HOME AGAIN. I unlocked the front door and dropped the bag with my belongings in the middle of the living room. The air was stale and I opened all the windows, jumped into the pool for a quick swim, machined an espresso and scanned the snail- and e-mail. I stood on the patio, sipping the brew, enjoying the greenery of the garden. Mundy had left a message, I called back and he promised to pick me up for an early dinner.
Home was in Redondo Beach, a small community where you could drive from end-to-end in fifteen minutes. It merged seamlessly into other South Bay cities, like Palos Verde and Torrance but had a charm of its own. I was living in a converted garden house of a private estate. My landlord was an old and cranky but lovable lady, Mimi Gardener. A widow and a former TV actress, she was 82, which just about matched the number of her surgical lifts. The estate was not a very large affair, located three blocks from the beach and two blocks from PCH. It sported a hacienda-style main house, a large garden with a pool and a triple garage. There was also a 500 square foot garden house set back at the other end of the estate. These days, Mimi rarely ever left home, she had a maid to take care of the house, a nurse to take care of her, a weekly gardener and a bi-weekly pool guy. The garden and the pool practically belonged to me.
With Mimi’s blessings, I had converted the house to my own liking and installed a small open gallery that hosted my bed, a walk in closet and numerous bookshelves. Downstairs, there was a small bathroom, a large cupboard for all the stuff you didn’t want to leave lying around and a living room with a kitchenette. From an LA perspective, this was as minimal as it got. I wasn’t much of the homey type though and I preferred to eat out or work.
Mundy came walking through the garden a few minutes later; he had a key for the garden gate, and he knocked on the doorframe.
“Did you meet your deadline?” I asked while I checked my website.
“A very sharp comment on the city council’s plan to cut lifeguard support next summer season, the new Tom Petty CD is a bore and Redondo saw a spectacular Thanksgiving fireworks display with good visibility up to Malibu.” Mundy looked happy and fell onto my sofa, stretching his legs.
“You weren’t here over Thanksgiving,” I reminded him.
He waved his hand in a very French gesture, “You are no fun. I looked at the pier webcam, saw that the weather was fine and conjured the rest. We are not talking Pulitzer material here. Where do we go for dinner?”
“I am in the mood for Louise’s,” I commanded, switching off my Mac.
“Italian, sounds good, not too complicated.”
I locked up and we took his car and rode the short way down PCH to an Italian place called Louise’s. There weren’t many customers so we sat on the plexi-glassed terrace and scanned the menu.
“Any update about your case?” Mundy asked after ordering.
“No, the thing is dying a slow death,” I answered. I told him of the meeting this morning.
“And your fencing friend, Cornelius?”
I took a deep breath, “I have decided to give the diamonds that I stole to him. It is impossible to sell them, so I am going to hand over the goods tonight.”
“We will meet at Santa Monica Pier later today.”
“And you are sure this is going to work?” Mundy worried about me. His attachment became almost cute.
“Nothing will happen to me.”
“The bad guys always win.”
“No! Remember, the bad girls always win,” I assured him.
Around four o’clock, I made my way to my temporary storage. I had rented a mailbox in one of the many mail offices on Hawthorne Avenue in Torrance—under one of my assumed names. The store also had office supplies, so anyone watching could assume I was stocking up my office. The mailboxes came in various sizes and I had rented one of the bigger ones, able to hold packages the size of a small shoebox. You could store a lot in a shoebox, especially a lot of jewels. I simply wrapped whatever I needed to store for a few days as a regular package, sender, addressee and all, opened my mailbox, put it in and simply left it. The mailbox clerks naturally assumed that someone from another shift had put it in. No one had ever stolen anything from that small-scale mail office.
I entered the mail office, opened my box and retrieved the small package, which was the size of a VCR tape. I opened the package inside the store to dispose of the wrapping paper, along with my secret identity, and I put the box in my knapsack.
The drive to Santa Monica took me less than 30 minutes. I parked at a valet parking lot close to the end of Santa Monica Boulevard. With that many diamonds with me, I wanted to avoid lonely parking garages. From there, it was a brief walk to the ocean front park. It was a vista point above the sea with a spectacular view over the Pacific; the pier was to the left. I found an empty park bench overlooking the sea and sat down to wait. The winterish sun settled slowly.
