by Colin Deerwood
I instructed the boys to park mid-block in the shadow of the cone from the street light. Max’s Triple A Loans was half a block down and locked up tighter than a spinster’s legs on a full moon night. I squired the dame around the corner and into the alley that ran behind Max’s pawn shop. She didn’t hesitate once as we entered the narrow unlit corridor of discarded crates and overflowing overturned garbage cans, a sliver of gutter water gleaming down the center, the scramble of rats scurrying away. Visible in between the gap of tall buildings the sky was filling with the dark billowing clouds and in the distance a flash then a rumble sounding like someone was moving furniture around in the apartment upstairs, really heavy furniture.
I’d been there before and even though the sign on the large metal door claimed to belong to Ho Gung Import Exports, I banged on the door a couple of times. I knew Max burned the midnight oil counting his filthy lucre and probably even slept there. All I got for my trouble was a reminder of how hard a metal door can be. I tried again, this time adding my voice. “Max! It’s me, Lackland Ask, open up!” I thought I heard a movement on the other side of the door and put my ear up to it. “Max! Open up!”
“Go away,” a faint tired voice answered.
“Come on Max, it’s me, Lack Ask. I found your stupid niece for you when she ran away upstate with that travelling Bible salesman!”
Nothing. Except for the raindrops that were falling with increasing intensity.
“I don’t know what was worse for Max, that she ran away or that it was with a Bible salesman,” I said from the corner of my mouth. I slapped the palm of my sore hand on the door a few more times. “Come on, Max! It’s important! And it’s starting to rain!”
The gal thought she’s give it a try, stepped up and rapped on the door delicately with her knuckles. “Mr. Fedderman,” she called out, “my name is Rebecca Levy. I request a special favor of you. I am here with my betrothed, Mr. Ask, and we have an item we wish for you to appraise if you would be so kind.”
What she said was more of a mouthful than Open Sesame, but it worked. I could hear the bolt being slid back and the tumblers turning and finally the heavy door creaking on its hinges swinging outward to reveal Max with a Louisville slugger in one hand and a very perplexed look on his mug. He stared at Rebecca and then at me and back again. “Betrothed?” he croaked.
“Come in, come in” Max waved his hand impatiently, smiling at Rebecca and frowning at me. There was the stink of old in the little storage room in the back and it wasn’t just Max. And as I had guessed, a cot pushed against the wall under some shelves crammed with pawned items. He led us into the cage that was his office just off the main showroom and pulled the chain on the overhead light. In among the clutter was a rolltop desk and a work bench.
Max sat in the only chair and looked up at us. He was a sight. A halo of wild white frizz surrounded his mottled dome, wrinkles on his forehead stepped down to a pair of cheaters like the bottoms of jam jars astride a carbuncled schnozzle below which sat a smear of liver lips on a bed of untrimmed whiskers. No wonder he was known as The Owl on the street, but an owl that had just smoked an exploding cigar. He smiled and showed that he was running out of teeth and the ones that he still had weren’t in that good a shape. The smile was aimed at the dame. Me, he fixed with a squint.
Max grunted and placed the pebble in the palm of his hand and poked at it with a finger. “The first difference you will notice between a pebble and an authentic uncut diamond is that an uncut diamond has a faint oily feel to it.”
“So you are getting married? The temperature in Hell must have dropped below zero.” The liver lips shaped a smirk.
“Thank you for agreeing to see us, Mr. Fedderman.” The kid beamed her glow at him. “It is the matter of a stone and its authenticity. Mr. Ask. . .I mean, Lackland, doubts that it is real.”
“A stone,” Max breathed noncommittally.
“Yeah, Max, it’s supposed to be an uncut diamond, but how can you tell? I mean, it looks like a pebble you might find in your shoe.”
“Uncut diamond?” Now the old guy was interested because instead of slouching in his chair he sat straight up.
“Lackland says you are an expert in such matters and can appraise its value for us.”
From the look on Max’s face maybe he took the term “expert” to be some kind of insult. He stood up and I realized how short he was. Still, puffing out his chest he said, “Young lady, I will have you know that I was the most respected and renowned purveyor of gemstones in the international community of Shanghai. I handled only the finest in jewels, from diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, and jade. . . .” He was about to go on but the tailor’s daughter jumped in.
