Sunday, 18 March 2012

NoHo Noir: A Diamond as Big as the Ritz

A Diamond as Big as the Ritz
Written by Katherine Tomlinson
Illustrted by Mark Satchwill

Orla Montgomery was in the shop alone when the guy came in with a small plastic bag full of crap he set down on the counter in front of her.
The bag was from Ranch 99, which told her he wasn’t from the neighborhood. The nearest Ranch 99 store was on Sepulveda up near the Costco.
“Hey,” he said, with an accent that was pure Arkansas, so she knew he wasn’t a California native.
He smiled at her too widely, exposing the stumps of his front teeth, which told her he was a tweaker.
“Good morning,” she said, smiling at him. “What can I do for you today, sir?”
She could tell he liked being called “sir.”
As she moved closer to the counter, her right foot nudged the switch that caused the security camera to zoom in on the customer’s face.
“I’ve got some jewelry here,” he said and dumped the contents of the plastic bag onto the counter in a tangle of glints and glimmers.
He pronounced it “jewel-a-ry.”
Orla stirred the heap of gold with her finger, separating it into its component parts.
“What do you think?” the customer asked anxiously.
“It’s beautiful,” Orla said, knowing there was no way in hell the guy could have come by the loot honestly.
She separated a heavy gold chain from the rest and held it up like a snake handler displaying a serpent, running it from hand to hand to admire the heavy Art Deco-style links. “Lovely,” she murmured as her customer shifted his weight from side to side and tried not to look impatient.
She put the necklace down and picked up a simple bracelet, recognizing it as one of Jean Schlumberger’s classic designs for Tiffany. She slipped it on her own thin wrist and admired it.
“So, how much can you give me?” the customer asked.
“Oh,” Orla said, “I think we can make you a price.”
She spread the pieces out so she could take a good look. All of them were vintage, dating from the late 40s through the 50s.

In with the fine jewelry were a couple of gorgeous costume pieces including a Hattie Carnegie mer-man pin she’d only seen in books.
“Your grandmother had good taste,” she said to the customer, offering him a ready-made lie. “Did she leave everything to you?”
It took the customer a minute to comprehend what Orla had said and process it.
“Yeah,” he finally said.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Orla said. “Were you close?”
“Yeah,” he said again. When Orla kept smiling at him he added, “We were close.”
“That’s nice,” she said. “My grandmother left all her jewelry to my Aunt Helen and I didn’t get a single piece.”
Orla’s grandmother, who was still very much alive, had been a union organizer in the 40s and 50s and wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing gold chains and diamonds. “Shackles for the rich,” she would have said if anyone had been unwise enough to give her such baubles. She would have sold them and donated the money to charity.
Orla adored her grandmother.
She stripped off the bangle and put it back on the counter.
“This is nice,” she said, indicating a chunky necklace with colorful. Fruit-shaped plastic beads.
“This looks like Bakelite,” she said to him.
“Is that good?” he asked.
“Very good,” she said.
“Just looks like plastic,” he said.
She smiled and pulled a spray bottle of 409 out from under the counter. “Do you mind if I test it?” she asked, spraying a bit of the cleaning solution onto a piece of paper towel. She swabbed the inside of the necklace gently and the paper towel came away yellow.
“It’s genuine,” Orla said to him happily.
She tapped his forearm with a manicured finger. “That means it’s old, hon.”
She’s into me, the customer thought.
The bell at the front door rang as another man entered the store.
Both the customer and Orla looked up.
She frowned.
“I’ve told you before Mr. Flynn, We don’t carry Nazi collectibles. You get on out of here.”
The man looked at her sheepishly and left.
The customer looked at Orla, who was shaking her head in disgust.
“Loser,” she said. “Always looking for Nazi medals and trash like that.”
The customer looked interested. “There money in those?”
Orla looked at him coolly. “For some,” she said.
He backpedaled. “Shee-it,” he said. “That’s disgusting.”
Orla gave him another smile before she bent back over the jewelry, sorting through it efficiently and making three piles.
“I can’t take that,” she said, pointing to a bracelet with a broken clasp. “We don’t do repairs here. But you could try your luck at one of those places that buy gold. Nearest one’s on Laurel Canyon next to the Jack in the Box.”
She shoved the bracelet aside.
“I’ll give you $500 for that lot,” she said, pointing to a pile with the Art Deco chain, the Tiffany bangles and the Bakelite necklace. The price was about 10 times less than what it was worth, but Orla figured the customer didn’t know that.
“That doesn’t sound like a lot,” he said tentatively.
“I know hon,” she said sympathetically. “You could probably get a lot more if you took it to a consignment shop but then you’d have to wait until it sold to get your money.”
“Really?” he asked.
“Yeah, that’s how they work,” Orla said.
Then she pointed to the diamond ring that was sitting by itself. “Now that ring? That is one gorgeous rock.”
She whipped a loupe out of her jeans pocket and picked the ring up to examine it closer.
Under magnification, flecks of dried blood were visible, caught in the prongs and the intricate design surrounding the diamond.
“The design’s Edwardian,” she said to him, turning the ring over so she could look at the inside.
There was an inscription on the band. “You are the stone of my heart’s fruit.” Orla read it out loud.
“That’s beautiful,” she said.
The customer looked confused.
“It’s from Tales of the 1001 Nights,” she explained. “It’s a line of poetry.”
“Huh,” he said.
“The man who gave her this ring must have loved her very much.”
“Yeah,” the customer said, “so how much for the ring?”
Orla started to answer but stopped when the front door opened and the bell rang again.
This time it was three cops coming in with their guns already out.
Orla dropped down behind the counter, which was armor plated on the inside as the cops yelled for the customer to put his hands up.
Instead he went for the gun he had stuffed into his pants.
He was dead before he hit the floor.
Despite the cops telling him to keep back, Gillis Montgomery rushed over to the counter to make sure his wife was all right.
One of the first things she’d insisted on when they opened the pawn shop was coming up with a phrase that would signify something was wrong, a verbal panic button. When she’d used the “Nazi collectibles” line on him, he’d gone straight to the police.
The idea that Orla had been in the shop alone with a guy who’d cut a diamond ring off an old lady’s hand made Gillis shiver.
“I don’t want you working at the shop any more,” he told her that night.
“Okay,” Orla said.