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Like grains of sand grinding inside the oyster,
Like pearls being formed from the grains;
Still waiting, though in unbearable patience
Still believing, though almost in disbelief.
Archer Donovan wasn't easily surprised. It was a hangover from his previous line of work when surprised men often ended up dead. Yet the unique, peacock-and-rainbow radiance of the teardrop black pearl Teddy Yamagata was holding out did more than surprise Archer. It shocked him. He hadn't seen a black pearl with such color for seven years.
That particular pearl had been clutched in a dead man's hand. Or nearly dead. Archer had fought his way through the riot in time to pull his half brother out of the mess and get him to a hospital in another, safer place.
Long ago, far away, in another country.
Archer had done everything in his power to bury that part of his past. Years later he still was shoveling. But he had learned the hard way that no matter how determined he was, his previous undercover life had a nasty habit of popping up and casting shadows on his present civilian life. The proof of it was gleaming on the palm of Hawaii's foremost pearl collector and trader.
Teddy wasn't in Hawaii now. He had flown to Seattle with a case full of special pearls to show Archer. The extraordinary black pearl was one of them.
"Unusual color," Archer said neutrally.
Peering through the thick, blended lenses of his glasses, Teddy measured the expression of the man who was a sometime competitor in the pearl trade, an occasional client, and an invariably reliable appraiser. If Archer was particularly interested in the tear-shaped black pearl, nothing showed on his face. He could have been looking at a picture of Teddy's grandchildren.
"You must be a helluva poker player," Teddy said.
"Are we playing poker?"
"You've got your game face on. At least I think you do. Hard to tell under all that fur."
Absently Archer rubbed his hand against his cheek. He had given up shaving several months ago. He still wasn't quite certain why. One morning he just had picked up his razor, looked at it as though it was a remnant of the Spanish Inquisition, and dropped the blade in the trash. The fact that it was six years to the day since he had quit working for Uncle Sam might have had something to do with it. Whatever, his beard had grown into a short black continuation of his short black hair.
And if there were a few gray hairs among the black, tough. The dead didn't age. Only the living did.
"Must be hot when you go to Tahiti," Teddy said.
"It's always hot there."
"I meant the beard."
"I never sent it to Tahiti."
Teddy abandoned subtlety and tried the in-your-face approach. "What do you think of the pearl?"
"South Sea, maybe fourteen millimeters, teardrop, unblemished surface, fine orient."
"Fine?" Teddy hooted. His black eyes nearly vanished into lines of laughter. "It's goddamn spectacular and you know it! It's like ... like ..."
"Molten rainbows under black ice."
Teddy's thin black eyebrows shot up and he pounced. "You do like it."
Archer shrugged. "I like a lot of pearls. It's a weakness of mine."
"In my dreams you're weak. What's the pearl worth?"
"Whatever you can get for it." Archer's cool, gray-green glance stopped Teddy's immediate protest. "What do you really want to know?"
"What the damn thing's worth," he said, exasperated. "You're the best, most honest judge of pearls that I know."
"Where did you get it?"
"From a man who got it from a woman who got it from a man in Kowloon, who supposedly got it from someone in Tahiti. I've looked for that man for six months." Teddy shook his head emphatically. "He's not there. But if you buy the pearl, I'll give you the names."
"Are there more?"
"I was hoping you could tell me."
"I'll bet you were."
Archer looked at the stainless steel space-age clock his father had brought back from Germany and placed in the front room of the series of suites that were the Donovan family residence in downtown Seattle.
Two o'clock in Seattle. Wednesday afternoon. Autumn closing in on winter.
Where the black pearl had come from, it was early morning. Thursday. Spring closing in on summer.
What went wrong, Len? Archer asked silently. Why, after seven years, are you selling your unique Pearl Cove gems?
He looked at the radiant black gem, but it had no answers for him except the one he already knew-seven years ago, his half brother, Len McGarry, had mixed the undercover life with one too many shady deals. It had nearly killed him. It had certainly maimed him.
Archer was one of three people on earth who knew that Len had discovered the secret of how to culture extraordinary black pearls from Australia's South Sea oysters. But Len had refused to sell even one of the thousands upon thousands of black gems Pearl Cove must have produced in seven years.
Yet here was one of those gems: beautiful black ghost of the past.
Part of Archer, the part that stubbornly refused to bow to bleak reality, whispered that maybe Teddy's pearl was a sign that something had gone right, not wrong. Maybe Len was finally healing in his mind, if not his body. Maybe he was beginning to understand that no matter how many glorious South Sea pearls he hoarded, he was still the same man.
