by avant garde
Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Crime/Gangster · #909395
A rich man visits a jeweler. Something that ought not to have happened, happens. How?Why?
| The Ode in white|
Juan, the Jeweler
It was a sunny settlement nestled among lofty, white mountains, called Ciudad-del-Dios or the 'Town of God' . Beset by tall pine trees and rows upon rows of small and neatly placed dwellings, the whole town was one pristine colony and a traveler’s delight. The townsfolk were an extremely friendly and helpful lot, a simple people, merry and fun-loving too.
Farming and livestock were the main occupations of the people of Ciudad-del-Dios. But there were two other things that they prided themselves in – the recherché jewelry that the town produced and its vibrant casinos. ‘The glitter of Ciudad-del-Dios’ gems and casinos are here to stay, never to fade away’ was a popular chant that echoed constantly in the town.
Juan Morales was a jeweler who lived in this quaint town. A man of short frame, he had intriguing eyes, aquiline nose, square jaw and pale skin. His receding hairline and heavy-set features did nothing to further his already unappealing appearance. But Juan’s stark and petite frame only belied his razor-sharp brains and his adroitness as a jeweler. Beneath the unassuming frame, there lurked a clever man and a shrewd craftsman.
Juan, by nature, was a man of few words. But the passion he possessed for jewel-making was unparalleled. His father had been a small-time jeweler in Ciudad-del-Dios. As a young lad of fifteen, Juan had started out in his father’s shadows but in five years, by the time of his father’s death, he had made his mark as an expert in jewelry design. And now at thirty-two, he was already an established artisan in Ciudad-del-Dios, on the way to becoming the town’s most prominent jeweler.
Margarita, Juan’s pretty wife of ten years, was a pleasant and lively woman, unlike her husband. Her futile search for the prince of her dreams had ended abruptly when, as a coy, young thing of twenty she had married Juan. Juan was nothing like the man she had dreamt of. His quiet demeanor and commitment to work left little for her to enjoy in his company. And to add to her woes, they had no children. And like all neglected, childless wives, Margarita found her own vent. She sought the company of friends and neighbors and lived in her own world, full of fun and pleasure. Juan hardly cared anymore for her. He and his wife did not share any vibes and were happy in the cocoons they had built around themselves.
And the humdrum routine continued, till one fine morning.
It was a bright and cheery day when the stocky frame of Juan was bent over an elaborate piece of earring he was designing. So engrossed was he with the details, that he did not notice a tall, upright young man swaggering into his workshop. The visitor walked straight up to Juan’s desk and extended his hand forward. It took little time for Juan to recognize Carlos Pena. Carlos, ‘El Emperador’ as he was called in those parts, was the uncrowned King of Ciudad-del-Dios’ gambling empire.
Carlos Pena reigned over a vast conglomerate. Besides his primary money spinner, Casino Imperial, he owned several of Ciudad-del-Dios’ little industries. The textile mill at the end of the town was his, and so were the many watch factories and showrooms in the town. His other possessions included a palatial house, acres of farmland and an enviable wealth of cattle. No one knew the extent of the riches he had earned in his short life of thirty-seven years.
Carlos, a rich playboy, was also rumored to have innumerable girlfriends. It was hardly surprising, given the man’s allure, riches and sharp business acumen. But of late, like all things, Carlos Pena’s fortunes were said to be changing. Rumors were rife that the king’s gambling empire was slowly fading into limbo and his riches were dwindling.
A flurry of thoughts rushed across Juan’s mind at the sight of the unexpected visitor, but he brushed them aside. A visit from the big man himself was by no means insignificant. Juan’s sharp senses smelt a major income in the offing.
‘Good morning, Senor Morales,’ Carlos greeted the jeweler.
‘Good morning, Senor Pena! I am honored to have you in here, my humble abode,’ Juan replied. Inspite of his reticent nature, he could not afford to displease his powerful guest, even inadvertently.