Thomas looked seriously down on me and didn’t deliver his usual ‘glad to see you’ routine. We were long past that stage. Furthermore, this was business.
I didn’t look at him. “Here they are, take them and get happy.”
Thomas looked at the small package beside me, sat down with two feet of distance between us and tapped his fingers on the closed box.
“I really regret doing this, you know,” he sounded genuinely apologetic.
“Don’t spill any crocodile tears on my behalf,” I told him and continued looking at the sundown.
“There is a lot at stake,” he answered, still tapping on the package. Then he put it on his lap, carefully opened the lid and looked inside. And then repeated, as if to himself, “A lot is at stake.”
He closed the lid carefully, put the box between us.
“What is this supposed to mean?” Thomas looked at me curiously, as if I were an interesting piece of art instead of a former girlfriend.
“Take the stuff and leave me alone. This is what I can offer,” I said.
His hand found mine and he slowly squeezed.
“Calendar, I am not being taken as a fool. You must know that this is not what I came for. These stones are peanuts, probably the pathetic stuff you usually deal in.” He shook the box and the gems rattled like gravel, masking any other sound. “It is very unfortunate that pain is the only language you seem to understand. Where is the Max?”
I struggled my hand free from his tight hold. First things first, I gently took the box with ‘my’ gems from the bench and rattled it in front of his face. “As you didn’t claim them, they still belong to me.”
“Help yourself,” he shrugged.
“What is it you want from me, Thomas?”
“I don’t care who killed the watchman, Calendar. Could be you, could be someone else, I don’t care.” Thomas spoke through clenched teeth, he seemed angry. “All I want is the Max.”
“Who is Max?” I asked. Now this was getting interesting.
“Not who! What!” Thomas had an almost worshiping look in his eyes as he looked back at me. “Currently, you are my main suspect in this case, the only one who could have pulled it off.”
“What is ‘The Max’?”
“I am looking for the Maximilian Jewels. A ten-piece set from the nineteenth century. Mostly made of gold and diamonds.”
“I don’t have them,” I said flatly, looking him in the eyes. I had never heard of the Maximilian Jewels. But that must have been what Chong was talking about.
“I don’t believe you,” he said, holding my stare.
I shrugged, “Believe what you want, but with this attitude you will never get your stuff back. Consider widening the range of potential suspects.”
“You have all the reasons to hold on to them,” he said with conviction.
“No goods are ever so important that it pays to stick to them,” I countered.
Thomas smiled without meaning it. “Like you’re hanging on to this crap here?” He nodded his head toward my personal Altward Gallery loot. “Calendar, you are in it with the police and you still don’t bring it over your heart to dump this stuff into the Pacific? Come on.”
“I don’t have your Maximilian Jewels,” I repeated.
In a kind of stalemate, we stared eye-to-eye. Refusing to budge, he continued to believe that I had his jewels. And I was still unable to cash in my hot stones from the Altward caper. Impasse.
“You will get nothing out of this,” Thomas continued. “This whole meeting is a futile attempt to convince me of your innocence. Calendar, you are still effectively blocked from any further dealing. Nothing you can do here will change that. Give me the Maximilian Jewels and we are on the same side again. Not before.”
I gave him a defiant stare, hoping to convey that he couldn’t intimidate me. But he was right, of course. His word to squash me was still out. And I was unable to deal.
I stomped on the ground with my left foot. “Why is it me who has to find those stupid jewels? Do it yourself with your army of minions!”
“Minions are minions. You are much more resourceful, my dear. And available.”
“And you have me over the barrel with your trading embargo!”
“That helps, of course.”
“We sound like a married couple, do you know that?”
“We almost were.”
Again, Thomas and I stared eye-to-eye.
“I am out of here,” I said.
It was after nine o’clock when I got home. I took a late night dive in the cold pool to calm my nerves and swam until I felt exhausted against the artificial stream that shot out from the propulsion system. The swimming did me good. I moved my arms until they hurt and was out of breath in no time at all.
