The one on the middle shelf? That beauty almost got my arm broken, but it also gave me my best souvenir of those bad old days you asked me to tell you about.
No, I'm not talking about the sample itself. It gave me another, different souvenir. And not actually a souvenir; I wasn’t being clear. Looks like I don’t tell enough of my own stories to try for a fancy style, beginning in the middle the way I just did. Let me start again.
As I said earlier, my name is Saul Panzer, and I’m a long-time, freelance private investigator here in New York City. I’m what Black Mask and the rest used to call a private eye, but with a lot fewer busty blondes holding revolvers and a lot more huddling in rainy doorways, waiting for the fella I was trailing to finish his Nesselrode pie at a Longchamps. I’m good at what I do, enough so that the fella I mentioned wouldn’t have sat across his restaurant table from a lively little stenographer while I tried to keep my camera dry enough to get his wife good pictures for her lawyer. Instead, I was mainly hired by moneyed types with some added, extra-fancy employment every now and then by Nero Wolfe.
If you haven’t heard of Mr. Wolfe, he was the one Manhattan P.I. back in the thirties able to handle cases where the brother-in-law maybe did it with a silver spoon in the conservatory, but you had to have brain-power, out-talk a white-shoe lawyer, and win access to a Tiffany bracelet to prove it. I found such affairs to be nice little vacations. Mr. Wolfe, like most national monuments, was always something to see. Archie Goodwin, who was Mr. Wolfe’s associate in charge of bracelet-accessing, was a friend of mine. And their payments, remitted promptly, were lavish.
But while the hours I worked as Mr. Wolfe’s lead stringer may have funded some time-to-time dinners at Rustermans, business fraud bought me my bread-and-butter. Which is why I got cornered by a four-flusher on East 59th one Saturday afternoon back in December of ’38. And this after spending hours on my feet in Lawrence Lincoln’s Fine Mineralogy, sorting through the scrap boxes Larry picked up for cheap each Friday from small jewelers all up and down Manhattan.
Don’t think I’m complaining about the earlier part of my day. I like rocks. Picking over emerald chips and shattered garnets for an hour or three was way better than the two weeks I once spent as swing-shift shoe salesman at an establishment catering to oversized customers down on the Lower West Side. The fellows buying shoes for missing girlfriends, gals who just happened to have feet the same size as theirs, were okay, but the first-time lady customers could be tough. They mostly came in wearing pumps that were way too small, and their feet hurt.
This character in Larry’s did not have such an excuse. He had decided to approach me after a half an hour of loudly clearing his throat at any other customers examining the thin-slice of iris agate displayed on the sales counter where I had been sorting. Never mind his likely being the someone I had actually been waiting for while playing sales clerk. He was still a piece of work if a memorable one. His attached earlobes, with their branching, horizontal creases, were distinctive. So was his attitude.
“Where’s Lawrence?” His tone was about what you would expect, given all his throat-clearing.
I smiled, keeping it as mild as I could. “Sorry, sir. He’s attending an auction upstate. Garnets.”
“Humph. That’s inconvenient.” He looked vexed, no surprise. “I wanted to discuss this specimen with him.”
“Can I help you?” I tried asking him for the fourth time since he’d come into the place. I'm easy to overlook, but this was ridiculous.
Anyhow, “I doubt it,” he said, and then of course kept going with, “But we’ll see. The agate.”
“The iris agate?”
“Hmm.” The noise was dubious, as if his doubt would somehow disappear all the brilliant colors the slice displayed when back-lit, leaving behind plain old banded agate. Or maybe his doubt was supposed to drop the slab’s price, which is what I would have thought he was angling for without the background I had pried loose from Larry the previous day. Given that briefing, I’d been waiting for some kind of fuss before some other kind of fast one. So, I diverted some brain cells from serving my customer to watching the raw-boned fellow with fake horn-rims now browsing the locked case of precious metals.
I made sure not to let this show. Instead I told Attached-lobes, making it sound helpful, “The price is marked on the back of the stand.”
