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Midnight in ruby bayou, p.9
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       Midnight in Ruby Bayou, p.9

           Elizabeth Lowell
 

  “You don’t have to leave for three days.”

  “I still can’t go. There isn’t enough time.”

  Archer ignored her, turned to Walker, and spoke softly. “Don’t let her out of your sight until you hand her off to Kyle or me. Somebody just found a body a few doors down. A derelict, killed last night.”

  Walker’s eyes narrowed. “I hear you.”

  “I want her on that plane to Savannah,” Archer continued in a low voice. “She’ll fight it, but she’ll lose.”

  Walker nodded.

  “Anything happens, let me know first,” Archer said.

  “I will.”

  Archer didn’t doubt it. He headed for the front door with the stride of a man looking for some butt to kick.

  Walker was grateful it wasn’t his.

  “I can’t go to the show and leave this mess!” Faith called after Archer. “And if I clean up the mess, I won’t have time to finish the necklace!”

  “Finish the necklace,” Archer said. “I’ll take care of the cleanup.”

  “But – ” She was talking to the door. She kicked an empty can of polishing grit, sending it flying with a clatter against the bench. “Damn. I can’t just leave my shop!”

  “The guy who’s paying the bills outvoted you,” Walker said easily.

  “But – ” she began again.

  “Relax, sugar,” he interrupted. “You promised Mel her necklace and you promised you would be at her wedding. And you worked your butt off for this show. You’re the only designer west of the Rockies to be invited. You should be there smiling and charming the buyers, not wringing your hands in Seattle over something you can’t change.”

  “How did you know about the invitation?”

  He wiped his grit-covered hands on his jeans and began putting tools back on the workbench. “Archer loves bragging about his clever, beautiful little sister.”

  “Beautiful? Yeah. Right.” She raked one hand through her hair. She had slept badly and had barely taken time to put on mascara before rushing to work. “What does he call me – a swizzle stick with boyish charm?”

  Walker glanced at her over a handful of tools. Faith didn’t have the expectant look of a woman fishing for compliments. Whatever she saw in her mirror didn’t look beautiful to her.

  And what Walker saw sure as hell didn’t look like a swizzle stick.

  “They say love is blind,” he muttered. “Lordy. The average woman looking in a mirror can’t see worth spit.”

  “What?”

  “Archer thinks you’re beautiful,” Walker said clearly.

  She smiled and ran her fingers through her short hair again. The nails were clean, short, and freshly buffed. She didn’t wear polish if she could avoid it. Ten minutes at her workbench usually destroyed a thirty-dollar manicure. “Since Hannah, Archer thinks the world is beautiful.”

  “Don’t kid yourself. His teeth are as hard and sharp as ever.”

  Faith didn’t answer. She was drumming her fingers on the workbench and looking around, making mental lists.

  “Whatever is missing, your insurance will – ” Walker began.

  “It can’t replace my inventory,” she cut in. “Most of my stones, like all of my designs, are one of a kind.”

  “Which will just make it easier to find anything that’s stolen and then fenced. Kyle will spam the Internet and the local shops with descriptions. There’s nothing you can do to help except go to this show, blow them out of their designer socks, and get a million bucks in orders.”

  “You make it sound so simple.”

  “With your talent, a million is simple.”

  Slowly she turned and focused on Walker rather than her trashed shop. She had become quite good at picking out lies from truth, thanks to her ex-fiance. Walker was telling the truth as he saw it.

  He really admired her work.

  “Thank you,” she said simply. “I needed that. You’re a nice man, Owen Walker.”

  “There you go.”

  He smiled and hoped she kept on believing that. It would make the job of keeping her out of trouble so much simpler if she didn’t fight him every inch of the way.

  The Federal Building in Seattle looked like what it was, a workplace designed and executed by bureaucrats. Beige, beige, beige. Square. Beige. There was a different-colored stripe or paint at eye level on each floor. It was supposed to provide visual relief, but instead added the final institutional touch, making the place feel like a hospital or jail.

  Behind boring doors and down boring corridors, reams of boring papers were shuffled, stamped, copied, and filed. A few of the doors led to interesting offices whose files weren’t copied and whose budgets weren’t approved by Congress.