Linked with the thought of Len came unwelcome memories of Hannah McGarry, Len's once innocent, always alluring wife. Alluring to Archer, at least. Too much so. He had seen her only twice in ten years. He could recall each moment with brutal clarity.
She was like the black pearl, unique. And like the pearl, she hadn't the least idea of her own beauty, her own worth.
When he had showed up with her broken, bleeding husband in his arms and told her she had two minutes to pack, she didn't faint or argue. She simply grabbed blankets, medicine, and her purse. It had taken less than ninety seconds. Their flight out of hell had taken a lot longer. He was bleeding over the controls of the small plane he flew and seeing double from the concussion he got fighting his way through to Len.
Hannah hadn't said a word the whole time. She sat in the copilot seat and mopped blood out of his eyes, ignoring the blood that welled from her lower lip where she had bitten through skin to keep from screaming her own fear.
Automatically Archer shoved Hannah McGarry from his mind. He wasn't the kind to yearn for what he would never have. Hannah was married. For Archer, marriagefamilywas one of the few things left in the modern world that had meaning. Old-fashioned of him, even mulish, but there it was. The twenty-first century was big enough to have room for everyone, even unfashionable throwbacks.
"So you don't think this is a Tahitian pearl?" Archer asked almost idly.
"What makes you say that?"
"You're asking questions in Seattle, not Tahiti. Either you ran into a dead end there, or you already know where the pearl came from and want to know if I know, too."
Teddy sighed. "If I knew where it came from and how to get more, I wouldn't be wasting time talking to you. I'm here because I'm tired of banging my head into walls. As for Tahiti, none of the suppliers and farmers I've talked with admit to seeing this pearl or one like it before. Ever. And it's not the type of gem a man would forget."
Unique, fascinating, never the same twice. Like Hannah McGarry. The thought came and went from Archer's mind with the quickness of the colors sliding just beneath the surface of Teddy's amazing black pearl.
"What are you asking for it?" Archer said, surprising both of them.
"What'll you give me?"
"Not as much as you want. You can't match the pearl's color, so the usual kinds of jewelry won't work. Maybe one of my sistersFaith, most likelycould design an interesting setting for it as a brooch or a pendant, but then the artistry and workmanship rather than the pearl would become the true value. I'd be paying Faith, not you."
Teddy didn't argue the point. Though cultured by man, pearls weren't mechanically produced: it still took an oyster to make a pearl. Being a natural, organic product, relatively few pearls matched well enough to be combined in jewelry. Lining up pearls for a necklace was like lining up a thousand redheads to match nineteen. Once you got past the superficial similarity, the differences came screaming through.
"It could be a ring," Teddy said after a moment.
"It could, but not many people would spend thousands of dollars on a ring whose irreplaceable centerpiece could be ruined by a careless motion of a woman's hand. Or a man's."
The Hawaiian grumbled.
"Your pearl is big," Archer continued, "but not nearly big enough to interest high-end collectors or museums. They already have black pearls twice that size. Round black pearls."
"But the luster," Teddy protested. "And have you ever seen a pearl with half the color? It's like a black opal!"
Archer had seen one pearl that put Teddy's in the shade, but all he said was, "Yes, the orient is lovely. To someone who collects unusual pearls-"
"Like you," Teddy cut in.
"this one would be worth perhaps three thousand American."
"Three? Try twenty!"
"You try it. I wouldn't pay more than five."
"Bad joke. It's worth at least fifteen and you know it."
Archer looked at his watch. He had a few hours before he had to help his sister Faith close her little shop in Pioneer Square. Though it didn't look like much from the outside, his sister's store carried a multimillion-dollar inventory of international gems and one-of-a-kind jewelry. Normally one of the guards from Donovan International escorted Faith and her stock to and from the Donovan vaults. Today it was Archer's job. In the past her useless live-in boyfriend, Tony, had guarded her, but to the great relief of the Donovans, Faith recently had rubbed the fairy dust out of her eyes and dumped him.
"What else do you have to show me?" Archer asked.
Teddy looked at the tall American, measured the steely green of his eyes, and put the pearl back into its small velvet box with a sigh. "I keep hoping for a free lunch."
Archer smiled. "It's part of your charm, Teddy. That and your relative honesty."
"Relative!" he yelped. "Relative to what?"
"If I knew the answer, you would be, in effect, completely honest."
The short, thickset man frowned. It wasn't the first time he hadn't been able to follow the other man's baroque mental twists.
