AS FOR PERFECT timing, the door to the meeting room opened and an aide stuck in his head. “Thirty minutes, gentlemen. And ladies.” Gave a smile and closed the door. Opened the door again, because he suddenly realized that the whole assembly either sat or stood frozen. Nobody was moving or talking. “You guys all right in here?” He asked. Carver shook himself from the trance and gave a dismissing wave of his hand.
Mr. Pineljo said in his broken English. “Miss Moonstone, I beg your pardon. Did you say ‘fake?’ Is that what I think it means?”
“Fake!” I said. “As in—Not the original. Not even a copy. Not existing at all.”
Ron stood up. “Cal, hang on a second here. You want to tell us that these jewels here are not the original Maximilian Jewels? That there has been a replacement?”
Fowler immediately stepped closer to the displayed jewels and inspected them with his nose hovering an inch over them.
“Ron, that is the point,” I explained. “There has been no replacement and there are no copies. There was never the need to replace or copy anything. There are no Maximilian Jewels at all.”
Carver’s military background took over and he tried to bring a little structure into the meeting. “Now, now, young lady. You are stating some very strong things. No one can deny that these are the Maximilian Jewels. They are here in front of us. And the specialists are here to prove it, too. We have also had the original appraiser from Chicago look them over. They are truly made of gold and rubies and whatever else.” He looked at Vasolar and Benito Salanca for confirmation, and then quickly back at me, because what he saw in the faces of Benito and Pedro didn’t please him. Both of their faces had turned ashen white.
Ron shouted at me, partly because I had led him into this situation blindfolded, which he deserved. “What do you mean there are no Maximilian Jewels at all. That it is a con?”
I gave Ron a helpless smile. “Yes, dear. It is all a con. A fake. A swindle. The great Rock ‘n’ Roll swindle!”
Pineljo asked, “Please, ladies and gentlemen, pardon my English. What is a con?”
“Do you remember the 70s movie, The Sting, with Redford and Newman? In the movie, they build up a fake horse betting parlor, filled it up with fake people playing the parts of placing horse bets, winning and losing, faking the announcer from the hippodrome. A lot of effort just to fool one rich man into placing a very high bet,” I explained. All of those disbelieving eyes. And I repeated slowly, “A lot of effort. Just to fool one rich man into placing a very high bet.”
“Mr. Pineljo, there are no Maximilian Jewels. The world has been taken for a fool by a clever scheme. The Maximilian Jewels have no historic basis. They were produced exclusively to build credibility for a swindle.”
Carver stepped in again, the natural born disaster manager. “Stop, stop, stop. First things first. We know that the Maximilian Jewels exist. They have a history that is based on scientific evidence. The experts say so.”
“Mr. Carver, all we know about the Maximilian Jewels comes from very few sources. My good friend Mundy Millar, a reporter, did a little research for me last week. He actually took the effort to trace back each and every citation and every original source that has a mention of the Maximilian Jewels. In the end, he always came back to one source, kind of an endless loop that all went back to the publications of Benito Salanca.”
“But there must be historical documents that Professor Salanca has based his findings upon,” Carver looked at the shook-up face of Benito who didn’t answer.
I shrugged, “Yes, Mr. Millar did find some of them in the California archives and I am sure that you will find some in the National History Museum of Mr. Vasolar or in a National Library. However, if you do a chemical analysis on the original documents, you will find that every single one of the historical sources on this subject is a clever forgery. Trust me, you will find that each and every old paper or article regarding the Maximilian Jewels is a forgery.”
Carver turned to Vasolar, who although white in the face, still held some level of composure. “You will check this immediately when you are back, you will!”
Juanita, who had read most of the material that we had gotten from Benito said, “But the sources go back several years, there were works by other scientists and you can’t fake… ” Her voice was trailing and she looked at Benito.
I answered for him again. “You can, Juanita. All you need is patience. Benito worked on his thesis for about three years. Enough time to place scientific articles here and there, wait for them to be picked up by colleagues, wait to get cited and then publish a new paper based on the latest citation. Like I said—an infinite loop. Do that several times and you get a very nice tight scientific net. Looks strong, as if it holds a lot but it turns out to be nothing but hot air. Think of it as a long-term project, an investment.”
