SEARCH FOR THE GOLDEN DIAMOND OF KOLIMAR
Nick Christmas and his young Girl Friday, Randi Degrotti, try to track down the famous Golden Diamond of Kolimar that was apparently stolen from the estate of Wade and Adeline Huntington, only to discover two other interests vying for its retrieval: an archeology couple with two avid graduate student assistants versus two physicists and mysterious cohorts from an energy research company called GEOS. Locating the diamond in the least likely place, the detective and his lady sidekick allow the archaeologist to examine its suspected mystical properties in a surprising climax that pits them against shadowy henchmen who want it for its earthlier powers.
Secure in knowing that the Magic Cape Caper might not be completely over—though we’d never know the fate of Dr. Bertram James and his wife Rae Anne for sure—we listened more carefully to the message left on the office answering machine.
A sultry female voice said, “I’m calling on behalf of Wade and Adeline Huntington to see if you could help locate the famous Golden Diamond of Kolimar which has gone missing from their estate. No news of this must leak to the media. The Huntington’s have notified the insurance company but prefer getting the diamond back, since it’s more than a keepsake, but one with great historical significance. Please return the call so I can set up an appointment to secure your services and discretion with a generous retainer.”
“She didn’t leave a phone number,” said Randi, scratching down the caller ID information on one of her multi-colored post-it pads. “Hmm. She called from Evermore Title Company. Sounds kind of working class, doesn’t it? Why is she calling for the owners?”
“That does seem odd.” But I was mulling over the reference. “I wonder if it’s the Kolimar Diamond.”
“You’ve heard of it?”
“I know of only one from the lost Kolimar Mine of India that’s 99 carats and thought to have been stolen from a revered statue that now bears some kind of curse.”
“Oh, Nicky!” she said, hands clasped. “You’re going to take this case, aren’t you? Sounds like a great adventure!” She paused. “I wonder how she ever got your name.”
I brushed knuckles at the lapel of my signature gray corduroy sports coat with its black leather elbows. “Our reputation?”
She grabbed a hand on the waist of her short pink skirt. “What reputation? We didn’t exactly come out of the last case a rousing success.”
I skewed my lips to the side. “Everything is always a work in progress.”
“I guess ‘losing’ Dr. James kind of put us on the map, though.”
“It did make headlines,” I said. “You know what they say in Hollywood. Publicity is still publicity, even if it’s bad.”
We hadn’t dared to share the real truth behind the caper, certainly not with the powers that be. We’d solved the mystery, but proved better at keeping a secret rather than divulging it. This was certainly the era of strange fame. What if we were now lumped together with the likes of O.J. Simpson, or worse, Paris Hilton and her crowd? I remembered with a frisson of horror one of Ms. Hilton’s inadvertently astute observations about the absurdity of suicide bombers becoming the mode de jour when she posed the question, “Doesn’t that hurt”?
“Why then,” Randi asked with even keener perceptivity, “would she entrust us with locating such a famous diamond?”
“Good question,” I agreed. Because we’d be more affordable having bungled the last case? But surely the Huntington’s, owning such an expensive diamond, could afford anyone they wanted. She did promise a “generous retainer.” Our nascent agency could sure use the cash.
“We need to see this potential client in person,” said Randi, an eyebrow arched, “and find out what she really wants from us.”
“You’re learning, my dear. Make the appointment, but say we’ll try to fit her in.”
“I get it,” she said coyly. “Play hard to get?”
“I presume you know how to do that.”
She pursed her lips back at me. “I vaguely remember. But don’t you have a promise to keep first?”
“I haven’t forgotten,” I said. “A nice dinner to celebrate the end of one case and the beginning of another?”
“I’ll need time to get ready.”
“You look fine right now.”
She paused. “You don’t know girls very well, do you.”
“I vaguely remember,” I rejoined with a smirk, remembering my late wife Angie, though she had learned to be prompt, while also training me to be more patient. “But that’s also a work in progress.”
“I can definitely lend a hand there.”
“I imagine so.”
“I’ll see if she can make it tomorrow morning, then meet you back here at five?”
“You don’t want me to pick you up at your place?”
“It’s a mess like this desk,” she said. “I need time to get everything back in order.”
Then Randi dialed the number while I left the vestibule for the main office and stared in despair at the pile of papers knowing there had to be a desk somewhere underneath. That’s where my detecting skills ended, though. I slapped hands at my side, giving up the daunting task of finding anything there yet. I turned and headed back to the oasis of Randi’s reception area instead.
Randi had already hung up the phone but looked disappointed. “Well, that’s interesting and a half.”
I looked confused. “She couldn’t make it?”
“She said it has to be after five tomorrow because she doesn’t want anybody at her job to know she’s hiring us.” Then she studied my face and furrowed brow. “What’s wrong, Nicky?”
