rise was due to a real skill for violence and early training as a locksmith. He understood locks and safes in the way that a doctor understands metabolism. It made him an excellent burglar. St. Petersburg’s elite spent millions on steel and concrete vaults and safes which Ivanovitch happily plundered, contributing to the social turmoil and violence that had created him.

  He didn’t really care about the ultimate outcome for Russian society – capitalism, socialism, communism, or chaos – because he was confident of his own niche. There were thieves and murderers in every culture.

  He was both.

  Cold wind gusted, eating through the secondhand socks and running shoes he wore. As a street urchin, he had lost three toes to frostbite. Their stubs, and the remaining whole toes, were exquisitely sensitive to chill. They ached in stabbing time with his heart. He ignored it. He had suffered much worse in St. Petersburg before Tarasov recognized his value. After that, he had risen swiftly from the icy gutters. The trail of blood he left behind only added to his reputation as Tarasov’s man.

  It was nearly midnight when the lights in Faith Donovan’s shop went out. As if by silent command, a car pulled around the corner and stopped in front of Timeless Dreams. The door of the shop opened. Faith’s husky voice and soft laughter drifted through the icy rain as she said something to her guard. An emotion that was both lust and something much darker shot through Ivanovitch. He watched the pale flash of her legs beneath her coat as she walked the few steps to the car and slid into the front seat beside the driver.

  When the car drove off, Ivanovitch dreamed of the last time he had had such a woman in his bed, under his knife.

  Then he dreamed of the next time. Of her.

  An hour passed, then another, before Ivanovitch decided it was safe to leave the doorway. When he dragged himself to his feet, he didn’t have to fake a drunken stagger. His muscles were cramped from making a cold bed on the cement. Carrying a garbage bag full of “possessions,” he stumbled into the darkness, using the brick wall of Timeless Dreams for support. Anyone who saw him would assume he was looking for a place to piss.

  The cold wind off Elliott Bay had swept the homeless from the alley behind the store. Two or three bare lightbulbs scattered shadows through the night. Bricks, metal pipes, trash bins, and trash gleamed wetly. Leaning against a building that smelled vaguely of urine and grease, Ivanovitch looked around, assuring himself that nothing had changed since he had first checked out the alley.

  Everything looked the same. He set down his trash hag, sorted through its contents, and went to work.

  The building had been wired early in the twentieth century. Service lines and alarm circuits were exposed. Even with fingers stiff from cold, Ivanovitch was able to wire a bridge circuit around the alarm box in less than five minutes. After that, breaking in was a matter of force rather than finesse. The backdoor lock had a dead bolt and a locking knob. He was through both in less than ninety seconds.

  The safe inside was a model familiar in Europe. Ivanovitch knew its strengths. More important, he knew its weaknesses.

  Twenty minutes later he was opening smooth steel drawers. His pinpoint flashlight gleamed on gold, silver, and platinum, as well as every shade of the gemstone rainbow. Each time a bloodred stone glittered, the Russian’s heartbeat quickened, only to slow again.

  The Heart of Midnight was not there.

  With one ear listening for sirens or footfalls, he yanked open drawer after drawer. He saw many gems, beautiful gems, gems both loose and set in striking curves and wings of precious metals. They stirred his admiration and his greed, but none of them answered the need that had sent him rushing to America.

  When all the drawers in the safe had been ransacked, he went through the drawers in the workbench, through the filing cabinets, through the containers of polish, the tools, the bathroom supplies, the coffee, scattering all of it in growing anger.
r />   He found nothing but polish, tools, toilet paper, and coffee. With a thick Russian curse, he went back to the safe. Quickly, almost indifferently, he took a selection of set and unset gems and stuffed them in his pocket. The finished pieces were too unusual to pawn, but it would be expected that a thief would take some of the biggest pieces. He would dump them in a trash bin and keep the loose gems for pawn.

  America was a very expensive place to visit. Some extra cash would be welcome.

  The peekaboo light of sun between low, wind-driven clouds flashed through the front window of Timeless Dreams, revealing chaos inside. Walker and Faith could see the mess from the sidewalk out front. Drawers open, safe ajar, equipment and stock scattered everywhere. She made a muffled sound, anger and dismay rolled into one inarticulate growl.

  “No.” He snatched the keys out of her fingers as she reached for the front-door lock. “There may be somebody still inside. Call the police. Then call Archer.”

  When the first squad car arrived, the questions began. Faith wanted to scream as the senior officer took notes with fingers that were slowed by chill. She was desperate to be inside her store, taking inventory, finding out how bad the loss was.

  Walker was more patient. At least he seemed to be. He leaned on his cane and went over it all again twice, three times, as many times as he was asked.

  Archer showed up just as the cops finished securing the scene. Faith didn’t notice that he was wearing his shoulder holster under his Levi jacket. Walker noticed and said nothing.

  “I’m going to print out an inventory and get to work,” Faith said grimly.

  “Help is on the way,” Archer said, “just as soon as babysitters are rounded up.”

  “Thanks.” With a weary smile, she went to the computer and began tapping on keys.

  “Leave that for Kyle,” Archer said. “You’ve got a necklace to finish and a trip to pack for.”

  “I can’t go to Savannah now,” Faith said impatiently.

 
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