There are those who love to shop at South Park Mall. Then there are those who are afraid to enter without an exit plan, such as a line tied around her waist, a GPS, and a flock of homing pigeons. I say this with great respect, as I am a woman who loves to shop. And while there are probably worse fates than a life lived out wandering in perpetual search of a mall exit (assuming the food court is half decent and the restroom stocked with paper and seat liners), I do have a hunk of a husband waiting for me back in Charleston. There is also a very handsome, very hairy, younger male whom I would miss terribly: my cat, Dmitri. (And yes, I do think that the pronoun whom should be used with cats; they are just as human as many men I’ve known.)
But in order to get to Temptation Rocks I had to traverse a labyrinth of hallways laid out in what was, to me, a very confusing floor plan. The layout was rendered even more torturous because the stores are upscale establishments like Neiman Marcus and Tiffany’s; places where I would normally not shop, but can’t help popping into nonetheless. This is where the GPS comes in helpful, especially if you get the kind that scolds you harshly for deviating from the proscribed path.
At any rate, Temptation Rocks had an understated display window, and I walked past the space twice without noticing it. It was essentially just a gray satin background punctuated by one recessed, brightly lit niche about the size of a PC monitor screen and perhaps six inches deep. The interior of the niche was lined in pale blue velvet and showcased just one gem: a knock-your-socks-off ruby and diamond necklace that was priced at a mere $899,999.99.
As when entering a few other fine shops of its ilk, I had to be buzzed into Temptation Rocks. The woman who let me in wore a badge that proclaimed her to be Hildegard. Her long, golden brown hair was braided tightly and coiled on the crown of her head like the beginnings of a folk art basket. Her perfectly round cheeks were heavily rouged and brought to mind the pair of Gala apples I’d packed in Greg’s lunch bucket before leaving to drive up here.
Hildegard immediately held out a silver tray bearing Baccarat crystal champagne glasses that were certainly no more than half full. “Would you care for some champagne, madam?”
“No thank you; I’m more of beer gal.”
Hildegard recoiled as if she’d been approached by an untouchable. “There is a food court at the end of this hall, and to the left. Perhaps they serve that beverage there.”
“I didn’t come here to drink.”
She appeared to sniff the air as she surveyed the rather impressive rock on my left ring finger. “Oh. Then how may I be of service?”
I made a show of trying to look around her. “Is there a jeweler on the premises?”
“Why do you wish to speak to a jeweler?”
There is an art to delivering that “just so” dismissive look, the one that says that the speaker had no business asking such an impertinent question, and would do well to mind her own business from here on out. I learned that art by watching Rob, who learned it from a former lover who was purportedly minor royalty: he would have been a Portuguese prince had that country kept its king.
“Very well, madam,” Hildegard said. She set the silvery tray on a mahogany stand by the door to the shop. Then she carefully locked that door, before trotting around the counters and through a velvet curtain. Did I mention that she trotted on three-thousand-dollar high-heeled sandals by Victor Illuminati, the blind, but oh-so-gifted Italian designer who is all the rage this year among those who are truly in the know?
I didn’t have to wait long. In fact, I was having a good time admiring the pretties in the nearest case when out from behind the curtain hurried a middle-aged man who carried with him the look of a hunted animal. Right behind him trotted the expensively dressed hostess. She cast me an evil look before resuming her post right inside the door.
“Yes? How can I help you?” The jeweler spoke with the slightest of foreign accents; not Yankee, mind you, but possibly Eastern European.
I held out my hand in the limp fish position. Much to my pleasure, he actually took and kissed it.
“My name is Abigail Louise Wiggins Timberlake Washburn,” I said. After all, European society is ancient, and Europeans respect people with family connections and complicated genealogies.
“Ghurtpen Chergonia.” I had him print it for me. Even then I wasn’t quite sure of his first name.
“Mr. Chergonia, I have heard wonderful things about your work.”
“Your skill! You’re supposed to be the best, you know. Everyone says that.”
“Who is everyone, madam?”
“Connoisseurs of fine workmanship, that’s who. Like the Ovumkophs, for instance.”
“Forgive me, madam, but I do not know these people.” He turned away and began a slow sideways retreat.