"Hungry?" Archer asked.s
Teddy smacked his stomach with a broad palm. Though hefty, his belly was more muscle than flab. "I'm always hungry."
"Bring your case to the kitchen. I'll scrape up a sandwich for you. While you eat, I'll look over the rest of the goods."
"No problem. I'll take lunch off the price of whatever I buy. If I buy."
Laughing, Teddy followed Archer through the living room into the condo's large, lemon-yellow kitchen. A view of Seattle's muscular waterfront filled the corner windows of the room. Out in Elliot Bay, huge container ships from all over the Pacific Rim waited at anchor for their turn to be unloaded by cranes that crouched like immense orange insects along the docks. Ferries churned among the mammoth commercial ships, leaving white wakes. Herded by a brisk southeast wind, low clouds trailed veils of rain over the dark gray water.
"Nice view," Teddy said. "But don't you get tired of the rain?"
"Think of it as a moat protecting the city."
Teddy blinked, opened his mouth, and closed it again. Then he shook his head and laughed.
Archer waited until Teddy was wedged into the breakfast alcove with a beer in one hand and a thick cheese sandwich in the other before he angled the conversation back to the pearl dealer's recent travels.
Because somewhere along the way, Teddy had found one of Len's black beauties.
"Did Sam Chang have any special pearls to sell?" Archer asked.
Teddy made a muffled sound, swallowed, and said, "That son of a bitch. Owns two thirds of the Tahitian pearl farms and acts like he's selling off his first son at every harvest. Prices the goods like it, too."
"Golden Rule," Archer said, popping the cap off one of the local microbrews. "He has the gold, he makes the rules."
"Japan is going to bust his ass. He's crowding their sales monopoly too hard. Great cheesewhat is it?"
"Gorgonzola with pesto. What about the smaller pearl farmers?"
Eyebrows raised, Teddy looked at the sandwich. "Nothing's changed. They still line up like milk cows."
"Surprising. Aussies are even more contrary than Americans."
"Oh, there are some holdouts," Teddy said, waving the ragged remnant of his sandwich. "But they're being squeezed down to the bone by the consortium. Their shelling licenses are being cut, they're not given the results of the latest government research until long after their competitors have it, their pearls end up in the doggy lots at the auctions. That sort of thing."
"Who's their leader?" Archer asked, though he knew very well. Just as he knew more than Teddy did about who was doing what and with which and to whom in the international pearl trade. But a man who stopped asking questions never learned anything new.
"Len McGarry," Teddy said, downing the last bite of his sandwich. "I gotta tell you, that is one mean bastard. Whatever put him in that wheelchair might have cut off his balls, but it didn't soften him up one bit."
For an instant Archer saw again the terrible image of Len covered in blood, broken, lying utterly motionless in the aisle of the small plane. The memory was one that could still awaken Archer from a deep sleep, covered in sweat and hearing whimpers of pain echoing in the silence. Some of the sounds were his own.
"Rumor is that he's sitting on at least five years worth of the best pearls," Teddy said. "His own, some other farms, and maybe a few of the Tahitian farmers on the sly."
Archer had heard about that, too. He believed at least part of it. For the past five years, Pearl Cove's balance sheets had been sinking like a stone in still water. Either the oysters had stopped producing pearls reliably or Len was holding out. As half owner, Archer should have cared. He didn't. Whatever Len squeezed out of the ruins of his dreams was fine with his silent partner. Money was the least of Archer's problems with his half brother.
"You always hear rumors about under-the-table alliances among pearl farmers," Archer said.
"Sometimes they're true."
"Sometimes." He opened Teddy's case and gave the contents a quick, comprehensive glance. No more Pearl Cove gems. But he wouldn't let Teddy go away empty-handed. The Hawaiian was too good a source of gossip. Even outright misinformation-intelligently processed-could be as revealing as a sworn version of the truth.
In any event, Archer planned on buying that black rainbow pearl. He just didn't plan on making Teddy rich in the process.
"You've been busy," Archer said.
The interest in his voice was a balm to Teddy's pearl-trading soul. He smiled and leaned forward over the table. "So, what do you see that you like?"
"That orange pearl. The one from a Vietnamese conch."
Teddy looked surprised, then laughed ruefully. "Damn. I was hoping to stump you on that one, too."
"Like the black pearl."
Archer looked at the pearl, night-dark, yet brooding in all the colors of the rainbow. "Nothing is like that pearl."
It was the type of gem men killed for.