“Oh, jade, I love jade. My mother had the most beautiful jade necklace. . . .”
Not to be outdone, Max dismissed what she had to say. “I carried only the finest of Burmese jade, the jade of emperors and empresses, to some more valuable than diamonds!”
Now it was my turn. “That’s what I told them, Max. . . .” And at the dame’s scowl, corrected myself, “Uh, her, that’s what I told her. You know your gems, diamonds especially.”
“Of course, if I do say so myself.” Acting humble didn’t suit him. “If I may examine the specimen.” He held out his hand and the girl reached into her coat pocket and produced a small white box. Max took it from her and opened the box and muttered a hmmm. He set the box on his work bench and found a pair a tweezers which he used to hold the rock up to the light.
“Like I told you, Max, it looks like something you might find on the beach.”
Max grunted and placed the pebble in the palm of his hand and poked at it with a finger. “The first difference you will notice between a pebble and an authentic uncut diamond is that an uncut diamond has a faint oily feel to it.” Then he parked his glasses on top of his dome and pulled a loupe from his vest pocket and fit it in his eye socket. “The next detail is the surface of the stone, its facets, what are their shapes.” He dropped the diamond back into the little white box and handed it to me. “Congratulations! You are in possession of a genuine diamond. Quite a valuable one, I have to tell you.”
Well, that cinched it. I was going to be a rich man. My eyes and my grin were competing with each other over which was going to get bigger. I looked at the dame and her smile was trying to make up its mind if she was pleased or now what. But I didn’t care. All I could think about was what I was going to do with all that money once I turned those diamonds into cash. A new roadster like a Torpedo or that Roadmaster I had my eye on, an apartment in a classy neighborhood with a doorman at the entrance, new suits, none of those second hand threads, dames, booze, travel, maybe catch a train to Frisco and look in on Della who I heard was working for a slick lawyer on Mason Street and flash my roll and say “who’s the loser now.”
Luck was finally turning my way. I could open my own office instead of just passing out business cards in cocktail lounges and night clubs. I would certainly be looking at a more upscale clientele. I’d actually have customers I could call clientele. I would need a receptionist, someone to answer the phone and show the clients into my private office with Lackland Ask, Confidential Investigations in gold lettering on the frosted glass pane of the door, maybe a dame like this one, smart, sassy, and eager to learn. Happy days were here again where actually they had never been before or if they had, they didn’t stay for very long. I was going to be rich!
No doubt I was taking advantage of the situation but I reached around and put my arm over the frill’s shoulder and pulled her to me. “Hey baby, how about that. we got a real diamond. It’ll make a beautiful wedding ring!”
I got a sharp elbow in the ribs for my trouble. “Yes, of course, darling,” she said between gritted teeth and giving me a firm no smile avoiding the closeness of my face like I had three day bender breath. “Maybe we should be on our way and thank Mr. Fedderman for his kindness.”
I looked at my cup. Maybe the joy juice had affected my hearing. “You mean Dracula country? Don’t tell me you’re a vampire, Max.”
“Leaving?!” Max’s whole body, head, arms, legs shook no. “I would not think of it! This happy occasion calls for a drink! I insist!” and he produced a short round bottle from the bottom drawer of a dusty wooden file cabinet, the kind of bottle Sinbad might have rubbed when he was calling out the genie. He had a glass but it was greasy and finger stained. He shook his head and scurried to a set of shelves along the wall crammed with odds and ends, mostly glass and porcelain figurines like you might find in a Chinese variety store. He reached into the clutter and with a grin that was startlingly sinister, produced a pair of blue and white tea cups, setting them on the edge of the desk, and proceeded to drip some of the liquor into each of them before pouring a generous helping into the smeared glass for himself.
I didn’t see why not. A drink always went a long ways to settling my nerves. It was the best tonic I knew. Besides I was in a mood to celebrate. The frail wasn’t so sure and stared at the cup Max had handed her.
“Mazel tov! To the health and prosperity of your union. May you have many offspring to see to you in your old age!”
