Chapter 2

Years ago he had discovered that the cheapest way to appear wealthy without being wealthy was to drive a vintage Porsche 928.

Avery Deane was thinking about a rumor he was chasing—that the San Francisco Museum wished to acquire a Ching Dynasty Dragon rug. Absorbed by the thought, he ran a red light and was pulled over by a Berkeley policeman.

Through his open window, Avery boomed, “By God, sir, what is that you’re driving? A Crown Victoria? Under all those bells and whistles? Flashing lights? Excellent choice, sir!”

The policeman, a tall, clean-shaven fellow, glanced at his patrol car as if he had never before thought about what it was. “It’s just a Ford, but they’ve got ‘em souped up. Uh, sir, did you know that you just drove through a red light, traveling 23 miles an hour?”

Deane seemed amazed. “I don’t know how you do it! Radar, is that it? High tech, by God. High tech police work.”

“How we do what, sir?”

“23 miles an hour, man! You had me timed exactly!”

“We try, sir.”

“Well, I’ve been trying to get the hang of driving in the States, and, just between you and me, I don’t know how you do it.”

“How we do what, sir”

“Drive on the wrong side of the road!” Deane erupted in laughter. The young cop grinned.

“Hey, I wondered about that accent, sir. I guess where you’re from they drive on the other side of the road.”

Still smiling, Avery Deane shook his head as if in wonderment and said, “Can you imagine how hard it is to get used to driving on the other side of the road? I say! Well, have they tightened up the suspension on those Crown Victorias of yours? You must have to do some very critical driving in them.”

“Critical?”

“No margin for error when you’re chasing a perp, right? Bloody cars have to respond!”

“I’d say so. Sir, may I see your driver’s license?”

“Hah! You got me! Up against the wall, feet spread and all that, huh? I don’t have one!”

“You don’t have a driver’s license?”

“In this country. In my country I have a bloody commercial license. I am allowed by law to drive any vehicle with up to sixteen wheels.”

“Are you just touring, sir? What is your country?”

“By God, man, you get right at it! What is my country! I love it right here! Most spectacular land I’ve ever seen. Golden Gate Bridge, University of California, Albany.”

“Albany? You like Albany?”

“Named after my mother’s father and his father and his father before him, Lord Albany.”

The young policeman straightened up. He had been bending over and talking into the foreigner’s window the whole time. Then he leaned back into his job. “Well then I guess you are a tourist and won’t be needing to get a California drivers license. Sir, I want you to be very careful about not going through stoplights. You must come to a complete stop. And watch that you keep on the right side of the road.” He grinned.

Avery smiled, too. “Mia culpa,” he said and touched his forehead with the first two fingers of his right hand. “Mia culpa.”

“Mia culpa, sir,” the young man answered, touching his own forehead, “and have a good time while you’re visiting Berkeley. And Albany.”

Avery shook his head approvingly, restarted his Porsche and feathered his way down the block.

Years ago he had discovered that the cheapest way to appear wealthy without being wealthy was to drive a vintage Porsche 928. The whole world recognized these as fine, expensive automobiles, yet they represented a terrific buying-opportunity. They had the world’s worst resale value. On reaching San Francisco he had purchased a 1968 Porsche for $3500…or, rather, he had traded a rug said to be worth that much for a Porsche. (It was he, of course, who had said the rug was worth $3500.) Only an experienced owner—and Avery was one, having owned a series of them—would have recognized that the automobile was looking death in the eye. Some time ago it had arrived at that stage when the repairs it needed totaled more than the car had sold for, new. It looked like a million dollars, though.

A block down the street now, with the tall policeman barely visible in his rear view mirror, Avery gunned the engine. It hrummed the way 8-cylender Porsches do, as it hurled him down the street toward a stop light. His brakes slowed the car enough so that, when he shot through the red light, laughing like a mad man, he was doing no more than fifty miles per hour.

At lunch, Avery considered his options. Should he eat with the “Website Strategy Group” or the “Western Nurseryman’s Association?” Each group offered its members a buffet lunch after its morning meeting, but on the nurseryman’s buffet table he saw large stainless steel containers perched over low flames, a sign of hot food. Good. He mingled with the nurserymen as they left their last meeting of the morning and was third in line to wend his way around the table. First, a hot roll and butter, then fried chicken and the other usual buffet fare. Once set up at his table, he came back for a cup of coffee.

