CALLED Ron, left a message. Did a quick jog in the mild evening air, had Thai takeout. Nothing on the Internet about Phoebe. Early to bed. Dreamed of Thomas and his lips. Woke up, startled and confused. Dreamed of Ron, more than his lips.
Another quick jog in the morning to clear my brain even more. Went to my shop around ten and opened. Mrs. Otis wobbled in on ultra high heels that promised to increase business by 100 percent should a busload of male tourists stop in front of the store with her in plain view.
Around lunchtime, I took a stroll to the Petit Casino and ordered sandwiches and fruit salad for the both of us. When I came back to the shop, I found Mrs. Otis in conversation with Officer Ron Closeky. My, my, didn’t our shop get attention from male suitors, lately.
She was deeply looking into his eyes, sitting on the barstool behind the counter; Ron was ogling her cleavage and everything else.
After I swallowed my first jolt of jealousy, I had to clear my throat twice. “I can leave, if you want.”
Mrs. Otis and Ron both looked at me as if I was indeed the fifth wheel.
Ron gave me a quick peck on the cheek. Take that Mrs. Otis. We sat outside; the flower shop beside my store had a bench in front. Ron quickly fetched a sandwich, too, and we had a joint munch.
“Business. I had an interview with Andrew Altward this morning at his Newport residence,” he said.
I stopped chewing.
Ron continued. “I didn’t ask him directly, hinted that there is some ongoing activity in the jewelry scene and that the scene was waiting on word about some very valuable old Mexican items, the Maximilian Jewels, coming to the market. Altward replied that he had nothing to tell me.”
“He offered nothing, not even an opinion?” I asked between bites.
“He didn’t, just went over it. He was as agitated as before, his Calder statue is still being held as evidence, the Montenhaute jewels that he claimed to have been stolen have not been found yet.”
“And did you ask him about Phoebe Eastman wearing one of the Maximilian pieces?”
Ron finished his sandwich and cleaned his fingers in a small birdbath from the flower shop next door. Sometimes men could be disgusting. “I asked him whether he and Phoebe Eastman had a relationship.”
“He didn’t deny it. It seems like he was a little uncomfortable about having a much younger girlfriend. At least in front of me.”
“And what about the fact that he omitted the relationship when he talked to us?”
“Guess what, he didn’t think it was relevant.”
“Did you have a chance to interview Phoebe as well?”
“No, she didn’t call back yet. And she wasn’t home yesterday when I dropped by to give her a surprise visit.”
“Think she bolted?”
Ron gave me an amused look and smelled a sunflower. “Think she did it? Killed her old man?”
“No, not the killing. But isn’t it possible that she is involved in the break-in. Her old man maybe had insights into the security of the place.” When Ron looked at me speculatively, I said, “Not my theory, ask Mundy, he came up with it.”
“How is he?” I wondered if Ron secretly wished that Mundy had broken his neck over the weekend. Or maybe he was pulling my leg and laughing himself silly inside.
“He is fine. We are fine, thank you. Anyway, we discussed the case.” My face turned a little red. “I hope I was allowed to, I mean as a consultant to the SDPD and all.”
Ron patted my arm. “You didn’t sign anything yet, so legally you are in the clear.”
“Mundy has quite an imagination. He is a writer, what can you say? He formed the theory that Phoebe Eastman and her dad robbed the gallery.” I raised my arm as if Mundy’s theory was utterly ridiculous.
But Ron gave me a long look. “What’s his reasoning?”
“Well, Phoebe had a piece of ‘The Max’ jewels in her possession when we interviewed her. Where from? Easy, she stole it.”
Ron cocked his head. “Apart from the high risk danger freak thing of wearing the piece for a police interview—who opened the safe? Daddy? Or that programmer Polter who has gone missing? Maybe he’s under the Mexican sun with Phoebe?”
“Someone interrupted them, Phoebe got away with the loot and Daddy got the boot,” I sounded like a gangsta-rapper.
“Oh, Calendar, I think with that scenario we can do better,” Ron said. “What about Phoebe killed her daddy?”
“Get out of here,” I said.
“The statistics, as always, are on my side. Murder in the family, lots of money involved. Plus, maybe some hidden family conflicts, opportunity arose and little Phoebe took the chance.”
“Then take it one step further. Phoebe and Wally Eastman are not related at all. No father-daughter thing. They were simply a con pair—pulling off a sting.”
Ron laughed. “I tell you, there is nothing more common than a murder in the family. But seriously, tell Mundy that it is an excellent theory and I will consider it.”
For a minute, we sat side-by-side on the bench.
“And you came all the way from Newport to tell me about your fruitless interview with Altward?” I asked him. “Or is there something else?”
“Indeed, there is.” Ron stood up and walked over to his illegally parked car. I wondered what fake police stickers went for on the black market. He fetched a folder and again sat beside me.