‘You must be wondering what brings me here, Mr. Morales.’ Carlos Pena said to Juan, even as he reclined comfortably in the softness of the futon seat the latter offered him.
‘I’ve come here on business Senor, for a special purpose.' Carlos Pena cleared his throat.
'Mr. Morales, I want you to design for me an exquisite piece of jewelry, something that no one ever in Ciudad-del-Dios would even have dreamt of. A necklace of pearls, you should make, that’ll put to shame even the most ornate jewelry on earth.’
Juan’s otherwise stoic facial muscles, twitched. Carlos Pena continued.
‘I am not going into the details of whom it is meant for, since that should in no way concern you or influence your work. I think it’ll suffice to tell you at this point, Mr. Morales, that the gift is certainly meant for a special occasion and for a special person. The gift should make me unforgettable to the woman to whom I am going to gift it. In short, the necklace must be the best one ever made in Ciudad-del-Dios. Do you understand, Mr. Morales?’
Juan had more than understood. Obviously, the necklace was meant for another of Carlos Pena’ girlfriends, probably the latest and the most beautiful. It was the King’s way of impressing his maidens.
‘How expensive can your special gift get, Mr. Pena?’ Juan asked.
Carlos soughed. Impatiently he replied, ‘Being a jeweler, I thought you’d know that better than me, Mr. Morales. I already told you that it should be the best in Ciudad-del-Dios, which means it can get costlier than the most expensive necklace ever made here.’
Saying this, Carlos fished out a velvet purse from his attaché case. Juan could hear the sound of heavy metal pieces clinking from beneath the soft skin of the purse.
‘Here’s twenty grand, to start with. The rest will follow after the job is done.’
‘And there is another point I want you to take note of, Mr. Morales,’ Carlos continued after a brief pause. ‘I want you to maintain silence on this business. You will be amply rewarded at the end, but your work will not be acknowledged in public. The reason you’d know. I want no one here to know you designed it, for the fear of duplicates. I don’t want somebody else offering you more money and making another piece like this one some day. I want this to be a unique jewel, one that only Carlos Pena can get done. You will do a good work, but leave behind no signature. You get that, Mr. Morales?’
Juan nodded. Carlos Pena went on.
‘And please remember, I want you to work at your fastest best. I am in no position to wait for long, as I’ll need the piece soon. But your speed should in no way affect the quality of your work. Give it more than your hundred percent, Senor and you’ll be showered with rewards.’ He smiled.
‘You can rest assured, Mr. Pena. You’ll not regret your decision of assigning this task to me,’ Juan affirmed.
‘Goodbye, Mr. Morales! Hope to hear from you soon.’ Carlos Pena was off as quickly as he had come.
An Ode in white
No one knew more about pearls than Juan did. A marvel of nature, a pearl is formed when an oyster secretes a substance called ‘nacre’ around an irritant, like gravel or a pebble, which gets inside its soft tissues. The secretion gradually hardens to form a pearl. As the secretion increases, the size of the pearl gets bigger. The pearl itself gradually gets to be an irritant to the oyster, but a rare gem for man.
Juan fondly looked at the little, radiant spheres scattered on his desk. Small, round and lustrous, they numbered close to two hundred and gleamed in the dim light of the room he was working in. They were all sea-water pearls, called South-sea pearls, natural and resplendent. Juan had had them specially imported from a coastal village not far from Ciudad-del-Dios that specialized in oyster fishing. It had cost him quite a fortune, but he knew Carlos Pena well. The man would pay him back, perhaps with more than double its worth.
The client had left the details to the jeweler and had only wanted a classy output in return. Juan knew what he’d be designing. It would be a small-sized necklace with three strands of closely-strung pearls, entwined, fitting snugly around the wearer’s slender neck. The clasp would be delicately made from a richly-carved piece of gold. But ultimately, it was the pendant that would be the highlight. With a grey pearl, a rarity, embedded in a delicate, oval, gold plate etched with intricate carvings, it would be the chef-d'oeuvre.