Stalemate. The little encounter with Thomas had bought me nothing. Except for the knowledge that all the ruckus was about something called ‘The Maximilian Jewels.’ I had read the standard jewelry history books in my time and was sure that an artist or craftsman named Maximilian had never existed. Year eighteen hundred and something.
And what had Thomas meant when he said that I had the reasons to stick to them. What reasons? I stole purely for profit. I had never held on to the goods I had stolen so far and Thomas knew that. So it couldn’t be a collectors value or stone lovers value that supposedly kept me from reselling it. What could it be then? I knew that the Maximilian Jewels could not be very famous, because I never had heard of them. And I considered myself a specialist in this field.
My arms felt like lead and I was totally exhausted when I pulled myself out of the water, grabbed my towel. A sudden noise from the other side of the pool made me jump. I gave a little shriek that echoed through the empty garden.
“Jesus, Calendar, your nerves are a mess. Must have been quite a meeting with Thomas.” Mundy was more frightened than I had been.
He followed me into the garden house where I vanished for a few minutes into the hot shower. When I came back out, drying my hair, he was reading a magazine, the TV silently running on subtitles.
“I made us some coffee,” he said. I sat down beside him on my deep dark red couch and gratefully took the steaming mug.
“How did it go?” he asked.
“Not too good,” I took a sip and flinched as I burned my lip.
“Coffee or meeting?”
“The meeting. I didn’t win but found a new piece of the puzzle.” I told him about the Maximilian Jewels that Thomas was looking for.
Mundy sat back, smacking his lips several times. “And Altward is in on this with Thomas Cornelius? A joint venture? Interesting.”
“What?” I hated it when he had ideas that I hadn’t.
“Do you think that Altward is dealing with Thomas Cornelius III, the collector? Or with Thomas ‘The Fence?'”
“Very good point. Not many know his real identity.”
“That’s what you think. His double life doesn’t sound that exclusive to me. There must be others around. Especially for a high priority deal like this.”
“You think this is high on Thomas’ list?”
“It is. He put that Bouncer-guy on your trail and intimidated you pretty good. He came to San Diego from his East Coast hunting ground. He’s on your trail because he suspects that the jewels are with you.”
“Actually, he doesn’t care whether the jewels are with me or not. He told me that I will have the resources to find them again,” I corrected.
“If the Maximilian Jewels were a small deal among many, he wouldn’t bother. Do you have any idea how much he makes with his secret sideline?”
“Maybe he nets ten million dollars a year?” I assumed. “Thomas specializes in jewelry and gem art. Some paintings or sculptures on the side, if he can’t avoid the money. His income is strictly commission stuff, twenty to thirty percent of each transaction. So there would be transactions going on in the range of let’s say fifty million dollars.”
“Fifty million bucks,” Mundy stared at me, in disbelief.
“One million a week sounds too much for you?” I asked back.
“With drugs, maybe if he’s a real czar. But with stolen art?”
“OK, the petty theft stuff is only part of that. But if he has a Picasso or a Matisse going through his organization, the transaction fee is much higher,” I pointed out. “Fifty million. He makes twenty percent of that, equals ten million dollars. Take away his costs for keeping up his organization, feeding all the mouths and keeping the guys happy, maybe five million bucks are left for him as pocket money.”
“So the Maximilian stuff must be worth quite a lot, don’t you think?” Mundy yawned convincingly.
“I have to find out more about that. First thing tomorrow,” I sighed, stretched and rested my head.
Mundy stood up, washed his mug and walked to the door. “The gentleman knows when it is time to leave. Keep me posted.”
I waved goodbye to him, locked the door and drew the shades. Minutes later, I fell on my bed and slept fitfully. Bad dreams of big mean men and situations, Thomas’ words from last evening and time way back when. His hand on mine, cruel hands from last evening fading into tender hands from way back when. And the feeling of unbelievable loss that I always got when I dreamed about the ending of our relationship.
I was glad when the night was over and the sun pushed through the shades.