  One of those offices was run by a lithe, dark-haired woman named April Joy. She wasn’t nearly as lighthearted as her name.

  She looked up from a fax that had just arrived, a list of stolen gems forwarded to her by a contact in the Seattle Police Department.

  “The fool! The fucking idiot! Why did he put his ass on the line for a handful of gems?”

  Maxmillian Barton listened with an assassin’s blankness. He had worked for April Joy long enough to know she would be furious when she learned that the right-hand man of her best mafiya contact was on the verge of being arrested for burglary.

  “I think he was looking for something else,” Barton said quietly. “When he didn’t find it, he tried to make the job look like a routine burglary to cover his tracks.”

  “But why didn’t he just flush the goddamn stones down the nearest manhole?” the woman demanded. “Why did he run right out and try to hock them?”

  Barton shrugged. “Maybe the pawnshop squad doesn’t work so fast in Leningrad. Or is it St. Petersburg? I forget.”

  April Joy shot him a look that would have wilted the ordinary federal bureaucrat, but Barton didn’t flinch. He liked his fiercely temperamental boss, as a colleague and as a woman. Despite her small, slender build, she had the strength of a fine samurai sword, with a tongue and temper to match. Today she wore a red pantsuit that fit real well. Even the electronic ID card hanging around her neck didn’t detract from her sensual impact.

  “This guy is Tarasov’s chief lieutenant. He came in yesterday afternoon on the Aeroflot flight from Magadan carrying a passport in the name of Ivan Ivanovitch, U.S. citizen,” Barton said. “Somebody made him at Customs in Anchorage, but we let him come through, just to see what he was up to. I had him followed to his hotel and from there to Faith Donovan’s shop down in Pioneer Square.”

  April Joy grimaced. “Donovan again. Christ. Every time I turn around I’m tripping over one of them. What did the Russian want with her?”

  “A present for his mother’s name day.”

  “Bullshit.”

  Barton smiled like what he was, a middle-aged, balding shark whose teeth were still deadly as ever. “That’s his story and he’s sticking with it. He’s cute. Really, really cute. After he met with the Donovan woman, he checked into the Olympic, slipped the bellman a hundred bucks to have a girl sent up. My guys kept watching the room, figuring he wouldn’t go out until after the girl left, but apparently he paid her five hundred bucks to spend the night alone.”

  April was swearing softly, but she was listening.

  “In the meantime, he slipped out disguised as a maintenance man. He had the run of the city until an hour ago, when we made him coming back. He had the pawn tickets for a bunch of stolen gems in his pocket, plus a couple grand in cash. Just about the time we popped him, Seattle PD began circulating that list. The pawn tickets and the list match.”

  “Have the cops tumbled to him?”

  “Not yet, but it’s probably only a matter of time before somebody does. Kyle Donovan papered the city with descriptions. He’s offering a reward for the goods and a bigger one for the thief.”

  “Ivanovitch is a bloody stupid bastard,” April said. “If he needed money, he should have come to us.”

  “Maybe he he
ard about government budget cutbacks.”

  “Maybe he’s just a bloody stupid bastard. Make sure the pawnshop doesn’t try to collect the reward from the Donovan family.”

  “Already taken care of. I redeemed the goods myself.”

  “Any sign that the shop owner tried to call the Donovans?”

  “If he did, it was on a secure phone. We didn’t pick it up.”

  “Good enough. Send Ivanovitch in to me. Then get Tarasov on the line. When you do, put him through to me and stay on the line. I can handle Russian, but all these thugs talk Chechen when they want to be discreet.”

  Ivanovitch walked in a few moments later. He had disposed of his thrift-shop wardrobe and was once again dressed as a well-off mafiya lordling – Italian leather overcoat, gloves, navy-blue French wool suit, and a slate-gray silk shirt handmade in Hong Kong. Sleek Italian shoes, a charcoal hat, and an impressive diamond ring finished off his ensemble.

  He didn’t remove his hat.

  “Why did you rob Faith Donovan?” April asked coolly.

  “I was – how do you say it? – framed.”