“Juanita and I hit the San Diego criminal underground last weekend and squeezed our sources. We interviewed this fellow.”
Ron opened the folder and Mr. Chong Lee stared back at me. I hoped my ears didn’t turn red.
“Who is he?” I asked innocently.
“A locally known fence. Name is Chong Lee, does a little bit of everything, jewels, art, electronics and garbage.”
“You know, pushing licenses for the local garbage collections. All controlled by the Mafia these days. Sometimes Chong poses as a minor middle man.”
“And what is the story of Mr. Lee?”
“The Maximilian Jewels. He has heard of them, they are the latest buzz on the scene. And now this, there is a guy they call ‘The Japanese.’ He is a respected art collector who sometimes goes illegal in his methods of buying good art. Has heard about the Maximilian Set and he wants to add it to his collection.”
“He knows that it is probably stolen?”
“We don’t know. That’s why I’m here. I want to drive up and ask him.”
“Drive up to Japan?”
“Silly, he is here. In L.A., has a suite at the Downtown Westin Bonaventura Hotel. He has agreed to see me.”
“When I say ‘me,’ I mean us. I wouldn’t go into a meeting with an international collector without my highly priced local consultant.” Ron gave me a nudge. More nudge, please.
Ron pointed toward the ‘Precious Moonstone.’ “Can you leave the store unattended this afternoon? ‘The Japanese’ will see us at four.”
“Sure, that is what Mrs. Otis is for.”
“Mrs. Otis? I thought her name is Annie? You are still on formal terms with her?”
“Don’t get me started, it’s a long story.”
We drove downtown in Ron’s unmarked albeit obvious police car. Rush-hour somehow wasn’t, so we made good time. The Westin Bonaventura was a modern four glass tower affair in the middle of the L.A. City Center. One of the best hotels in town, it sported an excellent lounge with a panoramic view. One of the towers was all suites and I wasn’t a little bit surprised when we headed for the highest floor. The elevator opened to a small but very classy lobby where the few doors to the suites waited for us. Ron quickly scanned the numbers but before he could head toward our designated door, it opened.
He flashed his shield and introduced himself to the woman who waited for us. She was in her early thirties, wore a gray Neiman Marcus suit, designer glasses on her tiny lifted nose and sported immaculate honey blond hair.
She introduced herself as Mrs. Williams, Mr. Nakamoto’s personal assistant in the US, and then led us through the corridor of the suite into the large living room area. The air was clear because of the early rain and we could see all the way to Santa Monica. Looking south, we could make out the hills of the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
The living room offered a large terrace; in one corner, an extra large Jacuzzi was boiling away. In it was the gentleman we came to see, ‘The Japanese,’ there was no question about that. Even though he was mostly submerged and only visible from the breast upward, a more fitting nickname would have been ‘The Sumo Ringer.’ Some of my fellow Americans reach interesting proportions from bodily neglect and incorrect nutrition, but this Japanese was one of the largest species I had ever witnessed. Not that he made an unhealthy or ugly impression; even in the water, he had a certain poise that told me he was proud of his body and not in a hopeless state of decay. There were some female companions with him in the Jacuzzi, three Japanese ladies in bikinis, massaging his arms, breasts and left leg. At least I hoped that it was his left leg. They ignored us completely, as if doing business from the pool was an everyday occurrence. Maybe it was in Japan? What did I know?
His little piggish eyes followed Ron and me as we stepped into the evening sunlight, the glowing red ball close to being swallowed by the Pacific Ocean.
“Mr. Nakamoto?” Ron introduced us and Nakamoto’s head gave a very small economical nod.
Ron quickly stated our business. San Diego, murder, Maximilian Jewels, heard that he is a potential buyer. “Are you a buyer, Mr. Nakamoto?”
Nakamoto didn’t seem to have heard and just as Ron tried to rephrase, could have been that our interviewee didn’t manage the English language too well, Nakamoto nodded.
“I am. You are.” He looked at me. “You are not with the police, are you?” Nakamoto had a low pleasant voice with only the slightest of accents, not the usual high-pitched Japanese scale.
I shook my head. “I am a specialist in jewelry. I help Officer McCloseky as a consultant.”
Nakamoto nodded and closed his eyes again, one of his ladies going at his neck with force. “I thought I remembered you from an auction in New York, a few years back. I made a bid for a Napoleon piece. You were there with Thomas Cornelius, bidding proxy for a museum in Canada.” He opened his eyes again, staring right at me. Was he delivering some kind of message, mentioning Thomas Cornelius? I racked my brain, but didn’t remember him being there or bidding against us. I remembered the auction well; it was shortly after my breakthrough success with the Dutch royal commission and one of the first to which Thomas had taken me.
Nakamoto spoke. “I have followed your career. Your pieces will be very valuable in the future.”
“Thank you, your evaluation is very kind.”
“Very valuable, maybe even during your lifetime.”
