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The Color of Death
by Elizabeth Lowell
William Morrow, 2004

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Chapter One

Sanibel, Florida

Lee Mandel spent a lot of time looking over his shoulder. It came with the job. But as he stretched contentedly in the February sun, he wasn't thinking about watching his back. He was smiling at the server who had the lithe body and optimism only people under thirty could manage.

"Hey, you sure you've got the best shrimp on Sanibel Island?" Lee teased.

"You bet your ass, sir."

Lee laughed and waved off the server. "I'll have the usual. And coffee as fast as your big feet can manage. Oh, and bring a couple extra to-go bags, okay?"

The young man grinned, reached behind his back, and pulled out two white paper bags with the café's Soup Or Shrimp logo printed in bright red down the side.

"These do?" He dropped them in front of Lee. "I grabbed them as soon as I saw you coming up the stairs."

Uneasiness snaked through Lee. He was becoming predictable. In his business that was not only stupid, it was dangerous. But he hadn't seen anyone following him when he drove over the bridges from the mainland to Sanibel Island. Besides, once the contents of the courier packet were transferred to a wrinkled takeout bag, no one would suspect what Lee knew for a fact: the gems were worth a million, minimum. Wholesale.

In the future, he'd use something even less noticeable, maybe a brown paper bag like the winos. Usually the couriers who were carrying unique goods didn't have to worry as much as the guys carrying watches and engagement rings.

Usually, but not always.

For the last few years there had been rumors of a new gang working, one that targeted only the very highest end of portable and valuable goods. The good news was that the gang wasn't as rough as the South Americans. The new boys were slick and quiet.

The server and his tight butt disappeared back into the dark, smoky café, leaving Lee alone to enjoy the winter sun. He shifted his chair so that his back was to the wall of the building and wondered what his sister, Kate, was doing now that she'd finished cutting and polishing the Seven Sins. Probably she was getting ready to hit the gem show circuit again and see if she could find some rough that would repay her time and effort to cut it.

Maybe if Mom and Dad let up on the grandchild subject, she'd slow down and find a good man. As it is, they're driving her nuts as surely as they drove me.

Guilt whispered through him. He should tell his parents. He really should, especially now that he'd found the man he wanted to spend his life with. He just didn't want the crap that would come after he came out of the closet, the tears and the where-did-we-go-wrong questions.

His parents hadn't gone wrong. He just wasn't the son they'd expected. End of sad story.

Conversation floated around Lee. Some of it came from the open-air ground-level parking lot directly under him. Nearly everything on Sanibel Island was built on stilts. When the hurricanes came, most of the mess just washed through underneath the buildings, leaving the higher living quarters more or less intact.

"But I want to see the treasure!"

The young girl's voice was high, stubborn, and all too clear as she emerged from a car out in the sunstruck parking lot that tourists invariably chose. Lee smiled slightly at the idea of sizzling upholstery and steering wheels too hot to hold, and he wondered if the snowbirds were afraid of the shadows between the pillars holding up the small shopping center.

"We saw the Atocha stuff last year. Big deal." The parental voice was frayed and impatient. "All they want to do in that so-called museum is sell overpriced pieces of eight to the next sucker coming through the door."

"I don't care. I want to see the gold coins and emeralds."

Lee tuned out the girl's whine even as he wondered what she would say if she saw the seven extraordinary sapphires that were locked in the trunk of his car. Most of the time he didn't know what he was carrying in the anonymous packets he took from point A to point B for various courier companies, including the one his family owned. He enjoyed the freedom of being freelance. On this job, he just happened to be the son of the company's owner and the brother of the cutter, so he knew what the Seven Sins were and how much they were worth.

Kate had been so excited about being commissioned to cut the extra fine quality sapphire rough that she'd called him and described the stones to him the way he'd describe a lover. He'd visited her twice in Arizona and been amazed at the progress from shapeless, dull bluish stone to exquisitely faceted gems that burned with an extraordinary blue color.

He'd enjoyed watching Kate's excitement. For once it had seemed like she was years younger than he was, instead of eight years older. Not that he blamed her for being thrilled. It was a real coup for a relatively young cutter to score a high-end job like the rough from Arthur McCloud, one of the foremost collectors of gemstones in the world. She'd even asked that Lee courier the rough to her and then courier the cut and polished Seven Sins back to McCloud. Keeping it in the family, as it were.

Squinting against the sun, Lee stared at the modest watch strapped to his left wrist. Quarter of eleven. Plenty of time. From the café, it was maybe fifteen minutes over a small bridge connecting Sanibel and Captiva islands. With luck he'd have an hour after he dropped off the stones on Captiva to go shelling on the falling tide and still make his flight out of Fort Myers to Los Angeles.

Excerpted from The Color of Death by Elizabeth Lowell. Copyright © 2004 by Elizabeth Lowell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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