A RUMOR OF GEMS by Ellen Steiber

Excerpt from Chapter One

There were rumors of gems appearing in the city: topaz turning up in the sneaker of a three-year old; discarded emeralds found glittering on a restaurant dish that a waiter was about to clear; a convenience store cash register filled with opals instead of dimes; the dark soil in a window box suddenly shining with bits of polished lapis and garnet, enough to make necklaces for every woman in the tenement.

There was no confirmation of the rumors. No one came forward with a coffee cup filled with rubies, and who could blame them? Except for a woman who'd won the local lottery, no one displayed sudden wealth. No one reported stolen jewels. No one fenced them through the underground. And yet the rumors continued — a girl in the park spilling out a sack of marbles and watching spheres of aquamarine and moonstone roll out in their stead; a punk pulling a knife on a one-time friend only to find he held a small, obelisk quartz crystal in which the image of an even smaller tiger roamed. (He kept the crystal and the tiger. The one-time friend fled.) Not all such appearances were welcome. An old man opened his cigar box to find no cigars but a rod of dark green tourmaline. He junked the stone and bought himself another box of cigars.

They were just rumors. And yet they persisted. Winter was finally releasing its hold, the sky held more light, and the people of Arcato began to walk with a sense of hope that had not been present for years. Although few admitted to believing the tales, there was hardly a soul who did not secretly hope that he would open his refrigerator door and see a topaz in place of a tomato, or that she might pour from a bag of cat food and have a cache of diamonds tumble out. The promise of riches was in the air.

Riches, however, were not what the appearance of the gems betokened. They were messages of a sort, calling cards. They were left by one who could not help himself. Alasdair scattered gems wherever he went, even when trying to be discreet. They fell from his pockets, trailed from his sleeves, hid in the brim of his hat and brushed his eyelashes as they fell. He knew this for a problem and so he did not move about much during the day. When he did he wore layer upon layer of clothing to keep the showy little things concealed. And still the gems came. They had a penchant for escape. They liked the light of the sun. They liked to be seen. They were impossible to contain.

To the people of Arcato the rumors of the stones were an infusion of hope, a promise that what was desired might one day be met. To Alasdair the stones in their irrefutable reality were a sign that he could not stay long in the city, even under the cover of darkness. He would have to return to the place he had come from though he had left swearing up and down that he would have nothing to do with it again. Even then he'd known his words for a lie. He was as bound to the place as the moon to the earth. He could feel its pull moving along his skin, streaming through his blood like a tide, whispering to him when he slept. He would have to go home. But the rumors were still considered the stuff of children's stories. No one took them seriously. He still had time.

In an apartment on a granite ridge near the top of the city, he closed thick velvet curtains and shed the layers of clothing for a simple robe. He pretended not to notice as the gemstones tumbled to the carpet. He turned on a lamp, knowing its narrow spectrum would annoy them. Their reaction was predictable. As if to show him just how inadequate lamp light was, the diamonds arranged themselves on his desk, sending out streams of rainbow colored light, inviting him in their most dazzling fashion to be seated. And write a letter home, of course. The rubies took themselves off to the kitchen where they sorted themselves into various corners so that the white appliances glowed with the warmth of high mountain sunsets. The sapphires gathered in the bedroom, darting deep blue fire against the wood-paneled walls, reminding him of rooms he'd grown up in, of the chamber where he'd first made love.

For Alasdair the stones outdid themselves. They went beyond reflecting available light. They drew energy from their very centers, sent out colors beyond those normally seen by the human eye — colors he would recognize, colors he would long for. They were determined to please him. They were bound to seduce him. They were his only to lead him back. He turned on the old TV set, welcoming the black and white screen.

Beside him a tiny jade dragon climbed from the end table to his shoulder, its claws sinking into his robe as it climbed. It settled contentedly on his collarbone, where it blinked its eyes once and then watched the sitcom. Although he did not find the show funny, the dragon did. He could tell by the occasional amused flutter of its pale green wings.


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Lucinda de Francesco had never had patience for stories of the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, or gemstones appearing in teacups. She took the rumors for mass hallucination, a phenomenon that she believed explained a great deal of the stupidity around her. It was the only thing that could account for the enduring popularity of certain politicians, religions, and hairstyles. Then again, odd and inexplicable things had been happening in Arcato for some time now. Quite a number of people claimed to see things that simply weren't there—a full crew loading an old steamboat that had been dry-docked for years, a busker in a doorway where a building no longer stood, a line of stilt walkers striding across the surface of the river's grey-green waters. Lucinda gave no real credence to any of these claims. She trusted that what she saw was real and that the gems were not. She refused to look for the glitter of sapphires beneath streetcars or pearls pouring out of vending machines. So when she found a piece of pale green jade, carved to look like a small, perfect dragon—complete with wings, scales, claws, and a long, curled tail—she thought only that someone had been fool enough to lose something valuable. She tucked it in the pocket of her shirt, wondering if she should advertise it, deciding immediately that she didn't want to be bothered with the phone calls or letters that would come in response. Besides, it was a pretty thing.

At home she put the dragon on top of her bookcase. The carving was so small, she couldn't see it up there unless she walked right up to it. This bothered her. Before she went to sleep she took the dragon down and set it beneath the Chinese lamp on her bedside table. In the glow of the electric light the jade was translucent. It made her think of early spring, of clouds and water, of things that flowed.

Lucinda stripped off her clothing, leaving on silver bracelets and rings, anklets and earrings, necklaces strung with lockets and beads, milagros and charms. She hated sleeping in clothing and couldn't sleep without jewelry. Her last lover had complained that her earrings kept sticking him in the jaw. She'd shrugged and told him she didn't see why she was the only one who should be penetrated. They'd had angry sex and she'd left his bed before dawn, vowing he'd never see her again.