Juan smiled contentedly. With the picture incised clearly in his mind, he set to work.
For days and nights, Juan labored, concentrating on nothing else. He had left his shop entirely in the care of his aides, but let none of them even get a sniff of what he was up to. Even Margarita wasn’t told anything about the task he was assigned. He spent nearly all of his time in the workshop, even eating and sleeping with only wispy shadows for company.
At the end of days of sweat and toil, his efforts paid off. The masterpiece was finally ready and true to his words, Juan, the dexterous craftsman had delivered. With quivering fingers, he picked up the result of his labor, which rested in his hand and longingly admired his own creation’s beauty and sheen -- but only for a moment. He quickly and carefully placed the necklace on the satin holder of a deep blue velvet casket and set off to meet Carlos Pena.
‘A truly elegant piece,’ Carlos exclaimed as he held Juan’s work aloft. ‘It is more tasteful than I ever imagined. A laudable effort indeed, Mr. Morales! You have proven your name’s worth.’
‘Yes, Mr. Pena,’ Juan replied composedly. ‘This Collar-de-pearls, I feel, is a gift to womanhood. A consummate work of artistry, this dainty pearl-necklace has been designed by me with absolute care through days and nights of dedicated effort. This piece, made of specially imported pearls, is valued very high, and is most certainly my best work so far. And I am proud to be reserving this for you, Sir.’
‘Thank you, Juan,’ Carlos added, his eyes gleaming with excitement. ‘It certainly is an ode to womanhood. An ode, in white, I’d say.’
Margarita had been non-existent in Juan’s life for a long time, more so in the recent past, especially ever since he had alienated himself in the proess of making Carlos Pena’s necklace. She had simply disappeared from his world. There were days when the couple would not even get to see each other. Some nights Juan would return to an empty house, help himself to the food his wife had prepared and go to sleep, only to wake up to another unremarkable day. Gradually, they even began occupying different rooms for themselves.
Sometimes Juan would occasionally spot Margarita near the kitchen or hear her calling out to one of the neighbors. That was all the husband would gather of his wife's presence.
It went on till one day, Juan’s curiosity about his wife’s regular absences got the better of him. He entered her empty room one evening.
Margarita was out, as always. Juan looked around. The room seemed spic and span as ever, but one blatant difference greeted him. On her big, mahogany writing table, there lay an odd parcel. It was a gift of some kind. Juan curiously approached it. He opened the parcel to find in it a familiar velvet casket. On the top of it, was placed a card that read ‘To Margarita Morales - with warmest wishes, Carlos Pena’
Juan was horror-struck. He quickly opened the casket. And to his shock, staring at him from its velvety confines, was his own masterpiece, the piece of art he had made out of special pearls for Carlos. The wearer of Collar-de-perlas, the Ode in White, he had designed for Carlos’ girlfriend turned out to be Margarita, his own wife.
Juan seethed with rage. It was a mistake, he admitted to himself, to have preferred work to his wife. Maybe he had neglected her for too long, but what his wife did to him in return was unthinkable. She had been cheating on him, flirting right under his nose. She’d had the temerity to accept a necklace, designed by her own husband, as a gift from her boyfriend and bring it back home for him to see. Juan decided that his wife’s escapades had to stop.
A while later, Juan sat rocking in his chair, his brows furrowed in concentration. Carlos Pena was no saint, he knew. He was a rich Casanova and got all the women he wanted. But it was Margarita who had actually betrayed him. His adulterous wife had now been caught red-handed. There was no room for any explanation or trial. Justice had to be delivered and swiftly. His damaged pride had to be salvaged. Juan thought hard and after a few moments knew exactly what to do.
When Margarita returned home late that evening, it was dark and she found Juan asleep. She silently crept to the kitchen, taking care not to attract her husband’s attention, and extracted a small beer mug from the shelf. Taking a large beer bottle from one of the kitchen shelves, she poured herself a generous helping. It was a habit she had cultivated since the early days of her marriage and found it difficult to get rid of. Wherever she was, a mug of beer was all she wanted before a good night’s sleep. She grabbed the mug, brimming with its contents, and quickly made her way to her room.