She went all red in the face and I almost felt sorry for her. She hesitated and Max leaned forward to say something like it was going to convince her. “Ming dynasty,” he said indicating the cup, “Very rare.”
She pass the cup under her nose, still uncertain.
“A plum brandy from the old country.”
She took a tiny sip to wet her lips. She smiled at the sweetness of the taste and tried a little more. By the time it reached her throat her eyes were watering and she was trying to catch her breath. She began to cough.
“Where are my manners?” Max gently steered her to the only chair in the room. “Here, sit, sit.”
She thanked him and asked, “Where is your old country?”
I looked at my cup. Maybe the joy juice had affected my hearing. “You mean Dracula country? Don’t tell me you’re a vampire, Max.”
“Pah!” Max spit, “The fever dreams of an Irishman. In the Carpathian Mountains there are many strange legends, but none of them are about vampires.”
Rebecca took another sip now that she was sitting. She nodded. “I have heard many of the folk tales from that region. They are similar to the ones I grew up with.”
Max was pleasantly surprised from the way his whiskers parted to form a smile. “And where is that, my dear?” So when she said the name of the place that sounded something like Salami-ka, he exclaimed, “We’re practically neighbors!” He poured himself a little more of the liquor and then a dab into each of our cups. “To the crucibles of civilization!” he toasted and took another big gulp and just to be polite I followed suit. The girl, too, though maybe not so eagerly.
Then she asked the question that set it all in motion, and gave Max the opportunity to tell his story. “How did you end up in Shanghai?”
“When I was a young man I had to leave my tiny village in the shadow of the larger castle town of Sibiu because of a matter of honor. It was a matter of honor for the father of a young woman who vowed he would kill me on sight. I offered to marry her but because of who I was that was impossible. I come from a poor family, my father an itinerant tailor, and she was the daughter of a prominent man in the village. I was quite handsome in those days and was known about the village as “zilbertung”. My father went to the mayor of the town and begged him to intercede. Being a wise man, the mayor proposed a solution. The man’s honor needed to be appeased but he was not an unreasonable man except for the fact that he wanted to kill me. He would accept satisfaction on two conditions. One, that I was to be banished from the village, and two, that a compensatory payment be made. As I said, my parents were very poor. The first stipulation would break my mother’s heart but at least I would still be alive, but the other was beyond their means. The mayor had an idea that would resolve both of the demands. With my parents’ agreement, my father was ready to kill me himself, the mayor took me to Sibiu and sold me to a travelling merchant as an indentured servant.”
“Oh, how awful!” the kid breathed, and accepted another drib from Max’s bottle while I leaned my rear on the edge of the desk. Max had the floor.
“It was the best decision I never made in my life!” Max held his glass up in acknowledgement and lapped up more of the juice. “From that moment on, I trusted only fate, dame fortune. Decisive action is for schnooks. And most of my life has proved me right. Opportunity is always underfoot, you only have to trip over it.
“As it turns out, the man I was sold to was a trinket merchant, a man who bought, I should say swindled poor peasants out of their family heirlooms. And he beat me horribly at first, especially when he was drunk, but I learned that he had a weakness for folk tales and so with my silver tongue I beguiled him with stories from my village, some that I had heard at my grandmother’s knee and others that I made up ex nihilo, especially the ones with fantastic beasts and enchanted maidens who would lure young men with their whiles. And so I always made certain that he had plenty to drink at whatever inn we stopped at and I would tell him stories until he fell asleep.
“By the time we arrived in St. Petersburg, he had me reciting my tales to the denizens of roadside taverns and passing the hat. Of course I never saw any of the money because I was essentially his slave, a slave to a Slav. But in St, Petersburg, creditors caught up with the merchant who was known as Ursulov, by the way, a bear of a man. He owed many debts and to pay them off he had to sell me even though he had become very fond of me and my stories.
“And I had landed in St. Petersburg at the turn of the century, a simmering cauldron of political dissent and talk of revolution, but now as the servant of a man who was a jewel merchant or a jewel thief, depending on whom you spoke with, a tiny man with a very bad temper who was not quite Russian and not quite Chinese—he claimed to be from the region near Lake Baikal which later proved useful in extricating me and my companions from a very dangerous situation.