“Oh well, Ovumkoph is just one of many names, of course.” I put my hands to my mouth as if I wished to whisper in his ear. “I can hardly use their real names now, can I?” The low-pitched, cultivated chuckle I emitted was also learned from Rob, who no doubt also picked it up from his Portuguese paramour, he of the purified plasma.
The jeweler turned and beckoned me to follow him. As I did so, the hostess became quite agitated.
“You can’t go back there, ma’am.” Her accent, by the way, had shifted suddenly from BBC British to Piedmont American. “Mr. Hunter, the owner, will be very upset.”
“Oh? Where is he? I’ll ask his permission first.”
“He don’t work on Sundays. It’s just me and this foreign guy. Look, I don’t want no trouble. I don’t want to get in any trouble with Mr. Hunter neither.”
“I think you meant either. Anyway, I have no desire to get you into trouble. I just want to see a sample of Mr. Chergonia’s craftsmanship. He’s an artist, you know.”
“Uh-uh, get out of town!” she said to the jeweler. “What do you paint? Can you paint a picture of my mama’s dog, Cotton? It’s Mama’s birthday the day after Labor Day but we’re fixin’ to have a cookout down at my cousin Trudy’s place over in Tega Cay. It’s right on Lake Wylie. I mean the deck actually extends right over the water; you can spit right down on the fish if you’re so inclined. And they actually go for it, like it was fish food. I guess they ain’t very smart.”
“What an interesting idea—spitting on the fish; I’ll have to keep that in mind should my husband and I ever decide to build on the water. Or swim in it.”
Hildegard glanced at the door, and seeing it still securely locked, risked a bawdy laugh. “Oh honey, that water has seen a lot worse than that, and folks still swim in it. It’s the lake; not the shower.”
“Gotcha,” I said with a knowing wink. I gave her what I hope was interpreted as a friendly wave and trotted off after the mysterious European on my $39.99 Naturalizers.
I am not so stupid as to reveal the exact location of the safe in the backroom at Temptation Rocks, but I will say this about its contents; many of the rocks I beheld were so beautiful that I was sorely tempted to—well, to drop a wad of cash. What else? The trouble was that even though I am well-off, I am not that well-off.
It used to be that glittering gems advertised personal wealth, but that was back in the cavemen days before the technology existed to make cheap fakes—and I mean really cheap. It’s possible to pick up some rings for five bucks or less in tourist traps that will make heads turn, if only for a minute. Because this is the case, because the bling factor can be achieved for so little, there really isn’t a whole of impetus to spend huge amounts on the real thing. Not when there are lots of other status symbols to spend it on. I, for one, would only pay a fortune for the real McCoy when it came to rocks, if I’d checked everything else off my want list, and that included a new Mercedes-Benz.
Nonetheless, I gasped in reverent appreciation, in part because of the elegant gold settings that surrounded so many of the stones. I was particularly fascinated by a ring that looked identical to the one that Aunt Jerry had wished to bequeath me, except that this treasure sported a golden centerpiece.
“It’s a twenty-two-carat golden beryl from Namibia. German cut. Here, hold it up to this light so that you can see the facets. Beautiful, no?”
“Beautiful, yes. Did you make the setting?”
“Yes, madam. Lost wax process. It is an original design, although I have used it since on five other rings.”
I shivered with delight. Surely this feeling was akin to what matadors felt when they were finally coming in for the kill.
“Were they all golden beryl?” I asked.
He made a clicking sound with his tongue. “No. One was aquamarine—that is a kind of beryl too, you know.”
I may have sounded impatient, because his rejoinder was slightly combative. “You don’t see good aquamarine in American stores; not like in Europe. Now in Japan—only the best there. The Japanese know their stones. Here, mostly the stores sell junk. A good aquamarine is—”
“—deep blue, the color of the ocean when you’ve sailed out beyond the continental shelf.”
He stared at me. “Ah, so you are not a dilettante!”
“Nor an expert either. I’m just a lover of gems.”
He motioned for me to sit on a padded stool that had arms and a back. After I’d hoisted my petite patootie into place, he perched on an identical stool.
“Which is your favorite gemstone?” he asked.