  “I’m not – how do you say it? – stupid,” she shot back. “You’re one answer away from having your smart ass deported. Now, try again. Why did you rob Faith Donovan’s shop?”

  He shrugged and continued looking her right in the eye. “Money. Why else?”

  That was progress, of a sort.

  “My assistant is getting Marat Borisovitch Tarasov on the phone,” she said. “If I don’t like his answers any better than yours, I’m putting you on the next flight for Siberia.” She smiled. “And I’ll make certain that Dmitry Sergeyev Solokov meets your plane.”

  For a fraction of a second, Ivanovitch looked uneasy. This woman was well informed. Solokov was Tarasov’s worst enemy, closest competitor, and the man who was presently trying to hang Tarasov with a noose called the Heart of Midnight.

  April’s feline smile told Ivanovitch that April Joy was following his thoughts as easily as if he had spoken them aloud.

  “I will talk to Marat Borisovitch,” Ivanovitch said after a moment.

  “You do that, babe.” She looked up as Barton came into the room. “You get him?”

  “Line three. He’s impatient. He was on his way to dinner.”

  “Missing a meal might save him a coronary.”

  She sat behind a gray steel desk that looked like it came from Navy surplus and picked up the phone.

  Ivanovitch waited with outward patience until April put the conversation on the speaker phone. For several minutes she listened while the Russian in Seattle tried to explain his predicament to a Russian six thousand miles away. The more April heard, the more she smiled. She had been waiting a long time to get a really good hook into Marat Borisovitch Tarasov. The Heart of Midnight would work just fine.

  And if Faith Donovan was caught with a stolen piece of Russian cultural heritage in her hands, it would be the answer to April Joy’s prayers. She would finally have a twist on the Donovan family. No more trading occasional favors – Uncle Sam would flat damn own the Donovans.

  But first April had to get the Donovans to do her a favor. She would give them a day or two to get over the shock of the robbery and begin to total up the losses. Then, when she appeared with the stolen goods, Archer Donovan would be in a mood to listen.

  “You’re smiling,” Barton said as the door closed behind Ivanovitch, one more wolf sent out to play among the civilian lambs.

  “Yeah.”

  “You really think the Donovans are handling hot jewelry?”

  “As long as I can put a collar and a leash on that family, I don’t give a damn what they traffic in.”

  A steaming cup of coffee appeared underneath Kyle’s nose. He had been staring at computer chips and motherboards for eighteen hours straight. He blinked and looked up. Slowly Archer’s face came into focus.

  Kyle grabbed the coffee. “I need this more than you do.”

  “You’re welcome. Faith leaves tomorrow for Savannah. How does your gut feel about it?”

  Kyle pushed his chair away from the mess of electronic components that covered the table of his workshop, which occupied the floor just above the parking garage in the Donovan condo. To other people, the room looked like the aftermath of an earthquake, hurricane, or explosion. To Kyle, it was the one place where things stayed wherever he put them, no matter how illogical that place might seem to anyone else. In this room he had no problems finding whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it. For instance, the rat’s nest scattered across the metal table would soon be a complex, high-tech alarm system for Timeless Dreams.

  Faith had finally agreed to let her brother do what he had wanted to do since she had opened the shop – make it secure.

  “My gut is still unhappy,” Kyle said. He wrapped long fingers around the mug, sipped, and sighed.

  “Is your gut better or worse than before?”

  “Worse. Why?”

  “I talked to the police. They agree that it was an unusual burglary, but not that unusual.”

  Kyle grunted. Blond hair fell over one eyebrow. He tossed his head impatiently and wondered if Hannah would cut his hair. She sure kept Archer’s trim. “So?”

  “When I pointed out that a drunk was knifed the same night just a few doors down from Faith’s shop, they shrugged.”

  “Shit happens?” Kyle asked.

  “Yeah. I couldn’t talk about the professional knife work without letting them know that we have had access to their investigative files.”

  “The cops think it was just a lucky stab, is that it?” Kyle said dryly.

  Archer’s eyes looked less inviting than the winter night outside the window. “A hit that killed almost instantly and spilled less than a teaspoon of blood on the sidewalk? That isn’t luck. That’s something that scares the hell out of me.”

