DeKante fidgeted. I guess he was just a fidgeter - this couldn't have been the first pawn shop he'd been in. Or even the hundredth. I smiled as I watched his gnarled hands tap on the plexiglass case. His hands were miner's hands, knobby and callused. They looked like knotted rope.
Okay, he was uncomfortable enough. I flipped off the monitor, capped my water bottle, and made my entrance around a dusty replica suit of armor.
His head snapped up as I sidled over behind the counter. I keep the case filled with interesting enough items to draw visitors' attention - jewelry, mostly, but I also had some real vintage air masks and other early Martian era knick-knacks that had visual appeal. It was all for sale, obviously, but at ridiculous prices. The stuff's purpose was to look good. The real merchandise was all in back.
Outside, red dust blew against the plexiglass door.
"I-, they-, I hear that you buy things," DeKante stammered awkwardly. I nodded. Appearances could be deceiving - although he looked like a bumbling frequently-drunk miner, the database said he was a bumbling frequently-drunk violently sociopathic miner, and prone to petty theft. Which was why he was here, of course.
No, I'd never met him. His name was from the database. I paid very handsomely for my connection to the colony's mainbrain, so that anyone who walked into the store and on camera was well known to me before I stepped out from behind Sir Knick-Knack. My mainbrain connection was my third largest expense.
The nod had been too subtle, so after a pause I said "Yeah, I buy things. Depending on the things."
He nodded, almost spastically, then coughed. "Wire Tom said you did. Said you buy things other folks won't." He looked at me menacingly with one eye, and it was so cliched a look that were it not for the words 'can be very dangerous' still in my head I would have laughed.
He didn't notice. "And you don't need to tell the C.A.," he went on.
True enough. Like pawnbrokers throughout history, I was also a fence. The Colonial Authority didn't hear about many of the things I bought and sold.
"I understand," I said. "The C.A. has no cameras in here, and my books are private." I paid for that, too. The C.A. audited all businesses in the colony every quarter or so, unless you paid them not to. That was my second largest expense.
His head bobbed like it was on a spring. "Good," he said, coughed again, and flipped over the flap on his case. He pulled out a large wad of tissue, which he placed on the counter. Despite my assurance, he looked over both shoulders around the room, and paused at the door.
"Lock the door," he said.
I shrugged. "Alice," I said, "lock the front door."
"Door locked," her lilting voice said back.
DeKante grinned, and made a sound I at first mistook for another cough but turned out to be a laugh. "Alice, heh?" he asked. "I read that book."
"What's in the plastic?" I asked, deciding to keep things business-like.
His smile folded back into his customary scowl, and he unwrapped the plastic from around one of the largest gemstones I've ever seen.
"Aaah," I said, genuinely appreciative, "an opal."
I produced my loupe (of course I had it with me - the guy was a miner, so obviously he was bringing in a gem of some sort) and took a closer look. To keep him calm, I started my monologue.
"Very, very nice," I said. "And possible very expensive." I slowly scanned the surface of the stone. "Obviously, this one is huge. More than a dozen ounces. Of course, it's rough, so it could be mostly worthless, but we can both see that's not the case." I looked up at him with my other eye. "May I turn it over?"
His head jerked again, so I carefully rolled the stone in the plastic wrappings. "You know," I went on, "opals are really just quartz. Silicon dioxide. But in the case of opals, while they were crystallizing, water got inside. It's still in there - if you were to bake an opal, you'd wind up with just plain quartz. It's the water that makes an opal special. Well, that and the crystal structure." I rolled the opal over some more. "Technically, opal doesn't have a crystal structure. Because of the water, the silicon dioxide is all random inside. But it does have a structure - tiny spheres. Usually they are random in size and relation to each other. But sometimes they form in groups of nearly the same size and with a sort of order to them. That's where the opal becomes colorful, reflecting different wavelengths of light."
I stood back up and slipped the loupe back into my pocket. DeKante was looking bored and twitchy at the same time. "The more of these regular pockets," I concluded, "the more colors and sparkle."
He looked at me. "So how much?"
I sighed to myself. "Well," I said, "we can both see that this stone glitters like the fourth of July in a bottle. On Earth, I could sell this for, oh, seven hundred thousand U.S. dollars." I had the satisfaction of seeing his surprise. "Seven hunnerd thousand?" he whispered.
"That's how much I could sell it for. You'd only get maybe a hundred thousand, seeing as how I have to get it off-world and find a buyer in the first place." I expected him to demand a larger cut, but he just shook his head slowly. "A hundred thousand," he said to himself.
"What about more?" he asked.
I blinked. "More?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said. "I can get you one of those at least once a week. Me an' the boys have found a vein the C.A. don't know about. If you give us a hunnerd thousand for each one, we could all buy off our contracts in a year, and go back to Earth rich men." I could see the fire in his eyes.
Inwardly, I sighed, but what I did was to rub my head and slowly say "Yeah, I think I can arrange that. Setting up a pipleline is more... difficult, but I got contacts on the supply ships." I ran a thumb along the counter top. "You want me to buy this one now?"
He thought about it, then nodded. "Yeah," he said, "if you do us right on this one, we can trust you with more of 'em."
Not as dumb as I had thought. "True enough. Here," I said, reaching into a pocket. "This is an unsigned credit stick for thirty-five thousand. When I sell the stone, I'll give you the other sixty-five thousand."
He took the c-stick. "And when we see that other sixty-five, I'll bring in another one." He cackled, and it turned back into a cough. He left the stone on my counter, and ambled to the door. As he opened it to go, he added "Even bigger." With another cackle, he swept out into the swirling dust.
I sighed, and re-wrapped the stone. Of course he hadn't listened. "Alice," I said, drop me a vidscreen and call Officer Nguyen of the C.A., please."
"Calling," Alice's voice came back as a vidscreen spooled down from the ceiling. He must have been at his desk, for Tommy Nguyen's face appeared on the screen almost before it stopped descending.
"Taylor," he said in the tone of voice used when your wife tells you her friends are coming over for dinner. "What is it this time? One of our boys hassle you again?"
"It's not about me this time, Tommy. I got a miner coming in to sell me some opals."
He looked at his nails. "So what? If they can smuggle gems out of the mine, you can buy 'em. And if you can smuggle them off-world, you can get rich. What, are you asking me to come down there and bust you?"
"Tommy, you ignorant dust monkey, I said he's selling me opals. A lot of them. Big ones."
He still didn't get it, but he could tell I was serious. "You're going to have to explain, Taylor."
"Tommy, opals are five to ten percent water."
His eyes widened. "I'll be down there to talk to you in eight minutes, Taylor."
"I thought you might be. I'll be here. Alice, end the call and put the v-screen away."
I looked at the stone on my counter. It was truly beautiful. Mars opals usually are - the near-vacuum conditions (or something, I'm a fence not a geologist) conspired to give them much more regularity in their structure, and hence more flash and color. I sighed. Maybe the C.A. would let me keep this one, as a reward for not keeping my mouth shut. It really was beautiful.
I sighed, re-wrapped it, and put it in a pocket. Back in my office, I finished the contents of my water bottle, and re-filled it from my ten-gallon tank.
The single most expensive thing in my store.
- Sun Ra
Columns by Sun Ra