“That depends. Can we, for the sake of this discussion, eliminate the human suffering aspect?” I was dead serious. Most gemstones come to us from Third World countries where they are “mined” under appalling conditions. The workers—often children—are little more than slaves, working twelve-hour days either under the blazing tropical sun or deep under the earth in danger of suffocation at any time. For their labor they are a paid a pittance, sometimes not even enough to sustain them physically. After all, what does it really matter if they die on the job? There is always someone to take their place.
“I guess that we would almost have to eliminate the human suffering element, or we wouldn’t have any gems, would we?”
“Actually, there is a lot of gem mining in parts of North Carolina. Some of it is essentially backyard pits. But honestly, what I’d really like, if the human suffering factor was not an issue, would be a Mogok ruby from Burma.”
He nodded. “That famous ‘pigeon blood’ red. The stones with the fluorescence that can’t be matched by their Thai counterparts.”
“Yes, and all we see are Thai rubies, am I right? Little, itty-bitty ones.”
He laughed. “So you like big stones—like this.”
“Unfortunately, I do. And what’s that famous saying? You can have anything you want in life; just not everything. An eye-clean Mogok ruby the size of this golden beryl would cost five times as much as my house in Charleston—South of Broad Street. What about you? What’s your favorite stone?”
“Madam, I do not know anything about the house prices in Charleston, but I too would not be able to afford my first choice of an emerald from the famous Muzo mine in Colombia. If it were eye-clean—impossible! But with a garden of slight inclusions, then maybe. Emerald is a beryl too, you know.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Madam, you know everything.” He sounded astonished rather than miffed.
“No, but I know a lot.” Play your cards close to your chest, I reminded myself; there was no point in divulging to Mr. Chergonia that my well of knowledge was about to run dry.
He sighed, and locking his fingers, put his hands behind his head. “Then you must know that some gemstones are easier to replicate than others, and that a lab-created emerald has the same physical properties—that is the word, yes?”
“Yes. And yes, it is exactly the same as a natural emerald, except that it took months to grow, rather than tens of thousands of years.”
“There are many times I cannot tell a good synthetic emerald from a natural one, except for under the microscope. As for the glass imitations, they are always greener. Ha, now I make a little joke.”
“You have a saying, yes? The glass is always greener on the other side of the wall.”
I thought of correcting him, but thankfully thought better of it. “That is what we said in my country,” he said. “We had many prisons. But now I want to tell you something truly amazing. This emerald that I desire, the one from Muzo with just a little bit of garden and which is the perfect color of ferns—you know what are ferns?”
I leaned forward on my stool. “Yes. I know what ferns are.”
He leaned forward as well. “I have seen this emerald—right here in my shop. I have held it my hands; I have touched it to my lips. I am telling you, madam, it exists. This fabulous stone is right here in Charlotte, North Carolina.”
“Yes, I know.”
He recoiled ever so slightly. “You have seen it?”
“Yes. I believe that I own it.”
The jeweler shook his head wearily. “Madam, please, it has been a long day. Either you know that this stone is yours, or you do not. It is not a matter of faith.”
“Well, it’s kind of a long story—but I’ll give you the short version. It was given to me by an eccentric woman named Jerry Ovumkoph—an older woman in her seventies—”
“Yes, yes, she is the one! She brings in this ring; at first I think that she has been misinformed; many clients come in with synthetic stones and they do not know it. When I tell them that their stones are worthless, they are, of course, very angry with me.” He shrugged. “But some do know that the stones they have are counterfeits, and their intention is to cheat. Anyway, I studied Ms. Ovumkoph’s stone carefully, and I even asked the opinion of some of my colleagues, and yes, madam—it is real.”
“Did she want to sell it?”
“Madam, you are very charming; a native of the South, yes? But, you still have not stated your business. Are you a buyer, or a seller?”
I thought back to my college days, and what different connotations those words had then. But it was stupid of me to waste even a nanosecond on such memories. I decided to come clean with the jeweler with the vaguely Eastern European accent—well, partway clean, at least. Any Dixie chick with a speck of starch in her crinolines knows better than to spill all her beans at once, even if she has to murder her metaphors.
