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Midnight in Ruby Bayou
by Elizabeth Lowell
HarperCollins, 2000


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Chapter One

Seattle

February

Owen Walker lived in a bare-bones efficiency apartment overlooking Pioneer Square, one of Seattle's less upscale tourist attractions. The front door was unimpressive, no happy barks or impatient kitty yowls greeted Walker's approaching footsteps. The closest thing he had to a pet was the refrigerator mold that grew while he was overseas on assignment for Donovan International. Lately that had been most of the time.

Other than installing a new, stronger dead bolt when he took over the apartment, Walker had spent little effort making the place into an urban cocoon. The bed was big enough for his six-foot frame. It also served as a couch to stretch out on and watch TV if he was home long enough to get involved in the misfortunes of the Seahawks or the Mariners or the Sonics.

Recently he had been lucky to keep up with his own problems, much less those of the teams whose members were traded around faster than hot gossip. Today hadn't been any different. Even the problems had problems. The latest one was the assignment Archer Donovan had dropped on him this afternoon.

See if the rubies Davis Montegeau sent Faith match any on the international hot list. I don't want my sister's reputation as a designer ruined by using stolen goods. Montegeau sent what she described as fourteen superior rubies, between one and four carats. They're loose now, but could they have been part of a single piece of jewelry.

Since Archer didn't want his little sister to know that he was sticking his nose in her business without her invitation, Walker didn't have the actual rubies to work with. All he had was a verbal description.

Walker had spent the past four hours on Donovan International's phones with various global cops. He hadn't accomplished anything but to make his injured leg stiffen up., So far the rubies had come up clean. He had the callused ear to prove it. Tonight he would check them out on the Internet.

But first, food.

Automatically he threw the locks on the door behind him, hung his cane over the doorknob, and limped to the refrigerator to see if anything looked like a late lunch or an early dinner. Whichever.

His body still wasn't certain which continent it was on. Despite the clean black slacks, crisp dark blue shirt that matched his eyes, and closecut black beard, he felt like something the cat had dragged in and the rat refused to eat. jet lag -- or the beating that some eager Afghani bandits had given him last week -- made him feel every one of his thirty-odd years like a separate insult.

Thoughts of the near disastrous Afghanistan trip fled when the smell of garlic sausage from last night's take-out Italian hit him in a wave. After the second breath he decided that the sausage wasn't from last night. More like three nights ago. Or four. Maybe five. He'd had a real craving for Italian when he returned from Afghanistan, but he hadn't wanted to gimp through Pike Place Market looking for fresh ingredients. Instead he had eaten way too much take-out food since he had climbed stiffly down the steps from the company plane into the Pacific Northwest's February gloom.

Cautiously he opened the lid of the nearest leftover box. Nothing looked green, and there probably wasn't enough left to poison him anyway. With a mental shrug he put the sagging box in the microwave and nuked it. While invisible energy tried to breathe new life into old takeout, he decided to call the meal an early supper. For that, he could open one of the long-necked beer bottles that had waited patiently during his absence.

By the time the microwave cheeped, he was on the Internet, requesting a global search for stolen loose rubies bigger than one carat or for stolen jewelry that contained fourteen rubies of more than a carat. While the computer chewed on his request, he walked back to his pocketsized kitchen, opened the microwave, and grabbed a fork from a nearby drawer.

He took his first bite of lukewarm supper on the way to the computer. The pasta had the texture and taste of rubber bands, but the sausage was still spicy enough to make his mouth tingle. He had eaten much worse food and been glad to get it, both as a boy and more recently, when he had shared campfires and rations with Afghani miners.

Between bites, he scrolled through a list of stolen rubies that had been posted by everyone from maiden aunts to Interpol. Some offered rewards, no questions asked. Others offered a finder's fee, also no questions asked. Law enforcement organizations of various kinds offered telephone numbers and the opportunity to be a good citizen.

Smaller rubies were missing, but most of them were described as having a modem cut. Some were said to be family heirlooms, but in Walker's experience that could mean anything from 1550 to 1950. It was possible that the Montegeau rubies Faith Donovan was designing into a necklace had come from one or more of the long, long list of stolen heirlooms, but he doubted it. The dates on the postings went from last week to thirty years ago, and originated from twenty-three separate countries. None of the lists mentioned fourteen superior rubies -- set or loose -- that ranged upward from one carat.

So much for work. On to private pleasures.

Walker scraped the last of the pungent sauce from the carton, took a drink of beer, and went to another web site, one he often visited. This one was an international clearinghouse for sales of gems and jewelry of all kinds. As he did every night that he was near a computer, he entered a request for rubies that were carved or inscribed in some way.

Forty-two entries came back. He scrolled through them quickly. Most were only a few steps above what a tourist would find in a squalid Thai alley. The carvings were as lackluster as the stones were dubious.


Copyright © 2000 by Elizabeth Lowell. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted With Permission.










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