Fly Diamonds

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Chapter 28

An e-mail alert arrived on Leo’s desktop computer.

Juan Luis Merlo registered an Apple computer in Mexico City.

Leo’s gut seized on the possibilities, and he immediately called for funding to reopen the Quayles case. Quayles had been paid the full appraised cost of the diamonds at seven million dollars; it was a loss on the TIPCO books and a smear to Leo’s reputation. TIPCO’s CEO, Dennis Avner, did not allow the reopening of the case, and Leo had no budget with which to follow the latest lead. Leo was not happy, but he was resourceful. He called his fiancée immediately.

“Baby, how about a trip to Mexico City?” Leo asked.

“What? Why Mexico City?” Ivory said.

“I hear it is a beautiful city. Don’t you want to go?”

“I’ll go with you to wherever you take me.”

“That’s the spirit.”

Leo told Ivory his real intentions on the three-hour flight from Lindbergh Field. This was a fact-finding mission and a vacation combined. Ivory felt a strange butterfly sensation in her gut when she learned they would finally meet the mastermind of the Fly Diamonds case. She was all in.

The Maria Isabel Sheraton Hotel was a hub for the American traveler to Mexico City. It was a block away from the American Embassy on Paseo de la Reforma, the main artery connecting the downtown to the suburbs. It was an old hotel, but continually upgraded to offer all the amenities the modern traveler required. The food was safe and delicious and the service impeccable, all at an affordable cost. A hotel stay this luxurious in the United States would have cost at least three times as much.

Leo had the address of the business registered for the computer, and the day after their arrival, they took an Uber to Antiguedades y Consignaciones Euro-America SA at exactly eleven in the morning when the store opened. They arrived in the Polanco neighborhood to find the store open, but with only one employee in charge. A very pretty young female who seemed to know exactly how to manage the business of selling greeted them. Leo found out from her that the owner usually came around five in the afternoon, to check on sales and deliveries, and that he was indeed Juan Luis Merlo.

Leo and Ivory decided to sightsee and went to the Museum of Archaeology and later to lunch at a famous restaurant. They felt the city’s high elevation when they drank their first tequila cocktail. The thin air contained less oxygen, so the alcohol kicked hard. Soon, they were forgetting all about the mission and enjoying themselves. It was supposedly a dangerous city, but in every respect the tourist areas seemed perfectly safe. Leo was an experienced traveler and could navigate any situation with ease. At around six in the evening, Ivory noticed that they were running late to see Juan Luis. She showed Leo her wristwatch.

“Shit. Let’s get going,” Leo said.

Leo spoke to Ivory during the Uber ride to the shop.

“I want you to look around and act as if you are going to buy something. We should look like a regular couple, and I will try and feel out if my hunch is right,” Leo instructed.

“I can do that,” Ivory said, and hiccupped.

“I wonder if we should do this tomorrow.”

“What if he doesn’t come to work tomorrow?”

“Let’s do this,” Leo reiterated.

Inside the shop, Juan was sitting at his desk when he saw the tipsy Americans enter the shop. They looked around and he noticed his gaze on them. The man immediately darted toward Juan, leaving his girlfriend to browse. Juan moved swiftly to meet him before he arrived at his office, but Leo was fast and arrived at the office faster.

“How can I help you?” Juan asked as Leo stood at the threshold of the office door.

“We are just browsing, but I was wondering if you had jewelry. You see that pretty girl down there?” Leo asked.

“Yes.”

“Well, I am looking to get engaged. Nothing says ‘I love you’ like a diamond.”

“I am afraid you have the wrong shop, then. We are not jewelers.”

“I am sorry, you are Juan Luis Merlo, right?”

“I am.”

“I was told you sold diamonds?”

“I’m afraid whoever told you that misinformed you. I have never sold a diamond in my life. I don’t invest in jewelry of any kind. Look around. I deal in antiques and art.”

“I can see that. This is an incredible store you have.”

“Thank you. Now if you don’t mind, Soledad, my assistant talking to your fiancée over there, can help you.” Juan made a motion indicating Leo should exit his office.

“I see you have a painting of pigeons,” Leo exclaimed, pointing at the Milton Avery.

“Yes, so?”

“How much is it?”

“Too much. It is not for sale.”

“Too much? What do you mean?”

“That, my friend, is a Milton Avery from 1955. Paris Pigeons.

“How much is it worth?”

“Like I said. It is not for sale.”

“But if it were, what is its value?”

“I said, friend, it is not for sale, and Soledad can answer any questions you have. I need to get back to work. Please.” Juan pointed to Leo for an expected exit.

“I know it’s you,” Leo said softly, almost inaudibly.