“Provenance,” Ron whispered. “That’s what you explained to me the first time we visited the gallery and spoke about art. They produced provenance.”
“Good boy!” I said.
“So you want to tell us, young lady, that this Maximilian Jewel swindle was conceived some years ago. Planned and executed with the highest skill. But here we have them. Right here in front of us,” Carver said.
“You know, that has been bugging me for some time. Of course, you had to produce some spectacular jewelry to pull this sting off. And that’s what the planners did. They produced the Maximilian Set.” I pointed at the jewels on the desk. “And it was Mr. Vasolar who gave me the idea.”
“Me?” Pedro Vasolar croaked. “I have nothing to do with the fake, believe me.”
“When we visited you, we chatted about my work and my international prizes. And one of my finest competitors, the late Ignacio Hermosa.”
Mr. Pineljo sighed. “Poor Mr. Hermosa. He was such a pride for his country, he died much too soon.”
“Even though I can’t prove it, I bet he died because he was the maker of the Maximilian Jewels. In the Latin American world, he was the only artist capable of producing an authentic looking piece bridging the two cultures. The mastermind of this operation had him in mind, probably never told him what they were planning to do with the commission.” I turned to Ron. “Tell our friend Lobos to look into the death of Ignacio Hermosa and I bet you find a large commission payment shortly before his death.”
Pedro Vasolar tried to save his neck by piping from his seat. “But I have nothing to do with this fake, maybe it is of Mr. Hermosa or someone else.”
Fowler stepped forward. “Calendar, one thing we don’t understand, the Maximilian Jewels have been in the possession of the museum for a long time, in fact they were stolen from there.”
Pedro nodded feverishly, his doggy eyes turned toward Fowler.
I smiled at Fowler. “This is what makes this so complicated. The involvement of the museum curator was necessary—not to steal the Maximilian Jewels—but to achieve the exact opposite, to bring proof of the jewels existence into the museum and its archives.”
Fowler pointed at Pedro. “But he supported the authenticity of the Maximilian Jewels and said that he had seen them in the vaults some time ago.”
“Why did you come along to Mexico City in the first place, Fowler?” I asked him sweetly.
He frowned and looked back at me, confused first, then his face lit up and grew dark a second later. Fowler slowly turned to Pedro Vasolar and lifted his hand, pointed a finger at him. “You slimy cockroach bastard… ” For a moment, he even forgot his fake British accent, but no one noticed but me.
“Please, gentlemen, ladies,” John Carver was attempting to calm a situation that was already completely over his head. He had come to catch a little international spotlight of intercultural celebration but instead got caught in a nightmare of crooks and capers. “What is the problem here?”
Fowler steamed. “This nitwit of a museum director simply jumped on the bandwagon and stated that the Maximilian Jewels belonged to the museum. And all that he speculated on was eight million dollars of insurance money, nice additional income for his rundown corrupt institution.”
A bilateral push and shove broke out between Mexico and the USA until the brave SDPD stopped any further acts of violence that couldn’t be painted over for the waiting TV cameras outside or caused a new US-Mexican war. Mr. Pineljo had to sit down, held his heart; we had to ask for water. He was devastated and muttered to Pedro Vasolar in Spanish, crude words from the mere sound of it. Pedro Vasolar simply stared at the floor.
Ron had pushed the American faction into the other corner of the meeting room.
Fowler was burning circles into the wooden floor, pacing like a restless bull, round and round. “Insurance fraud of the highest degree. Unbelievable. Just say yes. Just say yes!” He gave a small cry.
Ron soothed him, “Come on, Fowler, chill, you got him. They have laws in Mexico, too. Your company didn’t pay him a dime yet, did you?”
Juanita looked very relaxed and eyed Benito Salanca curiously. “Mr. Salanca, what was your take? How much did you make?”
Benito still had the ashen complexion and looked like he had been beaten. Beaten enough?
He took off his glasses, rubbed his face and then looked up again. “Nothing. Nothing, yet.”
