The woman didn't seem to mind it when her jewelry took wing.
|The beetle's wings flashed and flickered like emerald lightning over the jungle canopy. "Oh my goodness," squeaked Stephanie Cowdray, and she reached out to brush it off her guest's bosom.
But Erin Holding quickly cupped a protective hand over it.
"Oh no no no no no!" she cried. "It's supposed to be there." She flashed a wide, white smile. "Do you like it?"
"Like it?" echoed Stephanie. Her expression remained rigid with disgust, but her eyes widened. "Do you like it there?"
Erin's grin widened. "I wouldn't have put it there if I didn't."
"Better let me explain," interrupted the man by her elbow. His face was the color of a beefsteak tomato—he'd fallen asleep that afternoon by the hotel pool, under the unforgiving Costa Rican sun—and the collar of his dinner jacket seemed to throttle him. The martini he clutched tightly in his left hand only added to the impression of a man already stewed in alcohol, but he spoke clearly enough. "My wife has peculiar ideas about jewelry," Richard Holding said.
He spoke a little too loudly over the hum of the crowded music room, and a cocoa-colored man in an olive-green uniform turned to listen.
Stephanie's forehead creased. "Oh. You mean it's a broach?"
"No, it's a live beetle," said Erin. "But isn't it beautiful? Like a living jewel." Her chest—which her white, strapless evening dress held in a tight embrace—rose and fell gently as she sighed.
Stephanie's expression softened only a little as she stared at the beetle. It gleamed with a metallic, iridescent sheen.
Colonel Quiros—his attention now fully engaged—nodded slowly. "Very striking," he agreed as he came over to join the Holdings. "You pinned it there?"
"Of course not," Erin exclaimed. "What an awful suggestion! I just hooked it on. It has such cunning little claws." She peered down at the beetle, and the strain distorted and distended the clean lines of her swan-like neck.
"But you must have deadened it somehow," said the colonel. He kept a firm grip on his gin as he pointed at Stephanie's bosom with his little finger.
"Dry ice," said Richard. "Leave it for a couple of hours in a box lined with dry ice. It puts them into a kind of suspended animation. When they're half frozen you can have your way with them."
"Isn't he clever?" giggled Erin. She clutched her husband's arm.
Stephanie drew back a step. "What happens when it thaws out?"
"Then it flies away," said Erin. She shrugged. "That's what makes it beautiful. The evanescence of beauty," she added when the others only stared. "Otherwise, why not just wear jewelry?"
"Yes, why not just wear jewelry?" the colonel asked.
"Because it's permanent," Erin said. "Jewelry, I mean. That's what makes it valuable, you know. It is permanent."
"Which reminds me, colonel," Richard started to interrupt. But the colonel quieted him with an upraised finger as he listened with close absorption to Erin.
"And then you have to ask yourself," she continued. "Do I wear this jewel because it is valuable, or because it is beautiful?'" She again cupped her hand over the beetle. "But with this, I know why I wear it. For its beauty. Because I can't keep it forever. Not even for more than an evening. It will fly away even before this party ends."
A wetness shone in her eyes, but her smile had the gleam of contentment.
Stephanie Cowdray, meanwhile, had raised a protective hand to the silver necklace that wound about her own throat. "That's very, um, philosophical," she said. A lot of the friendliness had drained from her face and voice.
"A very interesting philosophy," agreed the colonel. "I wouldn't share it about if I were you, though. Too many husbands would appreciate it, and too few wives." He cocked his head and stared with a startling lack of shame at the beetle and at the chest where it slumbered. "Is that one of our Costa Rican natives?" he asked.
"A chrysina," said Richard. "Jewel scarab. Not sure which species."
"Some of them are quite valuable, aren't they?" asked the colonel. His gaze sharpened. "We broke up a smuggling ring trafficking in them a few years ago."
"Not these," Richard hastened to assure the colonel. "But that's what I wanted to ask you about. I'm taking two dozen specimens back to the United States. I've got the paperwork all in order, I think, but we're leaving at the end of the week, and I'm worried about last-minute hang-ups."
"Oh, Richard," Erin sighed. "You didn't bring those licenses to a party, did you?"