The necklace, her newest and most precious gift was still there, safe on her table. She knew not how she had been foolish enough to leave it absentmindedly on the table, but hoped her husband had not seen it. She would have no explanation to offer if he demanded one. He could not have come into her room anyway, she thought. He hardly did that nowadays.
While her dainty lips were busying themselves sipping the beer, Margarita gave the necklace a long, wistful look. The fine strands of pearls were shining blissfully. They were all hers and would adorn her lissome neck at will. Gingerly picking the necklace up with her fine fingers, she admired the art -- but not for long. The necklace had to be hidden safely and quickly.
After finishing the beer, she packed the necklace again and carefully stashed it inside her cupboard, away from sight. It was late enough already and she felt heavy with sleep. Turning off the lights, she quickly slipped under her bedcovers.
That midnight, Juan stealthily tiptoed to Margarita’s room. He crept up to her bed in the dark and cautiously checked her breath. His heart skipped a beat when he discovered that there was no warm gush of air from her nostrils, as would be the case with a person alive.
His plan had worked. The poison he had mixed in her beer had done its job well and had managed to get rid of his wife, silently. He lit the lamp and looked at Margarita’s limp and lifeless body. He felt no pity.
She deserved this end, Juan thought bitterly.
He had not expected the first part of his plan to be this easily accomplished. As per the next step, all he had to do was take the body by boat to the far corner of the lake behind his house that bordered a thick forest, tie a millstone around it and sink it out of reach. Margarita would disappear forever, without a trace left behind. He could report his wife’s disappearance, pretend to be searching for her and continue his life as it was.
But he had thought of a better plan. He could tell the neighbors that he and his wife had planned to visit distant relatives and that Margarita had left with a cousin early in the morning, before he could make arrangements for his shop to be looked after. He could then leave Ciudad-del-Dios the very same day before people grew suspicious, taking only essential items -- jewelry and money included -- with him. He could settle in a far-off place beyond the distant mountains and start his trade afresh. Carlos Pena would miss his girlfriend and maybe the townsfolk also would grow suspicious with time. But it would be too late. The only proof of his crime, Margarita’s body, would be out of reach for ever by then.
Juan quickly shook himself out of his reverie. There was no time to waste. He had to hurry up, dispose of the body and make all the arrangements for fleeing before morning. He put Margarita’s body in a trunk and set off for the lake.
A piece of paper lay mutely in the parcel along with the velvet casket that held the necklace. It was a letter that Juan had not noticed when he had accidentally discovered Margarita’s secret gift. The letter was written by Carlos Pena and was addressed to Margarita.
The contents ran as follows.
“Dear Ms. Morales
I, Carlos Pena, owner and director of Casino Imperial, take great pleasure in congratulating you, the grand winner of our most special event this evening. Thank you for patronizing us and participating in the first ever version of our latest and classiest game – The Challenger. And many congratulations, of course, on winning the challenge.
Winning this super-annual event gives you the special privilege of being the proud owner of this year’s piece de resistance – Collar de pearls, which I am compelled to call An Ode in White , an ode to the town’s very special womanhood. A consummate work of artistry, this dainty pearl-necklace has been designed by one of our foremost craftsmen and boasts of days and nights of his effort. Valued very high, this piece is most certainly his best work so far, and is reserved for you – our esteemed winner.
I hope it will please you immensely to wear this exquisite work of art around your neck and flaunt it. We look forward to your presence every year at the Casino.
Thank you very much,
The letter rested inside the cover, untouched by Juan. But it was too late already. Too late for Juan to realize that the 'Ode in White' was not just a jeweler's masterpiece, but also a master-ploy by businessman Carlos Pena to get the waning crowds back to his gambling den... crowds that also included women, who were not supposed to gamble.