“Didn’t you forget your thesis?” I nudged his memory toward the truth.
“His thesis is a fake, too?” Juanita asked, interested.
“No, no, of course not, it is a solid work of science I assure you.” But Benito’s heart wasn’t much into arguing. “Well, except for the few paragraphs about the Max. But Calendar is remarking on the financing of my thesis. I received a grant from an obscure organization that financed my thesis and the deal was that I built up the legend of the Maximilian Jewels. It was so easy.” He snapped his fingers. Juanita nodded sympathetically, the perfect good cop. “Just like that, the whole community of historians is so glutinous and unmoving, especially the US ones. The researchers prefer deskwork and the Internet to look for sources, there are few of us who really do the digging and are coming up with new pieces of historical evidence. It was like a domino effect, I published two papers on the Maximilian Jewels, faked three old parchments and the rest worked out like planned. Two colleagues on the West Coast picked up the story and the hints, dug a little further, found my fake docs, and then wrote their own stuff, which I could then pick up again.”
“And so on… ” I said.
The door of the meeting room opened again and the aide came in. Behind him, we could make out a packed room, some feet shuffling city officials; I recognized the San Diego mayor and the governor of our beloved state making conversation.
“We are ready to go, the governor just arrived.”
John Carver at least tried to hold up the flag of optimism. “We will be out in a minute,” he said.
The aide pointed to the door. “Do you realize what’s going on out… ”
“One minute,” Carver said sharply and pushed the aide out, shut the door, saw the key sticking in the hole and simply locked the door. He strode over to me and looked at me. “Lady, I don’t know you, I only know that you just stirred up a most bizarre story, which appears to be true.” He pointed toward Pedro Vasolar who was looking more and more deflated by the minute. “That fink actually confessed that he simply thought it was a good idea to claim that the Maximilian Jewels belonged to his inventory.” He looked into the small assembly. “Which brings us to the point: What do we tell the world outside? Who will risk being lynched by the collective historic souls of Mexico and the USA both? Jesus, a national treasure!” He raised his hands to the ceiling. “A swindle!”
Mr. Pineljo had also come over, looking for a way to save face and get out of this mess.
He looked at me again. “Do you have another good idea, young lady?”
I almost kicked his shin for calling me ‘young lady.’ But I stayed mum and entered into the next stage of my plan. “What about the simple solution, we forget what happened during the last minutes in here.”
“What did you say? Forget, how can we forget?” Carver boomed.
Fowler jumped up and down like a little boy in front of an occupied restroom. “Impossible, impossible… ”
I pulled him back to earth. “Come on Fowler, no financial harm done yet to your insurance company. There will be no claim from Mexico City. You can count on that. You simply increase the premiums threefold, Mr. Vasolar and Mr. Pineljo will agree and everyone is happy.” I raised an eyebrow toward Mr. Pineljo, who simply looked tired and gave a nod, glad to get out of it all. “Mr. Vasolar will be fired for some obscure reason, should he make anything public he will face prosecution and most likely jail time. Benito here has his professional reputation and job to consider, he has all the reasons to stay mum. And Ron and Juanita don’t care. What happens in Mexico stays in Mexico.”
A look around, no disagreements. “So be it.”
Carver gave me a long hard stare, swallowed, looked at Mr. Pineljo, both representatives of states nodded in agreement and the pact was sealed. They would leave this room and play out the charade in front of eighty million eyes.
Pineljo walked over to Vasolar to blow some air back into his designated ex-Director of the National History Museum of Mexico. Carver wrapped up the Maximilian Jewels, ready to present them to the media and officially hand them over.
Juanita, Ron, Benito and I filed behind them, Carver unlocked the door, opened it, and the buzz grew louder. The clicking of the cameras started, spotlights switched on, and glistening light washed over the small stage. Carver, Pineljo and Vasolar were just outside the door when I quickly slammed it shut behind them.
I put on my most aggressive face and turned to Benito Salanca, walking right behind me. I jumped into his face and simply threw the words at him for better effect.
“We are not done yet! You better tell us how you killed Phoebe Eastman!”