She got into bed and opened the book she'd been reading for the last three months, a novel about a man and a city and how the two wore each other down. She never could seem to get very far into it. She read another page, too tired to stay with the story, too restless to stay in bed. Going to her bookshelves, she began to skim through books of poetry, but tonight none of them soothed.

She got dressed again and though it was nearly midnight, she left the apartment and went down to the streets. A light rain had fallen, and the sidewalks smelled damp and chalky. Shallow pools of water, coated with a film of rainbow oil, caught the reflections of the street lamps. In one she thought she saw the image of a small green dragon.

She wound up on Consolación Street, walking past the Teatro Descardo to Indigo, one of the smaller clubs. It was a chilly weeknight and the street, usually crowded at this hour, was deserted. Indigo's bouncer barely glanced at her before opening the door; she wondered if there was anyone he refused tonight. "Maxine here?" she asked, before stepping over the threshold.

He nodded. "She'll find you."

Inside a band played half-heartedly and discordantly on the stage. Lucinda bought herself a shot of tequila at the bar and sat down in an empty banquette, her attention roving between the band and the audience. She couldn't remember ever seeing this place so empty. She could actually count the number of people dancing. The most noticeable were four young women dancing directly in front of the stage, seeming oblivious to the fact that the music barely had a beat.

Lucinda lifted her glass to a tall, gaunt woman, holding a drink in one hand, a lit cigarette in the other, who came toward her, hips swaying. Maxine, who owned Indigo, bent, kissed Lucinda's cheek and took a seat at the table.

How are you, girl?"

Disturbed would have been the correct answer, but Lucinda settled for, "Restless. I couldn't sleep," she added more honestly.

Maxine shrugged. "No sympathy here. You're talking to the queen of insomnia. Why do you think I run a club? Still, it's a lousy night to be out."

"Better than staying home."

"It's too subdued for my taste." Maxine wore rings on every finger, dark stones all. Faceted onyx, garnet, peridot, black tourmaline, and what she'd told Lucinda was an alexandrite glittered as she pointed her cigarette pointed toward the sparsely populated dance floor. "I should have closed an hour ago. Don't know why I'm paying a band for this."

"You've got customers," Lucinda said, nodding to the girls.

"Those four don't count. The band comp'd them."

"They're sleeping with the band?"

"Or hoping to." Maxine took a drag on the cigarette. "Look at them. Can you remember when going home with the lead guitar player was everything?"

"I always had better luck with drummers." Lucinda swirled her tequila in the glass, her silver bracelets clinking together softly. "Drummers do lovely things with their hands."

Maxine gazed at her through heavy-lidded eyes, and Lucinda wondered how old Maxine was. She wore her hair in the same glossy black bob she'd worn twelve years ago when Lucinda first met her. And she still had the slouched, decadent silhouette that reminded Lucinda of the women in Aubrey Beardsley drawings — thin, beautiful, elegant creatures who seemed somehow hollow inside.
"The boys in the bands, they're all bastards," Maxine said without rancor. "Not that they mean to be. But they're young and self-involved and they've got all the energy of the music streaming through them so they think they're golden."

"We thought so, too," Lucinda reminded her.

Maxine blew a smoke ring. "Illusions, darling. Illusions who can give you the clap."

"Speaking of illusions . . ." Lucinda realized that she'd come up here seeking out Maxine because Maxine was too cynical to be taken in by rumors, too hard-headed to give anything but a straight answer. She was also notoriously well connected; very little went on in Arcato that Maxine didn't know about. "You haven't found any of these gems everyone's talking about, have you?"

"Yeah, I've heard about those." Maxine tilted her head toward the stage. "But they're as close as I come to diamonds — in the rough, that is. I know it doesn't sound that way tonight, but they actually have talent."

"So . . . nothing . . . weird has happened to you recently?" Lucinda asked, finding that she didn't want to mention the jade dragon.

"There's always something strange going down at a club," Maxine corrected her. "This afternoon I came in to find that painted Japanese screen in my office — the one my grandmother left me — and the ivory brocade on the loveseat slashed." Maxine's tone was cool and detached, as always, but Lucinda caught a flash of pain in her dark eyes. "Oh, and the stack of handbills I'd copied, advertising these sweet young things, was shredded like confetti. That's why no one's here tonight." She ground out her cigarette in a glass ashtray. "Think someone's trying to shut me down?"

"I don't know," Lucinda said, envisioning the damage. Maxine, despite her aversion to sentimentality, had filled her office with eclectic, graceful antiques. Lucinda had always loved the contrast between the rough club space and Maxine's elegant office.

"Nothing else in the club was touched, nothing missing or broken. Cops weren't even interested enough to show up. But someone hurt the things I loved."

"Who would want to —"

"Probably the same lunatic who took a knife to the old velvet stage curtain at the theater next door. Now the Teatro's gotta buy a new curtain and they have less of a budget than I do. Who knows, maybe some sicko's trying to shut down the whole street." Maxine ran a hand through her glossy hair. "It seems pointless to me. I figure, if you're going to go out of your way to vandalize a place, you ought to at least get something for your trouble."

"Yeah, well, you've always had a larcenous heart."

Maxine lifted her glass, gave a toast, "To larceny," then put the glass down without drinking. Her hand was shaking violently.

Lucinda clasped Maxine's hand between her own but couldn't still the tremor. "Hey," she said softly. "What's going on? Are you all right?"

Maxine pulled her hand back. "Things are changing, 'Cinda," she said. "No one's ever broken into my club before." Her hand still trembling, she lifted the glass and downed the drink. "I'll tell you something. Soon no place is gonna be a haven anymore."


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