“I’m intimidated, I guess, by the chaos on my desk.”
“I’ll tidy yours up soon, too, don’t worry. I’m a good organizer when I set my mind to it.”
“Randi to the rescue?”
“That’s me!” she beamed at first before her lips curled in consternation.
“What’s bothering you now?”
“Can you believe she calls herself ‘Lady Vandemere,’ insisting her husband’s a ‘Lord.’ Isn’t that a bit presumptuous here in America? And working for a title company yet? Where did wealthy people like Wade and Adeline Huntington find this girl anyway?”
I rubbed at my mustache. “Curiouser and curiouser.”
“What are we in for here with her, Nicky?”
“Time enough to worry about that tomorrow when we meet this new ‘lady.’ For now, I need to introduce you to our own form of decadent pleasure, the nice dinner I promised.”
“I can hardly wait!” said Randi, leaping up from her chair and hugging me. “Just you wait and see what I’ve got to show you this time! I’ll make you proud you’ve got me here.”
“Oh?” I said, thinking, Oh-oh, though.
Randi surprised me at least by showing up “only” two-and-a-half hours later a little after five. She wore a glittery silvery short party dress with a kick pleat front and back that made her look like a diamond herself, as I told her—except she admitted they were only rhinestones though I’d figured as much. “I think you’re going to be a little—overdressed,” I said sheepishly. Considering the amount of leg she exposed, I didn’t think guys would mind.
She looked disappointed. “You said it’s a nice place.”
“Well, nicer than we’ve gone to before,” I said trying to wriggle out of this gracefully.
Then when we pulled up in front of Sunshine Pizza which I noticed from the sign was going out of business soon, Randi groaned. “Oh, Nicky, you promised!”
“If you’re not happy here, sweetie,” I said, “I’ll make it up to you with something else. It’s just that this is the only place in town that serves champagne with pizza—even if it’s just Wycliff’s. Isn’t that classier than beer?” It had been a favorite place I’d frequented with my late wife Angie. But I added, “Give it a chance?”
She made a girlish “o” with her lips. “Okay, I guess.”
The customers, young people though some looked to be in their thirties and forties, wore only scuffed Nikes, raggedy jeans made to look that way on purpose (an odd fad S. I. Hayakawa once labeled “synthetic poverty” though I guess if the tears were strategically placed could come across as subtly sexy) and baggy shorts with even baggier sweatshirts. “It’s easy for people like us to shine that much more here.” I said that in a half-question.
“I see what you mean now,” she sighed, “that you’re ‘a work in progress.’”
“A diamond in the rough?”
“Very rough,” she smiled, “but you can be buffed.”
“One of them,” she smirked.
We started with the champagne while she examined the menu. I could see the wine even in plastic goblets settled both of us somewhat, her especially. “I guess the bubbly,” she granted grudgingly later, “does make the margherita pizza go down better. They make the crust nice and crisp the way I like it. Too bad they’re shutting down.” When she drew the slice from her lips, a strand of cheese clung between the two I’d broken apart to give her, stringing it to my mouth, too. She looked down, dabbing a napkin at her lips self-consciously. A faint reminder of that classic scene from Walt Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp” with the spaghetti noodle? That made me look down, too, embarrassed.
“A lot of good things go by the wayside,” I allowed.
She looked at me, light blue eyes sparkling like the champagne working its magic. Ever the cockeyed optimist, she chanted back, “They can always be replaced with better ones.”
Late the next day wearing a short pastel pink empire-cut spring dress with a sweetheart neckline and a white bolo jacket, Randi led our potential client into my “office” a quarter after five. She tried to hide a disgruntled glance at “Lady” Mena Vandemere’s presumption again of an after-hours appointment. Mrs. Vandemere acted as if she weren’t inconveniencing us the least bit, as she strode in on knee-high high-heeled black boots, sweeping long curly black hair away from speckled green eyes as if parting a veil while slinging part of her capelet from one shoulder. That revealed a swan-like neck and a scooped neckline adorned with gold chains dipping towards her endowments peeking out as crescents she seemed equally proud of. Talk about being overdressed, not just for showing up at a detective agency, but having come like that from a Podunk job at a title insurance company?
When she took her seat in my old chair that sank down with her, the slit in her paisley dress parted, exposing smooth knees above the tops of her boots. She crossed her legs then, making gold bracelets clink like tambourines. “I’m the daughter representing my folks at their request,” she explained right at the outset. “Where I’m working now is just a stopgap while I find something more suitable to my skills.”
“Which would be?” I probed.
“I majored in arts and crafts, if you must know,” she said haughtily, “but with a liberal arts degree I’m sure I’ll find something much better when the market opens up more.”