“But I digress. At first I merely swept the shop and washed the windows and kept the fires going in the winter, and because I was quite strong, I accompanied him when he thought he might need protection. He carried a pistol and allowed me a knife. A known jewel merchant was not safe on the streets of St. Petersburg and he had made many enemies over his gem transactions. He had a young apprentice as well, a boy of about my age, perhaps younger, named Freddy, from Switzerland, and we became fast friends.”
“Ah, Switzerland,” the dame murmured, leaning a little sideways and accepting more of the fruit juice from the bottle. I had a refill as well. After a while, that stuff made you feel kinda warm and cozy, like you didn’t have a care in the world, and added to the fistful of diamonds I had in mind, I didn’t.
“I attended boarding school in Zurich,” she said dreamily, “I learned French, Italian, German, and English while I was there, and I had a friend in each of those languages.” She looked up at me trying to focus her eyes, “And now I am learning American.”
“The discontent in the streets of St. Petersburg and Moscow came to a boil and the people revolted against the government. The revolt was quickly put down but it paved the way for the Bolsheviks a dozen years later.”
“A woman of words in the ways of the world!” Max raised his glass again and we all downed a slug. “I too learned many new languages during my time working for Otobayar as the merchant was known. Chinese and Russian, German, and French. Because of my silver tongue, languages were easy for me, and soon Mr. Otobayar came to trust me as someone who could always bargain a good price for the merchandise, either up or down, depending on the circumstances. I also learned much about the gem business, especially that stones were an international currency, and quite easily transported across borders sewn in the lining of a sleeve or the cuff of trousers, and were accepted everywhere.”
“Kinda like diamonds,” I said and I sounded stupid saying it.”
“”Exactly,” Max said passing the bottle around.
“Diamonsh,” the kid echoed and sounded just as stupid.
“Those were wild and dangerous times in St. Petersburg. There were strikes by workers and peasants alike. Factions of the military were trying to gain power by overthrowing the Tsar’s rule. There was fighting in the street, soldiers killing many of the citizens who were protesting, demanding food, better wages, or even wages. Much of this fomented by the disciples of a dead Engländer by the name of Marx. Less than half a dozen years into the new century, Russia had started a war with Japan. The discontent in the streets of St. Petersburg and Moscow came to a boil and the people revolted against the government. The revolt was quickly put down but it paved the way for the Bolsheviks a dozen years later.”
“The damned Reds,” I growled and emptied my cup
“Soon Mr. Otobayar, whose full name by the way had thirty letters to it and was unpronounceable to anyone not familiar with the Mongol tongue even when they were sober, realized that a man in a business such as his was in more danger than a mere bodyguard could protect him from. It was time to flee. He had Freddy and I pack up as much as we could carry, sewing strings of gems into our clothes, in the linings of our suitcases, and the heels of our shoes, and we boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway and headed east. The streets of the capitol were running with blood and the Russian Empire was losing the war to the Japanese.”
“The Japanese,” Rebecca spoke dumbly and I had to agree with her.
“When we arrived in Moscow to board the train,” Max said, steeling himself with a sip for the next part, “there were soldiers everywhere. They were heading to the battle front. We feared we would not be allowed to board. But there were also poor peasants conscripted to hard labor in the east and so we rode in the boxcars with them, with Mr. Otobayar disguised as our servant.”
Max stared at the wall of his office like he was looking out a window and shook his head like he didn’t like what he was seeing. “It was an incredibly long journey across the wilds of Russia complicated by the fact that the train heading east, the one Mr. Otobayar, Freddy and I were traveling on, was regularly sidetracked to let pass the trains heading west that were loaded with the dead and wounded from the war with Japan.
“Even in your most extravagant moment you could not imagine the horrors I witnessed. Peasants starving or killing each other over a crust of bread, soldiers committing suicide or deserting which was almost the same thing as they had no hope of surviving in the wilderness, and particularly after a troop train of their wounded comrades passed the other way, there were always the wails of inconsolable desperation. We had to be continually on our guard and Mr. Otobayer and I had to deal forcefully with the growing insolence of the peasants. We feared for our lives and the gems we carried which of course would mean nothing to them. They wanted our clothes and our shoes.”
