Authors: George Harmon Coxe
Man on a Rope
George Harmon Coxe
Open Road Integrated Media ebook
HE EBB AND FLOOD
of the tide at the mouth of the Demerara River in British Guiana serves as a built-in air-conditioner for the capital city, Georgetown, which stands on the right bank. When the tide sweeps into the broad, muddy estuary it brings with it a pleasant breeze from the sea to cool the city; when it ebbs the air becomes hot and still and humid.
In the living-room of Colin Lambert's bungalow there was no breeze in the late afternoon, but Barry Dawson, already accustomed to the climate here and in neighboring Dutch Guiana, which could be even more humid, was not aware of this. Clad in shorts and a sport shirt, he was comfortable enough in spite of the film of moisture that coated his skin, and he was so intent on his work that the dampness of his fingers was no more than a minor inconvenience.
For nearly three hours he had been hunched over the desk, and except for an occasional break to light and puff at a cigarette, his work with the diamond scales and the ten-power loop had been uninterrupted. The two men who watched him made some comment from time to time, but they, too, understood the importance of concentration, so that for the most part he labored in silence, the fascination growing in him when he realized he had never seen so many diamonds of gem-stone quality in his life. It was only when he considered the character of Colin Lambert that he understood how the collection had been accumulated at all.
For, while diamonds had been a small part of the economy of British Guiana ever since the first one was discovered in 1877, the colony had never been noted for its fine stones. Statistically, the largest diamond ever found of gem-stone quality was listed at 56.75 carats, but the bulk of the output had been limited to industrial diamonds, a fact that Barry could readily confirm as a result of the six unprofitable months he had spent diving for such stones along the bed of the Ireng River.
But where there are industrial stones there are also gemstones, which could only mean that the diamonds he had just finished appraising had been carefully collected and polished over a great many years, and with considerable secrecy. That none of the diamonds weighed less than twenty points indicated that many more smaller and less desirable stones had been properly declared at Bartica, which stood at the confluence of the Essequibo, the Mazaruni, and the Cuyuni rivers, and served as a check point for all traffic that moved in or out of the back country.
Now, considering the small but glistening piles that lay before him on the mahogany desk, he pulled the slack of folded diamond-papers toward him and looked again at the stones which weighed between twenty points and a half-carat. These were roughly divided by colorâthose with a yellowish cast in one pile, the whites in the otherâand as he folded the yellows into the paper, Arthur Hudson cleared his throat.
“Well, what do you make it?”
Barry added a column of figures and penciled the total on this first packet; he did the same with the second.
“I'll tell you in a minute.” He looked at Hudson. “These smaller stones I can only approximate.”
“Sure, sure,” Hudson said.
Barry repeated the procedure with the two piles of stones that weighed between a half and a full carat. That brought him to the more valuable ones which weighed a carat or more. These had been cut in various shapes to eliminate flaws and to preserve as much as possible of the original diamond, the weights running from a single carat up to the largest, a pear-shaped beauty that lacked only a few points of being a four-carat stone. This he folded into its own diamond-paper. He did the same with four or five others, each time penciling his evaluation on the outside. When, finally, all the stones were wrapped, he added his figures.
“How much?” Hudson said.
Barry hesitated, not for effect or even because of the responsibility he felt; rather it was because of the uneasy feeling, unanalyzed and unexpressed, that had been with him ever since he started working.
The job he had been hired to do was legitimate enough. The fact that Hudson had picked himâno more than an amateur expertâinstead of one of the local diamond firms suggested that the deal to be made between Hudson and Lambert was something less than legitimate, though this was no affair of his. He knew all about Colin Lambert, and his dislike for the man and his methods was well founded. Hudson was more of an enigma. That he was an American was evident not only from the cut of his suits but from the big-city accent that was at once apparent the moment he opened his mouth, a tight-lipped man in his late thirties whose eyes, when not obscured by dark glasses, were gray, intent, and habitually wary.
He had appeared at the hotel nearly three weeks ago, and in Georgetown, in a hotel like the Windsor, it was never more than a day or two before one's business was known to others. Hudson had been stationed for a while at Atkinson Field during the war. He had heard things were beginning to open up here and he had come down to have a look; if he found the right opportunity he would furnish the necessary capital. At least, this was the story he had told Barry the day after he arrivedâ
Colin Lambert put aside his pipe and pulled himself out of the canvas-backed planter's chair. He came over to the desk and glanced down at the list of figures, a wiry, weathered man in his mid-fifties, dressed now in shorts and knee socks and a patched and faded bush jacket that he left unbuttoned.
“This is only my opinion,” Barry said.
“The whole diamond business is a matter of opinion,” Lambert said in a voice that after thirty years in the colony still held traces of its original English accent. “Show a stone to two experts and the odds are you'll get two opinions. To one it is worth four hundred; the other will pay no more than three seventy-five. In this instance Hudson and I have agreed to accept your opinion.”
Barry Dawson pushed back his chair and stood up. “Ninety-nine thousand, four hundred.”
“Biwi?” Hudson said, using the vernacular to indicate he meant British West Indies dollars. “Or U.S.?”
Barry was looking right at Lambert when he spoke and he saw the quick glint in the other's eyes, the look of what seemed like relief in the weathered face. Very slowly then Lambert let his breath out. He looked at Hudson.
Hudson removed the dark glasses, and the gray eyes were narrow and direct as they glanced from Lambert to the desk and back again.