Well, at least she’d addressed the incongruity of someone with her “pedigree” settling for something relatively menial. “And your husband?” I said.
“Matthew is a loan officer at Oregon National Bank,” she said. “But what does any of this have to do with the price of tea in China? Shouldn’t you be asking about the crime?”
Well, that certainly wasn’t very subtle. I forked fingers at my chin and leaned forward. “So how exactly did such a famous diamond ‘go missing’?”
“My parents invited friends over to their manor last weekend for their fiftieth anniversary. They keep the diamond on display in what they call their Hall of Fame upstairs. It’s been sealed in a locked acrylic case along with other valuables they’ve collected over the years from all over the world and now love to display as their travel trophies.”
I hadn’t asked for a preamble but got one anyway. She obviously meant to impress me that this would be no ordinary case we’d be taking on.
“Equipped with a security system?”
“Of course,” she said. “But there was a thunderstorm that night and when the power went out after dinner, the back-up generator didn’t engage right away. They have many objects d’art from exotic locales along with priceless paintings on the opposite side of the hall. The golden diamond, however, was the only thing stolen.”
Electrical storms were rare here in the valley this time of year but not unknown. “Sounds like someone has a macabre sense of humor.”
She pinched back one side of her wide Julia Roberts lips. “You mean what with the golden ‘diamond’ anniversary.”
I nodded. Something still didn’t seem right about this. “What went wrong with the generator?”
She lifted her sharp nose. “The wire connecting it to the main system had apparently frayed over time. That’s since been repaired. But the power came back on anyway after three hours or so. We didn’t discover the diamond gone until the next morning.”
I leaned forward. “And the cleaning staff?”
“All trusted employees above reproach,” she sniffed again. “The Huntingtons are very generous with their help. The cook has been with them the twenty years they’ve been retired.”
I flipped my notepad closed with a flair of finality. “You wouldn’t object if we check them out ourselves?”
“Of course not,” she said, “though I think it’s the wrong avenue.”
That was an easy lead-in to my daily fee of $500 plus expenses, against an initial deposit of a grand that would ensure our services.
I thought I saw her arch a very thin eyebrow at that spiel, assuring her I would keep her informed of the running tally as long as it took us to find the item. She wrote out the check, balancing the leather book on her knee despite it being awkwardly raised as low as she sank in the cushion. She pushed herself up off the chair, adjusting her skirt hem which had slid up some because of my careworn chair and offered me the payment. I glanced at it enough to see that it wasn’t her personal account but rather her parents’, but with her signature—and that she’d made it out for $10,000. “You’ll start first thing tomorrow?”
“Yes indeedy,” I agreed maybe a little too heartily, buoyed by the bonus.
“I should warn you,” she added, “that the insurance adjuster from Starmark Fidelity will be prowling around, too, preparing her report on the theft should you not be able to find it in a timely fashion.”
I raised my own eyebrows at the mention of “her.” It was still unusual to find a female adjuster specializing in diamonds even these days. “How much was it insured for?”
“Twenty million,” she said, “though it could be worth more because of its peculiar color and quality despite the controversy over the ‘enhancement’ of its hue.”
I gulped. I had a fleeting fear we might be out of our league here but didn’t want to come off as the rube from Ashborough—though that’s how I felt. Still, that large of a deposit imbued me with renewed courage to prove our mettle in spite of our agency’s infancy. “I’d have to confer with the adjuster anyway in the course of this investigation.”
“Of course,” she said warily.
A lot of “of courses” there, hoping our own course towards the resolution wouldn’t be as circuitous. I presented her with my card about the way she’d proffered the check to me—dubiously.
“Please bring more official ID to the gate of the manor when you arrive,” she said. “I won’t be available during the weekday to introduce you formally.”
“S-O-P,” I assured her. When she tilted her head at me, I translated. “Standard operating procedure for licensed detectives.”
Lady Mena Vandemere then raised her eyebrows again at my tone, twisting her lips as if she’d bitten into something sour. It took a while, I guess, for clients to warm up to my brand of acerbic wit which cropped up at the most unexpected moments. While a detective all those years at the county Sheriff’s Department, I’d always tried to subscribe to the Jack Webb school of detection from my father’s days of the “Dragnet” era—“Just the facts, ma’am”—but often with a seasoning of cynical skepticism.
I couldn’t help wondering, for instance, whether she was merely standing up for her parents, or whether personal interests lay behind her apparent altruism. Call me suspicious, but...well, just call me suspicious. As I’d already tried to impress on Randi, it came with the territory. Trusting too much in this business could prove hazardous to one’s health.
Learned pupil that she was, Randi expressed the same sentiment after Lady Vandemere sashayed out of our Spartan furnishings by saying simply, “Kinda uppity, isn’t she?”