“Please, my friend, I need to get back to my work,” Leo said.

“I know it was you.”

“Come again? What are you talking about?”

“The diamond heist in San Diego. Three years ago,” Leo said, looking at Juan directly in the eye.

“I don’t think so.”

“You were in the area at the time. I know you lived in a home that housed pigeons until that day.”

“They were not my pigeons.”

“You took care of them.”

“I had to.”

“You mean like, at gunpoint?”

“Something like that. I just kept them alive,” Juan answered, moving behind his desk and assessing whether this gringo had backup outside.

“Why did you move here so suddenly?”

“Suddenly? I had to save for over two years to move my mom back here.”

“Virginia? How is she? Does she know who you are? How can you afford all this?”

“I started this shop selling my mom’s Dalí prints. I have found something I am good at. Like the Milton Avery, if you only knew how little I paid for it, you would die. Mexico is a gold mine in antiques and art. People sell well below market price.”

“How much is it worth?” Leo asked again.

“You are in insurance, right?” Juan asked.

“Yes, I am.”

“Then you should know Avery.”

“I don’t.”

“Let me tell you, an Avery of similar size just sold at auction for fifty thousand. I can sell this one with a nice profit at forty-five. But it is not for sale.”

“Forty-five thousand pesos? What is that, like three grand?” Leo asked.

“Dollars.”

“Come again? You mean forty-five thousand dollars for that painting? Wow! I can’t afford that.”

“And you are looking for diamonds?”

“Yes, well I am looking for something small, under ten Gs…but aren’t you afraid someone might steal it?” Leo asked, pointing at the Avery.

“Not particularly. Art is hard to sell and it’s insured anyway.”

“Who is your carrier?”

“Lloyds. They probably sell a piece of my policy to your company. You know how they are. All spreading out the risk so that any hit is meaningless to any given company.”

“You seem to know a lot about insurance. Do you know, they are relentless until they recover their losses.”

“Are you saying they never take any losses?”

“Oh, natural disasters, yes. Those are losses. But jewelry and art, now that is something they will keep looking for. You have any diamonds?”

“My friend, as I said, you are far from any diamonds here. I specialize in art and antiques.”

“Tell me more about your pigeons.”

“Well, Avery is the Matisse of American art. He never veered off to follow pure abstraction like his friend Rothko or de Kooning; he kept making what he loved and got better and better at it. Like a good wine.”

“I was talking about your real pigeons in Tijuana, Juan,” Leo’s tone changed.

“They belonged to Buitre. You can go to Tijuana and talk to him,” Juan said, sitting down at his desk and looking at papers.

Juan was trying to act as cool as possible and knew that he could always escape through the back. He looked at Ivory through the glass talking to Soledad about a santo figure.

“Buitre gave you up,” Leo said.

“That is nonsense. Buitre can’t say anything bad about me. He is a criminal and taking his word over mine is ludicrous,” Juan said calmly and added, “Your fiancée seems to be interested in a seventeenth-century sculpture. If I were you, I would pop that question soon.”

“What do you mean?”

“You are blind, my friend. For an insurance investigator, you are clearly not very observant.”

“What are you talking about?”

“What is your name?”
“Leo.”

“And hers?”

“Ivory.”

“Listen, Leo, Ivory there is carrying a little Leo or Leona. You better marry her before she carries the baby to term. You want that baby to have a father, don’t you?”

“What? How can you know that?”

“Observing is what I do. I can tell if a picture frame is new or one hundred years old. Look at her. She walked in and made a face when she smelled those flowers in the vase. It was almost like she was going to puke. Then she met Soledad there and she showed interest only in sculpture and particularly in the putti there. You see?”

“You are sure she is pregnant?” Leo flushed with happiness.

“She didn’t tell you?”

“But she drank tequila.”

“Then she doesn’t know either. She is not very connected to her body. Is she in a harsh profession?”

“She is a police officer.”

“It figures.”

“Wow…” Leo was speechless and sat down on a chair across from Juan.

“Would you like to buy that putti for her? I can have it shipped to your home without her knowledge so when she gets home it can surprise her. Like your baby will surprise you,” Juan said.

“But shouldn’t I tell her I know?”

“You are going to tell her that your suspect figured it out? She would think you are crazy. I’ll tell you what. Go to a pharmacy and buy a test, which is the way to be sure. Tell her you had a hunch. Then you can celebrate. You will never forget Mexico City.”

“You sure those pigeons belonged to Buitre?”

“I kept them alive for Buitre, but who knows if they were his?”

“Did you know the pigeons were part of a heist? A diamond heist?”

“No? Really?” Juan was mocking Leo.