“That's cutting it real close,” he said to Lambert. “You dump a sack of rocks on the desk and say it's worth a hundred grand, give or take a thousand. It comes out ninety-nine four.”
man,” Lambert said, “and fortunately, from my point of view, an honest one, since he has no love for me. Frankly, I would have made the figure slightly higher. Another appraiser might have done so.”
“Or made it lower.”
Barry, watching Hudson now, could practically see him thinking. Suspicion lingered in the angles of his eyes, and his mouth was set. In a situation like this a man had to gamble, and he seemed to be counting the odds both for and against him. Finally he grunted and made up his mind.
“Okay,” he said flatly. “I'll buy. But there was a bonus, wasn't there? Ten per cent for cash. Remember?”
Instead of replying, Lambert turned and moved across the broad, airy room. By American standards it was sparsely furnished, the individual pieces oddly styled and made by local workmen: the two canvas chairs with their broad, extended arms, the Morris-type chairs with mahogany frames and woven backs and seats, the heavy oblong mahogany table, the desk which had three drawers in one pedestal, a cupboard in the other. The wide-board floor was darkly stained and covered here and there by fiber-like mats that served as scatter rugs. Overhead the roof came to a peak, the partitions dividing the rooms extending upward only to the height of the walls so that beyond them the ventilation was unobstructed.
The moment Lambert disappeared down an inner corridor, Hudson stepped close, one hand on Barry's arm, his whispered voice hoarse and incisive.
“You're leveling with me, aren't you, chum? You think I got a buy?”
Barry eyed him coldly, considering again how little he knew about this man. He had had drinks with him a half-dozen times, had talked about this and that as one does with a countryman in a strange land. For all of this, he had no genuine liking for Hudson and it was his impression that they had little in common but their nationality.
“You hired me for a job,” he said. “I did it. I don't say it's accurate.”
“Okay,” Hudson said. “I guess I got to go along with you.” He pulled a pigskin wallet from his white jacket and fished out five twenty-dollar bills in United States currency. “Here,” he said. “You get the other half when we close the deal.”
Barry pocketed the bills as Lambert moved back into the room on rubber-soled shoes. He had a tin can of medium size in his hand, and now, removing the cover, he spilled forth its contents on the desk beside the stacked diamond-papers. To the untutored eye the resulting pile looked like a collection of small dark stones that were similar in size but of heterogeneous shapes, mostly angular.
“What the hell is that?” Hudson said.
“Industrial diamonds,” Lambert said. “I have no more gem-stones, but these are equally salable; you simply take them to a different buyer.”
Barry had already picked up the loop, and now, selecting a half-dozen stones at random, he knew that even here the collection was the result of long accumulation. For these were selected diamonds, of their kind. They had more life and less carbon than the average and were, therefore, worth more per carat; the consistency of size would make them more readily marketable, as Lambert had known when he began to save them.
“These are diamonds?” Hudson said. “How much're they worth?”
Barry put down the loop. He knew that in terms of United States money industrial diamonds could be worth anywhere from one dollar to twenty dollars a carat. His own opinion was that this assortment should be worth about ten dollars a carat; he said so.
“My thought exactly,” Lambert said. “Ten dollars a carat. A thousand caratsâyou can weigh them if you likeâwhich makes the bonus you referred to.”
“Yeah, butâ” Hudson began, still disconcerted.
“If you will recall our agreement,” Lambert cut in, “no guarantee was given that the bonus be in gem-stones.” As though that ended the argument, he said: “You have the cash?”
“Not with me,” Hudson said. “It'll be in fifties, and a hundred grand in fifties makes quite a bundle. I'll have it in the morning whenever you say.”
“I see.” Lambert frowned; then, abruptly, he sat down at the desk, opened the center drawer, and took out two oilskin envelopes. Into the smaller of these he packed the diamond-papers containing the gem-stones, securing the flap with an elastic.
The larger envelope reminded Barry of an oversize, wraparound tobacco pouch, and when Lambert had inserted the smaller envelope in one corner of this, he began to fill it with the industrial stones. When he finished he had a pillow-like package which weighed less than a pound and approximated the size of his two hands. This done, he opened a side drawer and took out a small box which contained a sealing-wax set, reminding Barry of a similar set his grandmother had once had.
“I see you're wearing a signet ring,” Lambert said. “May I borrow it?”
“What?” Hudson said, still puzzled by such preparations.
“Your ring. We don't want to go through this appraising business again, do we?” Lambert said. “Well, then, all we doânow that we both know exactly what's in this pouchâis to seal it properly. In the morning, if the seals are unbroken, you can be assured that the contents are intact.”
He was working as he spoke, snapping flame from a cigarette-lighter, melting the end of a red wax stick and skillfully fashioning a seal which fastened one end of the flap to the pouch. Into the cooling wax he pressed the top of Hudson's ring. He repeated the procedure four times and returned the ring.
“That should do it,” he said cheerfully, at the same time opening the deep bottom drawer of the desk to disclose a small but stout-looking safe that fitted the drawer exactly. Opening the top, he put the pouch in, closed it, twirled the combination knob. “Now,” he said, shutting the drawer, “what about a drink?”
Hudson, who still looked like a man who had witnessed, some mysterious rite beyond his comprehension, shook his head and swallowed. “Not for me,” he said. “I'll get along.”
“Dawson?” Lambert said. “I'd consider it a personal favor if you'd join me.”
At the moment Barry felt that his need for a drink more than outweighed the remnants of his dislike for Lambert. “Why not?” he said. “I could use a quick one.”