Nakamoto chuckled and Ron used the jolly mood to place his next question. “Who was your business contact regarding the Maximilian Jewels?”
‘The Japanese’ slowly moved his head toward Ron, like a large lizard deciding on mouse one or mouse two. “A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Mr. Altward from San Diego, Altward Gallery. He told me that the Maximilian Set was on the market, that there was a closed auction and that I was allowed to be one of the privileged bidders.”
Ron asked, “Were you? Privileged?”
“I am a collector of rare pieces of jewelry. I have a good overview of the market—what’s hot and what’s not. I had read about the Maximilian Jewels a few months ago. They piqued my interest but only on a hypothetical basis.”
“How is that?”
“At that point, they were not on the market. They belonged to a museum, a state museum, come to think of it.”
“Why is that bad?” Ron asked.
Nakamoto snorted with disgust. “These types are sponsored with tax money, rarely sell what they already have, just hold on to it and hide it in their vaults.” Nakamoto took the hand of one of his water girls and moved it to another part of his body. “I wasn’t actively looking.”
“But then Mr. Altward offered you an invitation to bid.”
“Was that suspicious in any way, being a museum piece and all?”
To regain a little of my consultant authority, I explained. “It is not unusual practice for museums to hire a go-between to sell pieces. Attracts less attention and leaves the selling to a specialist. As Mr. Nakamoto said, museums usually only buy and they rarely sell. But rarely does not mean never. So it is not unheard of.”
Ron nodded. “Understood, not suspicious.” But his tone clearly indicated, ‘Cover your fat ass.’ For effect, he paused briefly… “Did you bid?”
“I did and Mr. Altward contacted me again a few days later. I had to increase my bid twice. Then, about two weeks ago, Mr. Altward told me that I had won the private auction,” Nakamoto sighed.
“Would you tell me the price you were willing to pay for the set?”
“It was high, I tell you.”
“Five million US dollars—or more?”
“Not even close.”
“What happened then?” Ron continued.
“I did the preparations to travel to the US to inspect the goods and I pre-arranged the financial transaction with my bank here.”
“But the deal didn’t go through?”
Nakamoto shook his head once. “A few days later, Mr. Altward called and told me that the complete set had been stolen in the gallery robbery that you spoke about.”
“He told you that in so many words?”
“He apologized profusely but he said he wasn’t able to deliver the set.”
“Altward specifically said ‘stolen?'”
“Yes, he did.”
“You arrived when… Monday a week ago?” Ron flipped through the pages in his notepad.
Nakamoto nodded his head, almost trapping the hand of one of his geishas under his chin. I wondered how many clicks I would get on YouTube if I filmed this spectacle.
“But the jewels had been stolen already. Why did you come anyway? And even stay for a week?”
“Everything was already booked, so why not make the trip? I enjoy L.A.” With those bath-babes around him, even I couldn’t spot any irony.
“Did you speak with Altward in person while you were here?”
Nakamoto gave a very sharp small smile as if the cat and mouse game had just begun. “No, why should I?”
“To inquire… ”
Nakamoto interrupted Ron with a short quick movement of his hand. “I believed Mr. Altward, his reputation is extremely good, and I didn’t doubt his word. Even if he had a better bidder, he knew that I would have raised my bid even further when asked. So why should he miss out on a spectacular deal?”
“Would you have bought the Maximilian Jewels if they had turned out to be stolen?”
“They were stolen, weren’t they?”
Ron was as patient as a pit-bull terrier. “No, I mean stolen from the museum that originally owned them.”
Again, Nakamoto had this sharp smile around his lips. “Of course not, that would have been against ‘your law.'” The way he said ‘your law’ made it sound as if Ron was personally responsible for the law.
“You are a serious collector?”
“I am a serious and honest collector, to correct your insinuation.”
“You collect with passion, rare pieces?”
“Never bought any ‘hot’ items just for your personal collection, for your eyes only, ever?” Ron poked, too far.
“Of course not, Officer. And this concludes our conversation. Goodbye, Officer. Miss.” A quick nod in my direction. He had already dismissed us. The three girls kept on massaging.
“He is lying,” I said with conviction as we rode down in the elevator.
“They all do,” Ron was unperturbed by Nakamoto’s brashness.
“Do you think he is right in the middle of the transaction with whoever stole the stones?”
“No, I think he is simply sitting in his web like a Sumo spider, waiting for ‘The Max’ to come flying in.” Ron held open the side door for me to climb into his car.
“And that San Diego fence, Mr. Ching,”
“Chong Lee.” Ron corrected me.
“Chong Lee is simply one of his web threads?”
Ron nodded and we drove off. “Know a good restaurant for dinner around here?”
“What about heading into Santa Monica, we could watch teeny girls and boys on the Third Street Promenade and eat Greek,” I recommended.
“My favorite pastime,” Ron said.