Read an Excerpt
"Two people died getting this to me."
Cole Blackburn looked at the small worn velvet bag. "Was it worth it?"
"You tell me," Chen Wing said.
With a swift motion Wing emptied the contents of the bag onto the ebony surface of his desk. Light rippled and shifted as nine translucent stones tumbled over one another with tiny crystalline sounds. The first impression was of large, very roughly made marbles that had been chipped and pitted by use. Nine of the thirteen stones were colorless. Three were pink. One was the intense green of a deep river pool.
Instantly Cole's hand closed over the green marble, which was as big as the tip of his thumb. The stone was surprisingly heavy for its size. He rubbed it between his fingers. The surface had an almost slippery feel, as though it had been burnished with precious oils. He turned the stone until he found a flat, cleanly chipped face, which he bathed with his breath. No moisture collected on the smooth plane.
Cole felt a sharp stab of excitement. Without a word he walked to a liquor cart that stood against a wall. He picked up a heavy leaded crystal glass and glanced at Wing, who nodded. Cole brought the green stone down the side of the glass in a single swift stroke.
The stone scratched the glass easily and deeply. The stone itself was unmarked. At random Cole picked up other stones from the desk and drew them down the crystal surface. New scratches formed. The stones themselves remained untouched. He pulled a well-worn jeweler's loupe from his pocket, angled the desk light to his satisfaction, picked up the deep green stone, and examined it.
The sensationwas like falling into a pool of intense emerald light. Yet this was not an emerald. Even uncut and unpolished, the stone held and dispersed light in a way that only a diamond could. It shimmered between his fingers with each tiny movement of his hand. Light flowed and glanced among the irregularities in the stone's surface and gathered in its luminous depths. There were no fractures and only two very minute flaws, both irrelevant to the diamond's value, for they lay just below the surface, where they would be cut and polished out of existence.
Cole looked at several more stones before he put his loupe back in his pocket and said, "White paper."
Wing opened a desk drawer, extracted a pure white sheet of Pacific Traders Ltd. letterhead, and slid it across the desk. Cole pulled a small chamois bag from his pocket and removed a rough diamond that he knew to be of perfect color.
Though uncut and unpolished, the stone from Cole's pocket had an angular octahedral shape. It looked almost unnatural next to the worn, irregular stones from Wing's bag. Cole spaced the diamonds across the surface of the paper. One of the stones changed color subtly, becoming more coral than pink. The other pinks deepened to a lovely clear rose. Most of the white stones took on a blue sheen that exactly matched Cole's diamond. One or two showed a very faint yellow cast to their white, a color shift that only an expert eye would have detected or cared about.
And the green stone burned more vividly still, an emerald flame against snow.
Cole lowered the loupe and studied the green diamond with both eyes again. It still glimmered with an internal fire that was both hot and cold. Years before, in Tunisia, he had seen a stone that was nearly the equal of this one. The smuggler who owned the rough claimed it had come from Venezuela, a claim that Cole doubted. But before he could raise enough cash to buy the truth, someone had sealed the smuggler's lips by cutting his throat.
The smuggler's death hadn't shocked Cole. Random deaths, convenient or capricious, were common in the diamond fields and gemstone black markets of the world. When it came to diamonds a man's life was valuable only to himself, and his death could easily profit any number of people.
What surprised Cole was that these diamonds had cost only two lives. He had never seen a handful of diamonds to equal the ones resting on the white paper, drawing their color from the peculiar circumstances of their birth rather than from their surroundings.
Cole picked up his own exemplar diamond, put it away, and examined the dark velvet bag that lay collapsed across the desk's ebony surface. The velvet was old, so old that the passage of time and the hard sur faces of the diamonds inside had worn the cloth to near-silk thinness in places. The velvet did not care; it was dead.
But the stones were not dead, not in the same way. They shimmered as though gorged with light and time and man's insatiable hunger for that which is rare.
"What do you want from me?" Cole asked, watching the diamonds with brooding gray eyes.
For a moment Wing thought the question was directed at the stones. He had known Cole for many years, yet the Hong Kong businessman did not claim to understand or predict the next turning of the American prospector's complex mind.
"Are they diamonds?" Wing asked softly.
"No chance of deception?"
Cole shrugged. The motion made light move over him. Raw black silk gleamed in his sport coat. His hair was the exact color and luster of the silk. His skin had been weathered in the wild places of the world. Fine lines radiated out from his eyes, legacy of a life spent of squinting into the light of a desert sun or the flare of a miner's lamp. Above his left temple a scattering of silver showed in his thick hair. He looked older than his thirty-four years. By every measure that mattered, he was.
"There's always a chance of deception," Cole said. "But if these were made by a man, he'll be the ruin of every miner and diamond mine in the world."