Read an Excerpt
Six Months Later
Lily Song was eating breakfast at the Happybird Tea House, an open-fronted place in an alley off the Renmin Road, named for the tiny birds, the pets of the customers that accompanied them in their little bamboo cages, singing their morning songs. She ate there every morning at exactly the same time—eight o’clock—and she always had exactly the same thing: shrimp dim sum with vegetables and green tea with semolina grains that swelled up like miniature cannonballs in the hot tea and tasted like slippery bird shot. Her fellow breakfasters were all men but that did not bother her and anyway they were all too immersed in their newspapers and noodles to notice her, even though she was an attractive woman.
She was small and very slender, with a shoulder-length swing of glossy black hair and eyes so dark a brown they looked almost black too. She had the fair skin of her European mother and the delicate bridgeless nose of her Chinese father, and she wore either conservative Western clothes bought at the better boutiques on the Nanking Road, or the traditional brocade dress, the quipao in jewel tones, tailored specifically to her directions by an expert in his tiny storefront shop near the Bubbling Well Road. Either way, though she was not beautiful, she gave the impression of an attractive, successful woman. Which, in a sense, she was.
This morning, however, she was wearing narrow black pants with a black linen top. Her hair was pulled back and large sunglasses hid her eyes. She could have passed unnoticed in any Shanghai crowd. She glanced up as a man entered, then stood looking around him. He was a foreigner, older, smart in a lightweight beige business suit and he carried a leather document case. Lily lifted her hand, beckoning him over.
He came and sat in the chair opposite. With a gruff “good morning” he placed the document case on the table in front of him. A soft-footed server hovered nearby and Lily ordered plain green tea for her guest. She asked if he would like to eat and with a faint look of disgust he said he would not. He was Swiss and conservative and he did not like Chinese food. The teahouse was not a place he would have chosen to do business but this was Lily’s call.
“My client is interested in anything you can show him,” he said without wasting any time. “Provided it can be authenticated, that is.”
Lily had done business with him before. His client’s identity was preserved under a cloak of strict anonymity, which suited her just fine. That way she didn’t have to deal with tricky, rich, artistic personalities who thought they knew more than she did. Antiques and, in particular, stolen antiques were what she had dealt in since she was sixteen and she knew what she was talking about.
“I have some things your client might be interested in,” she said in a low voice, because you never knew who was listening. “I expect to take delivery of a batch of antiquities very soon. Cloisonné, famille verte, statues. . . .”
“When will you have them?” His eyes bored into her, questioning her integrity. She hated him for it but she did not show that. Instead she smiled.
“Within a few weeks. Meanwhile, here is something very special. The most important piece I have ever come across.” She reached in her purse, took out a photograph and handed it to him.
The man studied it carefully. “My client doesn’t care for jewelry,” he said curtly.
“I think he will care for this when he hears its provenance.” Lily took another sip of her green tea, meeting his eyes across the table. “Your client will no doubt have heard of the great Dragon Lady, Cixi, the Dowager Empress of China?” She spelled the name for him and told him it was pronounced chee shee, so that he could make his notes correctly.
“Cixi was once a concubine but eventually she ruled China and was said to have been even more powerful than her contemporary, Queen Victoria.
“The Empress lived in great splendor in the Forbidden City, and in preparation for her death she built herself a magnificent tomb, a lavish complex of temples, gates and pavilions glittering in gold and precious stones.
“Eventually, she was buried there, wearing her elaborate crown and magnificent robes, along with her wonderful jewels and precious ornaments. And before they sealed the coffin, in accordance with Imperial custom, a large and very rare pearl, the size of a robin’s egg, was placed in her mouth. It was believed this would preserve the royal corpse from decay.”
Lily paused in her story, studying the man opposite. He was looking at the photograph she had given him. She could tell from his body language he was interested, even though he pretended otherwise. It was all about money, she thought, cynically. But then, wasn’t it always?
“Twenty years later,” she said, “the revolutionary troops dynamited the entrance to Cixi’s burial chamber. The soldiers stripped the temples, looted all the treasures and opened Cixi’s coffin. They ripped off her Imperial robes and stole the crown from her head. Then they threw her naked corpse onto the muddy ground.”
Lily paused and the man’s stunned eyes met hers, waiting for what she would say next. “The body was said to be intact,” she said softly. “And from her mouth, they stole that single, massive, rare pearl. A moonbeam of light and cool as death itself.”
The man lowered his eyes to the photograph and she smiled; she knew she had his interest now.
“Yes,” she said softly, “it’s the very same one. There was, it has been said, a second pearl, this one taken from the Empress’s crown. It’s rumored that the second pearl came into the possession of Premier Chiang Kai-shek and ended up as an ornament, along with another fine pearl, on the party shoes of his wife, the famous Soong Mai-ling. The rest of the jewels disappeared into obscurity and into hidden collections.”
She paused again, making him wait. “Until suddenly,” she said, “sixty or so years ago, a necklace surfaced, embedded with emeralds and rubies, diamonds and jade, all said to be from Cixi’s tomb. And at its center was the famous pearl.”
Smiling, she saw him take a deep breath. Then he said, “And you are telling me you have this necklace with the pearl in your possession?”
She lowered her eyes. “Let us just say I know where to lay my hands on it.” Lily understood that he knew the existence of the necklace must be kept secret, that if the authorities found out about it she would certainly be in danger.
“And the price?”
“As always, that is open to discussion. Obviously it will not be cheap. And there is, of course, always a premium on a history and provenance as sinister as this one. Many men would enjoy handling the pearl from the mouth of the dead Empress, a woman who was once a famous concubine. It would give them a special thrill, I think.” She smiled at the man, gathering up her handbag. “I’m sure we can do business together,” she said, offering him her hand.
The little birds trilled joyously as she left.
Copyright © 2007 by Elizabeth Adler. All rights reserved.