“I noticed that.” Horn-rims had shifted so his hands weren’t visible from where we stood, right as Attached-lobes cleared his throat yet again and started turning up the pugnacious at me. “I truly cannot bring myself to believe…“ he said, and then, “Honestly, I don’t think!” This was followed by a long pause, likely meant to build suspense. I was forcing myself not to kill his suspense with a nod agreeing with his last sentence when the store’s front door bells got busy.
I don’t know where Larry found his Chinese stone bells, but they weren’t anything anyone in the place could ignore. Which was too bad because I recognized the entering shopper, and he made for one plate too many in the air, all of them needing my juggling.
“Can I help you, sir?” Better to learn now how much of a problem I had.
As it turned out, not much of a problem. The newcomer, a handsome, strawberry-blond in a natty suit, just seemed a little startled, maybe by the musical stones for all anyone could tell. Attached-lobes huffed at the interruption of his drama, and Horn-rims developed a sudden interest in the shelf next to the precious metal specimens. True, the Christmas display Larry had created there, with all its red garnet, heliotrope, malachite, fake snow, and fancy ribbon, was impressive, but I didn’t think it was what had diverted Horn-rims attention.
I swallowed my sigh – the native Manhattan lock-picking shop-lifter, so shy a species – and kept a polite look fixed on my face as my new customer came up to the counter. He opened with, “I hear this is the place for yellow jade.” Then he looked annoyed, like he had meant to find some other words but these ones had snuck out anyways.
Careful not to smile, I asked him, “Would this be needed for either custom jewelry or a display piece? Already carved, you might do as well in Chinatown, but we certainly have the finest specimens for other purposes.”
A second’s hesitation, and he said, “Cuff links. It would be used in cuff links. Maybe a tie clip.”
“There, I think we can be of some help. If you’ll step…”
“Excuse me,” Attached-lobes interrupted, in a way needing some excusing.
His tone earned him one raised eyebrow from my newest customer, and the only other customer left in the shop aside from Horn-rims stopped trying to drift toward the iris agate slab and instead started drifting toward the stone figurines in the rearmost cabinet, well away from that tone. Horn-rims looked up from a huge cube of malachite tied up with a tiny gold ribbon and then visibly decided his attention was better focused back on a gold nugget in the locked case than whatever was happening at the front counter.
Just as if this was what he was after, which it probably was, Attached-lobes continued, “I was here first. Sir. And I have an important transaction underway involving this specimen, even if it is obviously, ridiculously over-assessed.”
He was a true Christmas miracle of annoyance, right here on 59th street. I saw the moment when I-am-your-new-customer gave way to Archie Goodwin, colleague, friend, former protege, and Olympic level smart-ass. As of then, the professional colleague was in the lead, but it was a close-run race.
Spreading his arms wide, Archie took exactly one step away from the counter. Then he folded his arms across his chest, looking solemn and earnest. The expression suited him, even if it was about an eighth of an inch deep. “Oh, golly. I do apologize. After you. Sir. I insist.”
Steering the skidding situation while I still could, I reached down to adjust the small electric bulb behind the iris agate, bringing up its colors. “I’m afraid the price is as noted. After all, this is a very rare piece.”
“It may be the finest example ever collected from Horse Mountain.”
“The diffraction is unequaled. It's unique, seeing primary colors so pure on a cross-section of this thickness.”
“So you say.”
“If that gentleman at the precious metals case continues picking its lock, we’ll have to bring additional charges.”
There was a pause – I guess the words took a few seconds to register -- and then Horn-rims blurted out, “He paid me!” while stabbing a forefinger at Attached-lobes.
We all stared at him for a second, amazed by this surprising lack of intestinal fortitude, before Attached-lobes growled. That seemed to make Horn-rims lose what little nerve he’d had left. Dropping the lock picks he’d been clutching onto the floor with a jangle, he scooped up the malachite Christmas present and let fly.
I have no idea who, if anyone, he meant to bean. However, I got a little too involved in protecting the thin slice of agate and didn’t get entirely out of the way, even as Archie and Attached-lobes collided in some sort of comedy ducking routine. The malachite caught me right in the upper arm, and I am here to tell you that particular bit of Christmas cheer hurt like hell. I said something rude to the accompaniment of stony bells as Horn-rims went out the door.