“The Fly Diamonds heist.”

“I remember the day of the heist exactly. I was working at the Savory Yolk, and we saw the helicopter hovering over Quayles Jewels. You can ask Finch. He is the manager of the Savory Yolk, I was there with him when the TV reported the whole story.”

“So you have an alibi.”

“Rock solid. Tori the news reporter was explaining how the criminals were still inside the store when Finch and I were watching. Ask him.”

Leo realized Juan was smart and perceptive and felt a sense of respect. He felt lucky to meet someone like Juan, a somewhat polar opposite of himself but of similar intellect.

“May I introduce you to her?” Leo asked.

“Sure,” Juan said.

They walked the length of the store to meet Ivory by the putti wooden sculpture that had captivated her.

“It is a seventeenth-century piece. Italian. Probably brought to Mexico by a viceroy to decorate the castle in Chapultepec Park. Have you visited the castle yet?” Juan asked Ivory.

“No.”

“Oh, you must have Leo take you; no visit to Mexico City can skip that. I am Juan. Enchanted to meet you.” Juan took her hand and kissed it.

“Ivory,” Ivory introduced herself.

“I know,” Juan said.

“Why must we go to the castle?” Leo asked.

“Well, my friend, the castle is built on a mountaintop where an ancient pyramid used to stand. They actually used the stones hauled by the Aztecs up there to build the foundation.” Juan looked directly at Ivory when he said this. “It is in the middle of the equivalent of your Central Park in New York, and all major battles have involved the capture of this castle. Up until the 1930s, it was the home of the president, so in essence it was our White House. Now a museum, luckily.”

“Wow. We should go, honey.” Ivory was impressed by Juan.

“I know you think I am the Fly Diamonds thief, but your hubby here is quite wrong. He is barking up the wrong tree. Do you want to know the price of the putti?”

Ivory was taken aback. She didn’t expect Leo would reveal their intentions and didn’t know what to do. The pause was uncomfortably long.

“How much is the putti?” Leo asked.

“Twenty-five thousand pesos, about two grand,” Juan said.

“Whoa wee. That is a pretty penny,” Leo said.

“But I can give you a great discount, special for Leonardo only,” Juan said.

“Give me a second,” Leo said.

Ivory was looking at Leo, flushed and visibly uncomfortable. Leo tugged at her arm, and they moved away from Juan’s earshot.

“It’s not him,” Leo said.

“Are you sure?” Ivory asked.

“No. But I think I am dropping this investigation.”

“But why?”

“I just don’t think I can get this guy. If it is him, we have nothing to go on. He is too smart, and it just feels wrong. Like we are barking up the wrong tree!”

Ivory raised her eyebrows and shoulders in a gesture that implied she didn’t care anyway.

“What kind of discount for Leonardo?” Leo asked Juan.

“I will give you a super discount. Give me one thousand and I will wrap it right now.”

“Can it go through customs?”

“Of course; art is tax-free going to the States, and this piece is Italian, so you are not transporting a national treasure out of Mexico. You can just carry it or put it in your luggage.”

Leo paid three hundred dollars more for the putti than Juan had paid when he bought it from an estate sale about thirty days earlier. Juan had Soledad wrap the baby sculpture in protective plastic wrap, and he handed Ivory a catalog of the most important seventeenth-century buildings in Mexico City.

“Don’t forget, Ivory, that Mexico was the richest country in the world in the seventeenth century. We had so much gold that we began the concept of inflation for the Spanish Crown. Please enjoy Mexico, and have a safe trip back to San Diego,” Juan said to Ivory as they walked out to the sidewalk.

“Remember, Leo. Test and no alcohol. Got it?” Juan said.

“Yes. Got it. Many, many thanks,” Leo said.

“Thank you,” Juan said, counting the hundred-dollar bills.

As soon as the lovebirds left, Juan called Virginia.

“Ma. ¿No vas a creer lo que paso” (You are not going to believe what happened), Juan said.

“¿Qué mi hijo?” (What, my son?) Virginia inquired.

“Que somos ricos. Muy ricos. Y nadie no los va a quitar jamás.” (That we are rich. Very rich. And nobody will take it from us, ever.)

“¡No te vayas a salar, mi hijo!” (Don’t brag; you might get unlucky!)

“¡Ay, ma, siempre negativa tu!” (Oh, Mom, always so negative!)

In the Uber, Ivory wondered.

“What did he mean by test and no alcohol?” Ivory asked.

“Oh, I’ll tell you in a moment. Driver? Do you speak English?” Leo asked.

“Yes.”

“Can you stop by a pharmacy on the way to the hotel?”

“Sure.”

THE END

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