A Brilliant Plan

Chapter 20

MONDAY MORNING. THANK you, Al Gore, for the Internet. Hunched over my iMac, I had surfed the major search portals for anything on Maximilian, jewels, gold, diamonds, Mexico and combinations thereof. I had learned something but not much.

One hit was about Austrian Emperor Maximilian I, who had sent his crown jewels to Prague. He had given his bride a 23-carat diamond engagement ring. Could the Maximilian Jewels be traced to him? The dates were around fifteen hundred something, much too early for Thomas’ jewels.

There was another hit, embedded in a wild rambling story about dogs and Burmese jewels that had been stolen and then passed on to Mexico’s Emperor Maximilian. The date was just about right. Maximilian of Mexico was executed in 1867, making it obvious to the slightly loony author that the stones were cursed. As I said, there was a lot of rambling in this story, but the historical figure of Emperor Maximilian was not in doubt. The Mexico connection made sense, too.

I did some surfing for Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. After Mexico became an independent state in 1821, there were some rapid changes in succession on the head of state. Among them, Maximilian, who the French had placed on the throne in 1864, had a short reign and was executed by his archenemy in 1867. There was no mention of jewels of any kind in the official biography. But an emperor surely had a crown or something representative?

After that, the same information showed up repeatedly and I found nothing more. I gave up and decided to check out the classic form of knowledge, the library. But first things first. This was Monday morning and I had a working day ahead.

Redondo Beach on a Monday was a relaxed affair. The village woke up slowly; time went slower than elsewhere in L.A. My store, ‘Precious Moonstone,’ was within walking distance of my home, a very un-California treat not to have to use the car. The village center of Redondo Beach grouped itself around a colorful assortment of small cafes, smaller supermarkets, small boutiques, and, you guessed it, a small post-office; all within a circle of two or three blocks and the Pacific Ocean just around the corner.

On the way, I got a French croissant and a fruit salad from the Casino Cafe and then walked to my little store, which also hosted my workshop. My Mexican cleaner, Manolo, a little man somewhere in his fifties, was waiting for me. He had worked for me for years and he came in three times a week.

Let in the sunshine and the fresh air. The vents were blasting away five days of stale air and I swept the front pavement while Manolo vacuumed the carpet and cleaned the shop’s display windows. I opened the safe, got out the displays, said good-bye to Manolo and was back into business.

The computer booted up with several beeps, eight messages were waiting on the answering machine and 92 e-mails were in the preciousmoonshine.com mailbox.

I sat on the bar stool behind the counter, munched my breakfast and made notes as the voicemail went through the messages. Then I did the call-backs, the e-mail-backs, all the other-backs and wrapped up some orders to be sent out tonight with the delivery service. The parcel service brought some deliveries, which I opened and stowed away. An early customer had a broken lock on a necklace I had sold his wife a few years earlier. Another regular customer was looking for something ‘spectacular’ for his next wedding anniversary. Happy to oblige with a ring in the five-figure range? Well, turned out he was window-shopping first and not ‘that’ spectacular, make that a lower four figure. Cheap shot, may you show up in next year’s divorce statistics.

At two o’clock, my hired help, Mrs. Otis, came in to mind the shop. Annie Otis was 22 and sometimes came with the maturity of a 13-year-old. But she was halfway reliable and could take care of customers while I crafted away in the back. She had raven-black hair, the whitest of skin and piercings in the most likely and unlikely places. She dressed like Marilyn Monroe meets Punkette.

There is a peculiar story that goes with our whole relationship and all but it comes down to this, we never got around to first names so she calls me Miss Moonstone and I call her Mrs. Otis, which she was. Her husband was a do-nothing beach bum with a Volkswagen camper van parked on the beach and five surfboards on the roof. Store minding for her meant constantly updating her make-up, making sure that nothing was stolen and batting innocent eyelashes at married visitors, which somehow worked magic with a certain type. But otherwise, her private life was a mess, which fortunately didn’t affect her working life.

“Hey Miss M! How was your Thanksgiving?” She swept into the store in a good mood, her eyes sharply lined with killer kohl.

“Fine, hope the surf was up, Mrs. Otis,” was the standard reply and I moved to the back of the shop to tinker with my jewelry.

“My husband and I made love on the beach again. Very romantic, you should try it.” She thought for a second and then added for clarification, “But not with my husband.”

The rest of the afternoon, I repaired the lock, worked on a new collection I had started a few weeks ago, and did an inventory check of the raw gems I had stored in my safe. It reminded me of a trip to the diamond exchange in New York that I had to take in the New Year.

The afternoon and early evening went by quickly. There were several customers that Annie Otis needed help with that took me away from working on my stones. I have a low cost collection with small stones set in platinum. Although all of those pieces are priced well below $5,000, I also have some sets that go much higher. A product mix for all occasions and wallets. During the Christmas season, the lower price jewelry goes very well and I spent most of the summer preparing my inventory for the year-end rush.

At six-thirty, I threw out Mrs. Otis, closed up the shop and made my way to the library. The public library of Redondo Beach is located right at the Pacific Coast Highway. Despite the evening traffic, it only took me a few minutes to get there. I took the underground parking and rode up the elevator to the entrance.

A detail search in the library catalogue brought up two titles, which a member of the staff retrieved for me. One was from 1954, Almost King, an account of the times of Maximilian and Empress Carlotta. The other, from 1972, was called The Crowns of Mexico. Same subject, different focus.

Both of the books were on the shelf, not much in demand it seems. So I sat down with them and made notes while I skimmed the pages in search of jewelry and riches.

There was mention of the crown ceremony, which interestingly enough, took place in Europe and was later repeated in Mexico City. An illustration showed the pair but you couldn’t make out the details of the jewelry they were wearing. The books provided lengthy explanations of the social reforms that Maximilian was planning, notwithstanding the desperate situation of his acquired country. I wasn’t extremely interested in American history, so my task became increasingly demanding of my patience. Plus, I found no mention of unfinished businesses, big secrets or jewels.

The public library was getting ready to close, I glanced at my watch and pondered the possibility of getting a library card to check the books out and take them home with me. Then another thought occurred to me and I sat down behind a public Internet terminal in the library and did a search of the UCLA library database. I found some more books and documents with the same keywords, most of them originating from before 1980. The most recent document I found was a history thesis from last year, “Maximilian and the Native Americans – The Last Attempt.” How convenient, Published by the Department of History, UCLA. I jotted down the author of the book and decided to leave the store in Mrs. Otis’ hands tomorrow morning and head out to the UCLA campus instead.

When I got back home, I called to inform Mrs. Otis of the change in plans; she was OK with it. Then I called Mundy to update him. He listened to the results of my little detective work and promised to do a little research in the database of his newsroom, which was supposed to host newspaper archives for all of North America, including Mexico.

Insteadof spending the late night with David Letterman, I sat down near the pool,wrapped in a thick shawl and thought about jewels, murdered emperors and Ron.Why was it that Calendar Moonstone always fell for policemen and dominantmales? Apart from the ‘attractive’ part. The night was silent and cold, huggingmy shawl, I felt melancholic. I slowly swirled the wine in my glass and sippednow and then until I felt sleepy enough to go to bed

Tip: You can use left, right, A and D keyboard keys to browse between chapters.