Heart of Lies

Avenue_Joffre_Shanghai_1930s

Avenue Joffre in Shanghai in the 1930s

The following morning Leo hired a rickshaw to take him to Avenue Joffre.  Skirting the boundary of the old Chinese walled city, the even trot of the rickshaw driver brought Leo, with surprising speed, to the heart of the French Concession and the lengthy boulevard that had earned the nickname, “Little Russia.”  The road was lined with dress shops, fur salons, Russian restaurants, and questionable nightclubs.  Here and there a small knot of shabby men clustered around two compatriots playing chess.  Banners advertised instruction in mathematics, Russian, French, and tutoring for musical instruments of all kinds.  Leo was surrounded by Russian music, Russian writing, Russian voices, Russian faces.  He felt like he’d turned a corner and crossed the border.

Leo elected to investigate the neighborhood on foot.  Stepping down from the rickshaw, he tossed the puller a tip he did not yet realize was far too generous.  Rather than express gratitude, the cunning Chinese leveled several loud mandarin curses at Leo, decrying his stinginess, hoping that the tall foreigner would be embarrassed into giving him more.  When he could see that no more coins were forthcoming, the driver added a few more curses for emphasis, then sullenly picked up the poles of his rickshaw and heading off.

Oblivious to the small drama being staged for his benefit, Leo strolled casually down the street, his frosty breath creating a mist a foot above the heads of most of the other men and women on the street.  He walked down alleys and side streets, looking for the Cyrillic characters indicating a jeweler.  He needed a man of talent, and a man who could be trusted.

At last he saw a sign that intrigued him.  The Russian word for jeweler decorated a small silk banner, hung over the door to the basement entry of a nondescript two-story building.  Leo descended the uneven stairs and knocked on the plain wooden door.

“Da,” a voice called out from behind the door.  Leo walked in.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dark, for the small half-window let in little light.  Leo could make out an armchair, a small Franklin stove, and a workbench displaying the delicate tools of the jeweler’s trade.  For an instant he thought he saw a large, long-haired animal crouched on the stool at the bench.  Then the creature turned towards him, and Leo could see the face of an old man peering out of what appeared to be a fur cape.  Muskrat, thought Leo.

“May I help you in some way?”

Something in the old man’s voice put Leo at ease.  It was not the voice of a shopkeeper waiting to pounce upon a prospective client, but the welcome of a humble artist, looking to be of service.

“I hope so,” Leo replied, the Russian words flowing effortlessly from his lips.  “I have an item I would like to sell.  It will, I think, interest you.”  He removed a silk handkerchief from his breast pocket.

With a patient expression the old man extended a pale, wrinkled hand from underneath the mound of fur engulfing him, and beckoned for Leo to come closer.  He did so, and placed the handkerchief on the table.  He unfolded it to reveal the diamond.

Wordlessly, the jeweler lit a candle, then put on a bizarre pair of glasses; two cone-shaped magnifying loupes were positioned where ordinary lenses should have been, giving him the visage of a monstrous insect.  Holding the diamond close to the flame, the jeweler inspected it.  Still, he did not speak, but a sharp intake of his breath caused the candle to flicker, letting Leo know that he was impressed.

The General and Madame Chiang Kai-shek.

“If it is what it appears to be…..”   Putting the stone back on his table, he removed his glasses and picked up a small brown bottle from which he extracted liquid with a dropper.  The acid splashed harmlessly off the diamond, then hissed softly as it ate into the varnished wood of the workbench.

“A marvelous stone.  A beauty.  Emerald cut, five carats, colorless and perfect.  I am afraid that I do not have the resources to pay you what it is worth.”

“What could you give me for it?”  Leo was ready to counter any offer.

“What I could give you is irrelevant, unless you are desperate, and you do not strike me as a desperate man.  Not yet, at any rate.  Believe me, my son, I have given many desperate people the help that they needed.  But I cannot help you.  I could cheat you, but I cannot help you.”

Startled, Leo realized that the man was not adopting an artful bargaining strategy; he was speaking the truth.  His frustration quickly crowded out any sense of gratitude.  “Do you know of anyone who would be interested in such a stone, and willing to pay a fair price for it?”

For a moment there was no reply, and Leo was about to repeat the question, when the old man spoke.

“There is a man, a Chinese, who comes here to my shop, for he knows I occasionally acquire worthy pieces.  His name is Lee Wusong.  He works for an influential man.  A rich man.  This man, for whom he works, is very difficult to impress.  But even Liu Tue-Sheng is impressed by perfection, and he has three wives to satisfy.  Do you have three such diamonds?”  The old man smiled, revealing teeth that Leo wished had remained unseen.

“Perhaps.”

“Even better.  I will give you Mr. Lee’s address.  You may tell him that Olanavich sent you.  He will speak to you.  When he finds the time.”  The wrinkled hands appeared again, to scribble a name and address on the back of a calling card, which the jeweler then courteously offered to Leo.

“Thank you.”

“It is of no consequence.  Thank you for sharing with me an object of such rare beauty.”  The old Russian carefully wrapped the diamond back into its temporary home and handed the handkerchief back to Leo, who thanked him again, and turned to leave.  Just before opening the door, he stopped short.

“This gentleman, Liu Tue-Sheng, is he discreet?”

Another brief silence.  Then, a non-answer.

“You are new to Shanghai.”

Leo stepped back into the center of the tiny room.  “Yes.  Is there something I should know?”

The old man shrugged.  “If you do not yet know of Liu Tue-Sheng, you soon will.  They say he is the head of the Green Gang, an ancient and secret organized crime society.  They say he is responsible for gambling, prostitution, kidnapping, and most of the illegal opium trade.  They say that he has compromised the integrity of the entire police force of the French Concession, and the French ambassador as well.  They say that he has a private army.  I know that he serves on the board of two banks and several charities; I know that he keeps his word and pays his debts.  I would say that you can trust him to be discreet about where he acquires his diamonds.”

This time Leo did more than thank Olanavich.  He took a handful of silver coins out of his pocket and laid them on the table.  Then he went back out into the cold.