"Of course I didn't." He seemed to glow as his flush deepened. He turned back to the colonel. "My local contact, Dr. Barquero, has examined them, but—"
"Then it should be alright," said the colonel. "How are you transporting them?"
"In a Styrofoam crate packed with dry ice." He indicated the beetle on his wife's dress. "That's one of them, actually. They're none of them valuable, Dr. Barquero passed on them all, and I've got them in the refrigerator back at the hotel, but—"
Stephanie shrieked softly as the beetle's carapace cracked open, and it flexed its wings.
"But how long is it going to take getting through this blockade your police have set up at the airports?"
"As little time as it takes," the colonel said. "Don't ask us to not be thorough. There are fifty million dollars in Mayan stones we are trying to intercept."
"Of course. I just want to know if we can delay setting out for the airport. I want to keep my specimens chilled all the way back to Miami, and if it takes us six hours to get through customs—"
"I can make no guarantees, Mr.— Er—"
"Holding. Dr. Holding."
"I can make no guarantees, Dr. Holding. I can only ask you to be patient." He and the others ducked as the beetle, with a low droning, flew off. The colonel wagged his finger at it. "We don't want our Mayan treasures," he said, "to prove an evanescent beauty."
* * *
Five days later, the colonel rapped three times, lightly, on the door to Room 433 in the Bosque Azul. A minute later, the door opened. Dr. Richard Holding blinked at him, and paled a little. "Dr. Holding," said the colonel. "I presume you weren't expecting me."
"Er, no." The entomologist remained rigidly blocking the entrance for a long moment before jerking the door open. "Come in."
"Thank you. I don't want you to think I'm here in a professional capacity," the colonel said as he followed Richard into the spacious suite. His eye roved over the room, taking in the two suitcases by the door, the three that were still open on the bed, and the golf clubs and fishing tackle piled up against a wall. Erin Holding was frozen over one of the open suitcases, and her bosoms—this morning unadorned by beetles—were almost spilling over the top of her sundress.
"But I was thinking of our conversation the other evening," he continued. "You were so worried about the transportation of your insects, and I thought I could be of assistance."
"Oh." Richard looked back at his wife. "That's really kind of you, but—"
"But it's nothing. It would help me to forgive myself."
In the silence that followed, the pounding surf of the Pacific could be heard from below.
"Forgive yourself for what?" Richard asked.
The colonel smiled tightly. "I have to confess I was much struck by your philosophy about the beetles, Mrs. Holding," he said, addressing himself to Richard's wife. "It was a striking jewel, and a striking philosophy, and a stroke of great fortune that your husband should be an entomologist and so should be able to help you realize it. May I presume," he continued, turning to Richard, "that these specimens you are taking to the United States, which are neither exotic nor valuable, are for your wife's use?"
"Well, yes, as a matter of fact," said Richard. He said it with a wary tone.
"I thought so. You weren't even certain of the species of the beetle your wife adorned herself with the other night, which I took to mean that you didn't have a scientific interest in them. So I deduced it must have been an aesthetic interest, as there was no other obvious reason—" He smiled at Erin, and his teeth shone very whitely in his face. "None except the one your wife gave."
"What does this have to do with salving your conscience?" Richard asked.
"Do continue packing," said the colonel. He settled onto the corner of a nearby table with a soft grunt. "It is only that I was struck by the coincidence, as I was saying, of philosophy, availability, and expertise that lets your wife entertain herself in this way. So I took the liberty of investigating you." Embarrassment shone in the colonel's grimace.
Richard's face lengthened. "Investigate? How—"
"I only mean that I contacted Dr. Barquero," said the colonel. "Of course, he was able to vouch for you and your credentials, and for your specimens, which he assured me are just a lot of common beetles. I'm afraid I was thinking of that smuggling ring in exotic species that we broke up a few years ago. I did you an injustice."
"Well," said Richard. "If you only suspected us—"
The colonel wagged a finger at him. "Ah. You were going to say that it was no injustice if I only suspected you. But now you're thinking what an insult it was to be suspected! I can tell by your expression, Dr. Holding."
"Well," Richard said. "Yes, I guess that's exactly what I was thinking."
"And that is why I came. Not only to apologize, but to help expedite your departure. You were worried about getting through our security cordon." He nodded as light dawned in Richard's eyes. "Finish your packing. Your beetles are where?"