Max talked in a way that put pictures in my head and I just stared at him looking at what his words said. The girl was looking up at him with her mouth hanging open.
“Fortunately for us, as the train rounded the southern tip of Lake Baikal, we took on a contingent of soldiers native to that region whose language Mr. Otobayat was quite familiar with and was able to convince them to allow us to continue to our destination in their company and under their protection.
“When we arrived in Harbin we waited for weeks in vermin infested lodgings along with other Russian refugees who had arrived before us and were still waiting for the Eastern Chinese Railway train to take us to Peking We roomed alongside criminals and deserters, Japanese agents and Chinese soldiers. Our lives were more in danger than they had been on the train for these men, and women, knew the value of the gems they suspected us of carrying.
“Mr. Otobayat had engaged one of the servants at the inn to be our ears and eyes and keep us informed of the intentions of the other guests. The night of the train’s arrival he warned us that several of the toughs and army deserters planned to attack us in the morning of the train’s departure for Peking. Mr. Otobayat on hearing the news came up with a plan. He paid the servant to betray us and tell the bandits that we had got wind of their plan and were fleeing to a neighboring village. As there was only one road in that direction the gang of ruffians set out to follow us, assuming that we could not have gone very far. We waited for them outside the city limits hiding in ditches alongside the road. Once they came into view, we had Freddy run down the road in full view. As they ran past us, we jumped out of the ditches and beat them with our clubs. Mr. Otobayat had to shoot one of them and I cut another one’s throat.” Max held his hand like was holding a knife.
The dame’s eye opened wide and rigid like the slots on a pay phone. He kinda got my attention, too. And as if to fan all the smoke away, he said, “A week later were in the international settlement in Shanghai. Mr. Otobayat acquired quarters where we could continue our business in gems and sent Freddy on a steamer across the Pacific to America to look for further opportunities. Mr. Otobayar always thought of the future. Unfortunately his past caught up with him and he was murdered in a deal with a Burmese jade dealer.”
Max held the smoked glass of the bottle up to the light and squinted with one eye. There was a corner left, probably enough for one more round whether we needed it or not. “Fortunately I knew enough of the gem business to continue in the trade, I had my silver tongue, and by then I was considered a yu shu lin feng, a handsome young man, and cut quite a dashing figure among the emigres of the international settlement as well as the citizens of the middle kingdom. I even became the president of League of International Gem and Diamond Merchants, Shanghai chapter.” He frowned. “Until they brought false charges against me and had me barred from membership.” He dismissed them with a wave of a hand and downed the last in his glass. He peered at the tailor’s daughter. “And that is how I ended up in Shanghai, my home for a quarter of the century. I won’t bother you with the details of my having to flee before the Japanese invaded, the fascist Blue Shirts I had to bribe, the tongs, the Green gang, and Shanghai gangsters like Crater Face Huang and Elephants Ears Wang!”
Now there were some names for a Dick Tracy funny book and maybe the girl thought so too because she started giggling and then broke into a loud guffaw. “Elephant Ears Wang!” she snorted, and then let out a very unladylike gut splitter, tears running down her cheeks.
They say laughter is contagious. I thought it was kinda funny myself and volunteered a couple of chuckles. They bounced around the small office and the next thing I know, we were all practically rolling on the floor, pointing fingers, crying, and trying to catch our breaths with a bad case of the yuk-ups and ho-ho-hos.
Wheezing and holding a hand up in surrender, Max wiped the tears from his eyes. “Thank you for your gift of humor, Miss Levy, soon to be Mrs. Lackland Ask.” That only caused to her to laugh some more, but not as heartily. He gestured to the interior of his shop. “Let me offer you something for your trousseau. Pick any item of clothing, silk dresses imported from China, or silk pajamas for the wedding night, perhaps. With my compliments.” He winked at me and I gave him a big wink back like we were part of some vaudeville routine.
