A Brilliant Plan

Chapter 15

THE LOOKS RON gave me made me queasy, but not in an erotic sense. He repeatedly looked me over as if he asking himself, ‘Who is that girl? What is she hiding?’ Alibi was alibi, but policeman was policeman. I still felt pretty secure in my skin but it was also increasingly clear that I had to get rid of my loot—very soon.

San Diego is home to a small Chinese community. Not as prominent as the ones in San Francisco or Los Angeles, but enough to fill a few blocks full of Asian smells, signs and people. Chong Lee had a small jewelry shop in a back alley, first floor office. To find him, you either had to know which staircase to take or be able to read the Mandarin signs that indicated the businesses in this block. Since my connections went east with Uncle Mortimer’s network, over the years, I had rarely done business with Chong. Another reason I rarely did business with him was that I didn’t plan to become a well-known West Coast thief, word travels fast along the coast but relatively slow on the East-West axis. I passed several rapper-style dressed Asians as I made my way up the creaking iron staircase. Where the originals always were on restlessly on the move with their swagger, these fellows were still like ghosts. Although they gave me unreadable looks, I knew they were there to check out visitors for Chong. I went along the maze of corridors of this Chandler-eske office building, wooden partitioned offices with frosted glass and unreadable signage. I politely knocked at Chong’s door and a buzzer let me in. It was like something you expected from a black and white detective movie of the fifties, some dark wooden shelves, desks and old chairs. Chong had a watchmaker-style magnifying glass over his right eye and some diamonds in front of him on a black velvet cushion. They sparkled in the glow of the small halogen light that was the main source of light in the room; the office shades were drawn. I didn’t have an appointment; you didn’t need one with Mr. Lee. Either you were received or you were not. I wasn’t asked to but I sat down opposite of his desk and marveled at the collection he was in the process of checking.

After a minute or so, “Miss Calendal, a pleasul…” He hadn’t yet looked up from his appraising task.

“Mr. Lee, long time, no see.”

He pulled the magnifying glass from his eye and finally looked at me. Still the same indefinable age, still no gray hair and always the very same beige Charlie Chan style of suit that would have done Tom Wolfe proud. And of course, the same unreadable face. I had learned to read his posture and hands instead. He gave his stones one last glance and pushed the velvet cushion to the side.

“What can I do for you, Miss Calendar?”

“I have a nice collection of the finest diamonds. Best source, most promising quality.”

He laid his hands flat on the table. “Origin?”

“Unknown, you know me,” I gave him a nice Western bullshit smile.

Still the impassive look but he folded his hands left over right, right over left. “I am afraid that my hands are tied this time.”

“Why is that? We have done good business before and you never had any reasons to complain. I never offered you red hot stuff.” We never talked about hot stuff because that was what we both dealt in. But ‘red hot stuff’ was a little more difficult to deal with, since the gems were either renowned in the gem community or the former owner was pissed off and wanted to get his goods back. Although I was often tempted to look out for famous stones, as a good thief, you tried to avoid these two cases. But I would never fence red-hot stones with Chong or any other West Coast connection and for that only went through Yehova in Philadelphia.

Again, Chong folded his hands several times. Uncomfortable. “There is word around not to trade. Temporarily.”

“Like a general freeze?”

“Yes. Yes, something general.”

“Like from high above,” I steered him.

“Yes, very much so.” He closed his eyes a little more. “You surely must have heard.”

“That I did,” I imitated his hands to show him that I had him figured out and looked him in the eyes. “Chong, we didn’t do too much business over the years because I prefer to deal with the East Coast. I would be willing, as a gesture, to give you a very good price, makes it worth more for you.” Usually, the type of deal that we made was for comfortable margins on all sides to cover the risks of our trade. But people like Chong were traders at heart and they lived and died for a better margin.

His hands grew a little more agitated; his fingers did a little drumming, finally found the pincers again and gladly played with them. “I really appreciate that generous offer, Calendar, you know I do. But please understand my situation. If any word were to get out that I did business against the current market conditions, my business as a whole would suffer.”

“No exception for an old associate? It would be just between you and me,” I tried.

He looked down, torn between danger and greed but danger won. He gave a small shake of the head.

I pounded my fist on the desk and he jumped a little. Then I said softly, “Excuse me, but I see that the decision is very difficult for you. I understand your overall concern.” I gave a small nod that would count as a bow; I would need to deal with him in the future.

“Just tell me one last thing. Was my name specifically mentioned regarding this general… trading embargo?”

Chong shook his head again. “No, Calendar, just a strong hint from above to cease all trading of stones for a while. Until further notice.”

“And the word came with authority?”

He nodded. “The authority we are talking about is beyond reach for a small time trader like me. In this situation, if you want to remain in this business in the future, you generally obey.”

I gave Chong a small nod to indicate that I understood. We sat motionless for a minute, each of us considering our options. For me, there was always the ocean. For the stones, not me.

I changed the subject. “Something completely different. Are you aware of any special Altward Gallery dealings or rumors? Any big artists, discoveries or non-kosher activities?”

A small ambiguous smile played around Chong’s face. I could read it either as irony or as pity. “A not so different subject altogether, my dear.” He said. “Be assured, Mr. Altward is a very honest gallery owner, beyond reproach. He is doing a lot of good for the San Diego art and jewelry community. The theft and murder in his gallery left most of us shocked.”

I had asked about the Altward Gallery in general, he had given the answer for Mr. Altward specifically.

“What about his own current activities?”

“He is preparing something spectacular, or so I heard.” Chong folded his fingers again and continued, “You do know that Thomas Cornelius, the big collector from the East, is in town?”

“We have met at the gallery.” Chong didn’t know, of course, that Thomas Cornelius III was the man that scared him out of his wits as ‘The Fence.’

“It is rumored that Altward and Cornelius are preparing the presentation, or let us say rediscovery, of something spectacular,” Chong Lee said.

“Did they acquire the British crown jewels?” I asked skeptically.

“No one is really sure but some of my sources told me that they both did a lot of traveling to Mexico during the last year.”

“Is there a Max involved?”

Chong shook his head. “I don’t know. There are just rumors. And it has to be big. Otherwise Thomas Cornelius wouldn’t bother with our market, would he?”

“Is that ‘thing’ they are preparing legal?”

Chong folded his hands, caught me glancing at them and then put them back down flat on the table.

“Maybe, maybe not.”

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