“I’m neither a buyer nor a seller. You see, the woman who was here—Jerry Ovumkoph—left me that ring in her will. But she’s dead now, and the ring is missing. I’m trying to trace down the origin of that ring for insurance purposes so I can get a replacement value.”
He stared at me. I knew he was trying to read me, to see if I was lying. Of course I was, but I wasn’t trying to scam him out of any money. He didn’t have a thing to lose by telling me the truth. Surely he could sense that.
“She wanted a glass copy made,” he said. “Glass!”
“Scandalous,” I said.
“Are you mocking me, madam?”
“No, sir. I’m quite serious; to put a glass center stone in that gorgeous design of yours would be like hanging a Jackson Pollock painting in the Hermitage. How many diamonds are in the border?”
“Forty-two. Each one is VVSI or better. It is twenty-two-karat Italian gold—not fourteen-karat like the cheap rings one sees everywhere.”
I glanced down at the cheap ring my sweetie gave me. Well, it would take more knocks than a more expensive ring without getting bent out of shape. That’s what I was trying to do in this new marriage: not get all bent out of shape. But as for the knocks—just one literal tap and Greg was out of there. I’d survived one abusive marriage, and I was not going to be a punching bag, foranyone, ever again.
“Of course you Americans are very smart,” Mr. Chergonia said. “You spend thousands of dollars on the dress, which the bride will never wear again. But it is big, and every one can see it even from the back of the church. The ring not so much—even though when the revolution comes, the bride can run and hide with her ring, and then sell it across the border and buy bread for her children if it is high-quality gold.”
“Your point is well-taken, sir. I concede—that means that you win.”
“So—Mrs. Abigail Louise Wiggins Timberlake Washburn—what else do you want to know?”
It took me a minute to scoop up my lower jaw and slap it back into place. “Wow! You’ve got quite a memory for names.”
“And you have an impressive knowledge of stones—for an amateur, yes?”
“Yes, although I do own an antiques store and from time to time I come into possession of estate jewelry. Anyway, what I really came here to find out is if anyone has been trying to unload this ring in the last day or two.”
“Madam?” He appeared to be genuinely startled.
“You see, Jerry Ovumkoph passed—that is to say, she’s dead—and she left me her ring in her will, but it was stolen.”
His dark eyes flashed angrily. “I do not deal in stolen goods! Never!”
“I know that, sir. I’m just wondering if someone—maybe another Ovumkoph—tried to sell you this ring.”
His response was to hold one of his long, slender, if slightly crooked fingers to his lips. The dark eyes directed me to look at the curtained doorway. There was a gap toward the bottom where the heaven curtains fell apart, and in that space was the hideously expensive toe of a Victor Illuminati sandal.
I smiled and nodded. “Then I dragged the body to the car,” I practically shouted. “Of course I couldn’t lift it into the trunk by myself, so I had to call someone from the family to help me. You wouldn’t believe how fast they showed up. Being the Godfather’s real daughter has its perks, you know. I just wish I’d kept my maiden name, and not those of all my former husbands. Oh well, at least they’re no longer around to bother me.”
By then Mr. Chergonia had risen to his feet. The poor man’s face was as white as parboiled grits and he’d begun to sway like a palmetto in a category four storm. I have never taken a bona fide CPR class; all I really know is that the techniques have changed a bit over the years and—thank heavens—giving mouth-to-mouth is no longer de rigueur. Then again, like I said, I really know squat. I just knew enough to dig my cell phone out of my purse and mentally review the procedure for dialing 911.
“I think you need to sit back down,” I whispered.
“Yah, mebbe, dats a goot idea,” he said.
By then the ridiculously expensive footwear was no longer to be seen. Having caused such consternation, I took it upon myself to at least see what, if any, the lasting damages were, so I crept to the doorway and gradually peeled back enough of one panel to allow me to peep into the showroom. You can imagine my relief then when I saw the hostess cleaning the top of a display case at the far end of the room. She looked entirely absorbed in her task; calm and peaceful even. The tray of champagne glasses waited nearby on another countertop. All was well with the world.
I scurried soundlessly back to my source of information. “So? Have you been contacted?”
“Ahuuug—” he said, and slid to the floor.
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