“Oh, I just love the feel of silk on my skin,” she said getting to her feet, a little wobbly but managing a cross ankle dance to the clothing racks Max was pointing to further in the shop.
“Ah, yes, yes, the Empress’s Cucumber.” Even he looked a little embarrassed, clearing his throat
Max gave me the raised eyebrow and called me over for a tête-à-tête which I knew was French for a mouth to ear. “These diamonds, they have relations?” He was trying to be subtle but it almost went over my head.
“Uh, yeah, about a half dozen, I’d say. And if this deal works out, they’ll be all mine.” I couldn’t help grinning but Max’s grim mug made me stow it.
“Deal, what deal?”
“Don’t worry Max, I’ll cut you a commission for moving the rocks for me.” I looked over my shoulder to see if the dame was still occupied with sorting through the rack of dresses and pajamas. “See, I had this address book that belonged to one of Kovic’s goons and unbeknownst to me it was full of information about this mob called the Black Hand.”
At the mention of the Black Hand he gave me the Felix the Cat bug eyes. And nodded impatiently.
“These guys, the girl, this rabbi and his group are fighting them or something like that. It’s got everything to do with what’s going on. . . .”
“Yes, yes, I am getting the flavor of what you are saying. And it is you that Kovic is looking for?” He was giving me the once over like he didn’t think I had it in me. “There is a price. . . .”
That’s when we heard the kid scream and then start laughing again. I figured she spotted a rat but why was she laughing? It sounded hysterical.
She was holding a bright red Chinese dress to her neck with one hand and standing by one of the glass display cases, pointing to a brocade cloth Chinese box on top. “What is that?” she said, looking as she if she was pleasantly mortified.
I was kinda brought up short myself. I knew what it looked like and I could give a guess at what it could be used for, but I didn’t want to say. I left that up to Max.
“Ah, yes, yes, the Empress’s Cucumber.” Even he looked a little embarrassed, clearing his throat.
Now that he said it, I had to agree, it did kinda look like a cucumber. It was green and longer than it was wide, rounded and curved at the tip, with some carved leaves around what looked like a stem or handle at the other end. It looked like something valuable or at least expensive tucked in the plush padded red lining. On the other hand, it also looked like something you might find in the bedside table drawer of some lonely old maid.
“This once belonged to an empress?” The disbelief wasn’t hidden.
“Oh, no, no, this is merely a soapstone replica. They are also known as ‘auntie’s friend.’ The original one belonged the Empress Dowager Tzu-zi and made of the finest most translucent Burmese jade.”
“Her name was Suzy?” Now I was doubting what I was hearing.
“No Tzu-zi, although I know it does sound like Suzy. The original Empress’s Cucumber mysteriously disappeared after her death shortly after I arrived in Shanghai. Being in the jade business at the time I had heard rumors that it was for sale to the highest bidder. Mr. Otobayar thought he could broker a deal with a rich Japanese industrialist but it was all quite secret and I was kept out of the transactions. Although his death was attributed to a jade deal gone bad, I believe Mr. Otobayar was murdered by a sect of loyalist bent on restoring imperial rule. They believe that possession of the Empress’s Cucumber will boost their claim to legitimacy among the people of the middle kingdom. And from what I hear from my informants even though no knows where it is, treasure hunters and agents loyal to the throne of Heaven are still searching for it.” Then dropped his voice confidential like. “There is a rumor that the jade has been sighted recently. Whoever has possession of it is holding millions of dollars and the fate of a people in his hands. No wonder they would kill for it.”
Max turned his head and smiled at the frail as if he hadn’t just been talking about conspiracy and murder. “So you’ve picked the red cheongsam dress with the gold embroidered birds of paradise. Excellent choice. The size looks right but maybe the hem could be let out a bit otherwise you might show a little more ankle than is proper. I can have it done by tomorrow and delivered to your address.”
As Max was showing us to the back door, Rebecca asked. “I was wondering, whatever became of your friend Freddy after he left for America?”
Max shook his head. “Sad story that. He returned to France and joined the Foreign Legion to fight in the Great War, and was wounded, lost his hand. Now I hear he seeks out the company of Bohemians and degenerate artists.”