Meanwhile, Archie had let out a noise like he was the one getting rocks chucked at him, and then put Attached-lobes down with one quick punch. After that he got both fists into Mr. Attached-lobes' suit coat and hauled him back up off the floor, freezing them both in place even though he seemed as if he wanted to add a few rabbit punches to his first effort. But I couldn’t pause to referee. I’d had to leap the counter and move fast, in order to intercept the store’s final customer and what he’d quietly removed from the rearmost cabinet during the hullabaloo. Once I got a hand on him, though, he knew the jig was up and didn’t fuss. I still fished out what he’d been transporting in his overcoat and lifted it up and away from his well-trained fingers.
“What—“ Archie started to ask, craning his neck to see what I’d found without loosening his grip on Mr. Attached-lobes.
“Chalcedony white elephant with ruby eyes, carved in Fabergé’s workshop,” I told him, not keeping my voice down. “Besides displaying great craftsmanship, it used to belong to Czar Nicholas. Absolutely one of a kind, and so, so collectable. Even if I’ve plugged this leak, I’m glad I convinced Larry to order better cases.”
Attached-lobes just about wailed, and Archie removed one hand from his coat. But whatever he was going to deliver with the other hand, whether punch or gesture to punctuate a wisecrack, was lost in the noise of Larry bursting forth from his back room. Because six rangy feet of over-excitable and really refined geologist was what we needed.
“And how about my missing Lapis Lazuli Fontana vase, Jacob Allen Cooper?” Larry hollered, full of righteous wrath. “I imagine you’ve wrapped it in three layers of coarse burlap and locked it up in some damp safe! I had it on display although apparently the words ‘not for sale’ mean nothing to you!”
“As if your opinion means anything, you…you plebeian merchant!” Cooper bellowed back. “And my safe is not damp!”
“Plebeian merchant?” Larry asked. “Well, at least I’m not trying to be some sort of criminal mastermind!”
And, they were off. Not being stupid, Archie stepped back from Mr. Cooper, so he didn’t have to deal with all the gestures now happening, but he kept a close eye on the proceedings. Although he did shift his attention enough to shoot me a wild-eyed look when I steered my pro over to him.
“Don’t worry. Larry just has a temper when he feels somehow betrayed. Believe me, I know,” I told him, speaking from painful experience.
His gaze went sharp: that last bit had been a mistake on my part, maybe due to a sore arm and much-tried ears. So, since Archie now had his hands free, I distracted him by releasing custody of the mostly-competent booster to him. That fella changed custodians with the dour resignation of someone who knew he’d lost his gamble and didn’t want to make matters worse. I carefully put the elephant behind the counter, out of reach of grabby hands. Then I took out my fountain pen and went to scoop up the ring of lock picks that Horn-rims had used to scratch at the lock of the precious metals case before he dumped them and blew. Good thing I knew a double-distraction grift when I saw one.
I walked back over to where Archie still had our craftsman, and the fella gave the dangling picks I held out one horrified glance before asking me, “What, do I look like I’m auditioning during amateur night at the Apollo?” Then he turned to Archie and asked, “You want we should go for our little walk to the local precinct, now? It’s getting kind of loud in here.”
Fortunately, before any of us had to put up with much more in the way of shouting, the door rocks produced their odd musical notes one more time, and my fellow P.I. Fred Durkin came in, hauling along our missing shoplifter. Fred was a big Irish cop back before he proved himself too honest for the job, so he wasn’t having much trouble managing all the struggles against his hammerlock.
“Nice catch, Fred,” I told him.
“Easy-peasy,” he said, full of holiday cheer. He was likely picturing the presents he’d buy for his kids with today’s fee, knowing him. “I was right in place for the intercept. I knew once Archie showed up, something was going to blow.”
He may claim he didn’t, but we both heard it when Archie said, “Nuts.”