"The hotel kitchen. We arranged—"
"Then we'll fetch them as soon as you have your things packed into my limousine. And after that—"
The colonel broke off with a frown. He looked past the Holdings at the far wall, and into its corner up near the ceiling. "I beg your pardon," he said.
As Richard and Erin watched, he moved a chair to the back wall and stepped carefully onto it. He raised his hand slowly, then quickly grabbed at a dark stain about the size of a large coin. It came away in his closed fist.
"One of your beetles seems to have got loose," he said as he got off the chair. "Would you care to identify it?" He held his hand out to the entomologist.
"Er, no," said Richard, who hung back. "That's definitely not one of mine. That's an ugly little brute. Besides, mine have been in the refrigerator for the past week."
"Oh. Then just it's just a visitor." The colonel crushed the thing he held, and Richard winced as he slipped the remnants into a pocket. "I'll send for a couple of bellboys."
If the conversation afterward in the limousine was rather strained, the colonel didn't seem to notice. He was quite chatty, and asked the Holdings many questions about their holiday, and how they'd amused themselves, and whether they would be returning to Costa Rica anytime soon. Richard answered for the both of them; his wife only asked if she might be allowed to wear one of "her" beetles while waiting for the plane to board. "It would be my pleasure to see you with one of them," the colonel replied.
As they approached the airport, he directed his driver to take them to a special hanger. "You can check and load your luggage from here directly," he told the Holdings as they all dismounted. "Of course, after we have searched your belongings."
"Is that still necessary?" Erin asked.
"That's the whole point of bringing you out here," said the colonel. "To give your luggage an expedited search."
So out came the suitcases and the rest of the sporting gear, and out too came a large box, a foot in depth and breadth and a yard in length, wrapped up in brown paper and heavy twine. Three security officers in green uniforms carried it all into a back room. The colonel assured his guests that it would be handled so quickly they would hardly notice the delay, then left them alone.
Richard paced thoughtfully while Erin wrung her hands.
Five minutes later, the colonel reappeared, burdened with the brown package. It had been opened, revealing a thick-walled Styrofoam box. With a cheery smile he set it on a table before them. "These are your specimens, Dr. Holding?" he asked. The lid was off, and Richard looked down into the container. A dozen iridescent beetles rested on a tray that sat high in container; a few tendrils of smoke-like vapor curled out heavily.
Richard looked them over, and nodded.
The colonel grinned, and reached into the box. He picked up one large beetle, and as Erin shrank back a little he set it gently on the lapel of her jacket. "If you'll permit me," he said. "It is such a delightful ornament.
"Now, just go on to the boarding ramp," he told them as he closed up the box again. "I'll send someone out with your carry-ons. We're almost through with your suitcases."
Richard and Erin blinked at his retreating back. For an awkward moment, neither one moved. Then, on tottering feet they exited the hanger.
They were halfway across the tarmac when Erin screamed and batted at the air in front of her. A hard, metallic-green dot buzzed there briefly, then flew away.
"Alright, take them their things," the colonel told one of his officers as he watched the couple. The man began pulling a loading cart piled with the Holding's luggage toward the hangar door. The colonel sat back on his stool next to a long, brown table.
Scattered across the table's surface were a dozen green beetles, all quite dead. One had already been sliced open, and a large jade stone had tumbled out of the hollowed-out abdomen. Dr. Barquero of the Universidad Nacional grimaced as he sliced open another beetle, and another jade stone fell out. "Why are you letting them go?" he asked.
"We couldn't hold them. All we can do is let the U.S. consulate know what we found. And I got my own back with the substitute beetles."
He smiled sourly.
"The woman probably only had the stomach to wear the one beetle last Saturday night, to demonstrate that they were living beetles and so not worth examining. To have a second one upon her, and to see it fly away when she was expecting only a dead thing with a stone in its stomach—"
"But we caught them red-handed," said the professor. "Why can't we hold them?"
"Because then I'd have to explain why I was so certain of what we'd find when we searched this box," said the colonel. He put his hand in his pocket, and drew out a small, brown object. It had been tightly crushed, and its internal wiring stuck out in several directions. "And I'd have to explain how this beetle got into their room, where it could overhear everything they said."