We both peered down through the window as she headed towards her car parked on the curb, an older red Mustang that looked like an original Shelby. A pretty expensive cachet for one working merely for a title company. Or could this be more her husband’s choice?
Then she turned around to see us both standing there in the window like a poor imitation of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” portrait. She shouted something that we had to wind open the side casement window to hear her repeat. “You wouldn’t be able to wrap up this investigation by Father’s Day, by any chance, would you?” That was June 21st less than a week away.
“What’s the rush?” I said, over an unrealistic expectation.
“My folks want to follow up their anniversary with a ceremony at the church renewing their vows that Sunday. It’d be a nice gift for them.”
And a feather in our cap if we could make it. “That’ll push it, lady.” I tried not to make the title come across as caustic.
“There’ll be a bonus of five grand if you can,” she said with a wave swiveling her hand that reminded me of the way a beauty queen might do before a crowd from a parade convertible.
“We’ll do our best,” I promised with a toothy smile that I hoped looked sincere accompanied by a folksy wave of both hands, fingers gangling widely. That was more to offset hers.
Randi stared at me with a cluck. “You definitely need help in the PR department.”
“I thought I handled myself as a consummate professional.”
“About as convincing as a card shark,” she laughed, “except you weren’t wearing the shark-skin suit.”
“Nice to have a cheerleader.”
“Always ready to come to the aid of your party,” she said. “But I’d sure operate better on a full stomach.”
I pretended to be taken aback though, yes, I’d heard her stomach rumbling cutely again. “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea, Randi, that I’m your Sugar Daddy.”
“Your lavish dinner of pizza last night,” she said, “made me think otherwise, partner.”
Oh, my. She certainly gave as good as I dished out. “Don’t forget the champagne,” I said in my defense as we both left the office with her locking up. “Hey, wait a minute.” I perked up as I remembered that handle she’d added as a fillip. “‘Partner’?”
“Remember,” she said pulling back the sleeve of her blouse, as if getting ready to work rather than preparing to leave, “I’ve already proved myself more than just a receptionist.”
“‘Gal Friday’ doesn’t cover all the bases?”
“Enough,” she said as she gave me that toodle-oo girlie wave of her fingers on her way to her yellow Chevy Malibu, “is never enough!”
“What have I gotten myself into?” I said in mock despair. She pointed to where Lady Vandemere had parked in front of the unassuming brick two-story building which was still mostly vacant. “Exactly what I was thinking about this case.”
“I can see I’m going to have to pony up another offering.”
She tilted her head. “It better not be McDonald’s or a pizza parlor.”
I had to scramble for ideas here since I wasn’t used to a “partner” like this. “How about fish and chips at a local watering hole?”
“What kind of ‘hole’?”
“That’s exactly what it’s called, The Watering Hole.” Ashborough’s eating establishments never boasted particularly imaginative monikers. I nodded at the place across the street. “It’s along the same lines as The Grinder. Still, the food’s pretty good.”
She hesitated, visibly weakened by the mention of fish and chips, a hand grabbed at her waist. “A peace offering?”
I smirked. “Call it what you want.”
She seemed to be mulling over the possibilities. “Is the fish cod or halibut?”
“Your choice. Both are on the menu.”
“A good sign,” she wavered.
“And like The Grinder, they do make their own desserts.”
“Hot apple pie?”
“That’s the way I like it—preferably with a slice of American cheese.”
I preferred it cold—and served a la mode. “So—you’re tempted?”
“Maybe,” she said, her lips in a Brigitte Bardot moue, eyes downcast. I think she meant to act reluctant—though it struck me more as coquettish. “We should start off this caper on the right foot. For one thing, you need someone to watch over you when it comes to a ‘lady’ like this one.”
Sometimes she could look so child-like even while posing as my would-be paladin though I considered it more my job to watch over her. Still, I found it charming. Not that I’d dare tell her that. “Added to your job description?”
“You need to realize,” she said almost playfully, “just what women are capable of.”
“I’m getting a pretty good notion already,” I laughed at her knowing smirk.
During our dinner, I elaborated. “You think we’re up to a case of this magnitude?”
“Don’t underestimate us, Mr. Christmas,” she countered. “Remember, I wasn’t born yesterday.”
“Almost!” I joked back. We’d both had a glass of wine with our fish and chips that had again loosened our tongues.
She actually giggled. “Just because I’m young doesn’t mean I don’t have a few tricks up my sleeve—and other things.”
“We can’t have too many surprises,” I chastened.
“Believe me, Nicky, you’re going to like the ones I come up with this time around! But I think Lady Mena has something more up her very stiff back, too, besides that stick!”
“Very well put!” I laughed. “But together, my dear, we’re about to find out.”
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