That was about it, aside from Larry sorting out which offenders were going to the local precinct for something-or-other and who was Banned for Life and Manhattan’s Dealers Would Hear About This and Worse Would Happen if The Lapis Lazuli Fontana Vase was Not, In Fact, Returned. No prizes for guessing who was who. But Archie got shown some tip-top yellow jade he could buy at a discount, and I got paid my fee with a little extra over for having to see a doctor to make sure my arm was no worse than bruised. It wasn’t, and even better, I was now readmitted to Larry’s inner circle, those fellows who got to see his best stock first. There’s more than one reason I’ve never had a problem with Mr. Wolfe and all the orchids he likes to fuss over up in his greenhouse on the roof.
Best of all, Archie insisted on buying me dinner two days before Christmas to pay me back for almost fouling up my job for me. It was at the Longchamps on Lexington and 42nd. My imaginary client isn’t the only one who likes his Nesselrode pie around that time of the year.
When we’d talked about the Yankees, and Joe Lewis, and Mr. Wolfe’s recent escapades upstate for long enough to amuse ourselves, Archie stopped operations on his Christmas cake half way through to shoot his cuffs, which meant he was nervous. He has his tells although he hates to admit it. I set down my dessert fork after only one bite of Nesselrode and tilted my head to get him going.
“Thanks for the help with Wolfe’s links and clip,” he said, as if Santa would be bringing them and I was an elf.
This earned him two eyebrows lifted. For someone who likes to strut whatever he’s been given, Archie sure hates admitting when he’s the giver. But I settled for saying, “I wasn’t kidding when I told you Larry has the finest pieces, including ones destined for gifts.”
“Yeah. About that,” he said, and shoved the wrapped package at me as if it was a decade ago and him fresh in from Ohio. But I took it, hefted it, and gave it the once-over any nice job deserves: artsy silver snowflakes on the blue paper in a winter pattern vague enough to keep from stomping on my finer sensibilities, all tied up with a blue silk ribbon. Nice, and showing he had learned some things in the past ten years. I gave him a smile to acknowledge that fact and the corners of his lips twitched up even if his eyes stayed a little wary. So, I opened his package.
It was the thin slice of iris agate from Larry’s. I had wondered where it went. It was already gone when I broke down and went back to buy.
This was when all my years as a P.I. helped me out. I might have been tangled up in my own feelings, but it didn’t keep me from sparing some attention for Archie. Like I said, when you know him long enough, he gives things away.
“It reminded me of you,” Archie said with a certain something wrapped around the words, right there in the middle of Longchamps.
Even if he hadn’t already given me hints – him and his tells – I would have gotten what he meant. Iris agate is nice but nothing much to look at until a lapidary strips almost everything away and puts illumination behind it. Then the best pieces will light up like a rainbow. Subtle. Special. Desirable.
I put away the agate in its box, taking some care with it. Then I leaned back in my chair. Although I could have used a cigarette at that moment, Archie didn’t like my brand. So, I settled for a sip of coffee instead before I asked him, “What are you doing for Christmas this year?”
He shrugged. “The usual, although Fritz’s version of a luncheon worthy of Christmas deserves better words than ‘the usual’. You know you’d be welcome.”
“I might drop by, even if I’m not really the Christmas type.” I considered him. “We could walk off all the food afterward.”
“Wolfe will be glad to have me out of his hair by then.”
“Get some Chinese later on. Take in a movie.” Now he was grinning. “Or something.”
“Or something,” he said, and the grin softened just a little.
So, like I said at the beginning of this, the agate didn’t really give me a souvenir. More like a signal, or even those chimes you hear when you open a door wide.
I like the fact matters have changed enough that you can be here with your tape recorder, asking me for stories that would have once-upon-a-time sent us both to jail, and be talking about stowing them away in some collection instead. But I also know this much change can make some things harder to see. So, understand what I mean when I tell you whatever we had back then still mattered, even when it wasn’t always obvious, or like the clear-cut prettiness other people had, or visible without some special light.
Back in those days, I was just happy to be in out of the rain, across the table from someone lively, persuading him not to steal all my pie. And if our being willing to fork up some sweetness together wasn't showing the best manners for friends back then, too bad. Even nowadays, being a freelancer who still makes commitments is not for the faint of heart.