  “I imagine it scares the hell out of Walker, too, since he has the bodyguard duty on our unruly little sister. Maybe she should stay home instead of going to Savannah tomorrow.”

  “Would that make your gut feel better?” Archer asked.

  Kyle hesitated, swore, and set the coffee aside. “I doubt it. I think trouble might be following our Faith.”

  “Why?” Archer asked sharply.

  “If I knew, really knew, I’d be picking lottery numbers, not messing about with chips and circuit boards.” With that, Kyle went back to the project on his bench.

  Archer watched, but in his mind’s eye he could see again the postmortem photo of the dead drunk on the autopsy table. The knife work had been precise, bloodless, and very, very final.

  It was the calling card of a professional assassin. I think trouble might be following our Faith.

  9

  Savannah

  Faith had been in the rented Jeep Cherokee twenty minutes before she finally lost her temper. It wasn’t the strange city or lost baggage or traffic jams or any of the usual annoyances of traveling that made her angry. It was a soft-voiced, easy-moving, polite, and impossibly stubborn southerner called Owen Walker.

  She had been able to ignore him while she was working sixteen hours a day to complete the Montegeau necklace. But she was finished now, and Walker was still there, still close, still getting under her skin like nettles or dreams.

  Despite the anger seething through her blood, her voice was even as she turned toward him. “You’re being completely unreasonable.”

  “Your brother gave the orders, not me. Talk to him.”

  “He’s in Seattle.”

  “Always knew that boy was shrewd,” Walker drawled.

  She locked her teeth together, then carefully forced her jaw to relax. If she kept grinding her teeth, she would have hell’s own headache. Just one of the small, memorable lessons life with Tony had taught her. She took a slow, deep breath. Then another. Then a third and a fourth and a fifth.

  If arguing with Walker would have changed anything, Faith would have jumped right in. But she really needed to yell a
t Archer, and he was out of reach. Walker wasn’t necessarily being an idiot. He was just following idiotic orders.

  While Walker waited at a stop sign for a catering truck to clear the intersection, he eyed Faith warily. All the Donovans he had met, except her, had enough temper for two people. But it was looking like Faith was a Donovan through and through. She had a real temper. She was just a hell of a lot more careful about exercising it than her siblings.

  He wondered why. The Donovans were very much a fight, hug, and makeup type of family. None of them liked to sulk and fester.

  “Why,” Faith asked finally, her voice cool and calm, “should I come to a lovely, historic city like Savannah and then stay in some soulless modern hotel? Especially when I’ve already told my professional contacts that I can be reached at the Gold Room of the Live Oak Bed and Breakfast?”

  Walker decided that he would rather have had an explosion than the remote politeness that frosted every word she spoke. The silvery blue of her eyes reminded him of glacier ice high in the mountains of Afghanistan. Cold enough to freeze a man’s nuts if he got too close.

  “Everyone who knows where you are also knows where the rubies are,” he said. “It’s after six. The sun is down, the banks are closed, and the jewelry exposition building won’t be open until tomorrow.”

  “There’s a safe at the Live Oak B and B. I made sure of it before I made reservations.”

  “Uh-huh,” he agreed, not impressed a bit. “I’ve seen those antique safes with their black doors and fancy gold lettering. Any ol’ boy with sensitive fingers and brass balls could have those rubies in less time than it takes you to put on makeup.”

  “First that ol’ boy would have to know the rubies are in the safe,” she retorted.

  He stifled a smile. “Amen. That’s why we’re going to – ”

  “A different historic inn,” Faith cut in. “Savannah is full of them.”

  He thought about arguing, then decided to save his energy for a fight that really mattered.

  “Sure thing, sugar,” he drawled. “Got any particular place in mind?”

  “I’m working on it, sugar.”

  She turned on the overhead light and flipped quickly through the Savannah guidebook she had purchased at the airport bookstore. Riverfront sounded good. She looked at the map in the center of the book, then at the next street sign she saw. The historically accurate streetlights were elegant and atmospheric, but they didn’t illuminate much. The park squares were even darker. Finally she located her position on the map.

 
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