Of course in a situation like this, it was clothes, not the automobile, that made the man, so, as he sat down to lunch and coffee, he left his silk scarf around his neck. A scarf gave him an air of dash and style, he believed, and seemed to suggest money. Further, a large scarf was useful for covering clothing that may have become crumpled from infrequent laundering. A scarf and a hat. Most often he wore a beret made from English tweed. No matter where he found himself, people seemed to assume that he was from somewhere in the British Empire and that he was the sporting type or at least the motoring type and that he was moneyed. And every group that he mingled with at lunchtime, such as the nurserymen here in northern California, was delighted to find that at least one of their members had class.

“Civilized,” Avery thought as he buttered his roll and peered around the hotel’s high-ceilinged Jade Room. Touring Berkeley in his Porsche, he had caught glimpses of a soaring white structure in the foothills above town, and he had been drawn to it by his taste for fine things. Finally he had crested a hill and there, as if at the end of a rainbow, lay a splended white castle surrounded by gardens and tennis courts. The fabulous Claremont Hotel.

Avery returned to the buffet for desert and chose a fruit something-or-other topped by a crumbly crust, brown sugar and a dollop of sour cream. He thought about the little rug store he had happened on that morning. “Poor lad,” he said to himself. “Doesn’t know what he has.” He looked around at the nurserymen at nearby tables. Some looked shockingly like the homeless he had seen on the streets of San Francisco. Their skin was tanned like tree bark from weeding, seeding, feeding and watering their plants in the sun and wind. He shuddered. “Why would they do that to themselves,” he wondered. Many of the things people did puzzled him.He wondered whether he should have chosen Website Strategy to dine with, instead.

“He’ll be useful, though,” Avery said to himself, thinking again about Holden Carter and his inventory of antique rugs. “Maybe I can sell him the silk Kirman.” The “silk Kirman” had already been around the block. Avery had traded it to a fellow named Bob in San Francisco to acquire his current Porsche 928. A few days later Bob had squawked.

“I looked it up. There’s no such thing as a silk Kirman. You sold me a bill of goods.” A heated discussion followed in which Bob threatened to punch Deane. Finally Deane said, “All right, would you rather have cash than the rug?”

“Yes!”

“Good. I’ll sell it for you. No problem.”

“You’ll sell what for me?”

“The silk Kirman. Give it to me and I’ll get cash for it. But it’ll take me two weeks.”

“Give back the rug?”

“Can’t sell it for you unless I have it, now, can I?”

“Hmm. Two weeks?”

“Cash.”

“Hmm.”

So Bob had given the rug back to Avery to sell for him and now Avery had both the Porsche and the rug. Avery smiled, then he thought he would like to have a glass of wine, and he returned to the buffet table.

“You are with the Nurserymen, aren’t you sir?” the wine steward asked in a worried tone. Deane gave him a puzzled look. “It’s just your name-badge, sir. You don’t have one.” Deane looked downward to where name-badges are most often pinned. Exploring further, he pulled aside his silk scarf and seemed surprised not to find his name pinned to his shirt.

The wine steward eyed Avery’s shirt that had once been white.

Avery looked up at the man hired to pour wine. “You have a good eye, man! Noticed instantly that I didn’t have a badge. I’ve been here all day and had no idea. Never pinned the bloody thing on. Would you mind?”

“Would I mind what?”

“If I can find the bloody thing, would you mind pinning it on my shirt? I have two left hands. I’ve never got the hang of pinning on these blasted things.” Avery began searching for his badge, first in his trouser pockets, examining the contents of each, then patting himself here and there as if the damned badge might be anywhere, in some breast pocket, in his arm pits, behind his neck. The wine pourer peered with distaste at Avery’s disreputable shirt.

“Pin it on? You want me to pin it onto your shirt?” The wine pourer was a Croatian immigrant who had been drawn to the Claremont Hotel’s white towers by the promise of cleanliness and civility. His eyes were riveted on Avery’s shirt, which appeared to have been slept in. Often.

“If you don’t mind.” Avery patted at himself. “If I can find it.”

“Oh don’t bother, sir. I’m sure you’re fine. Red or white, sir? Would you like to try the chardonnay?”

“Fine, yes, fine.” He kept searching, then finally stopped patting himself to accept the glass of chardonnay. “Bloody embarrassing, though.”

“No, no. It’s fine. Enjoy.”

“Well.” Walking back to his table on the disappointing carpeting—you would think a hotel of this caliber would have real Oriental carpets instead of machine-made fakes—Avery gave one of his back pockets a last slap.

Sitting again at his table, twirling his wine, he thought about what had brought him here to the San Francisco Bay Area. Word had gone out in European rug circles that the San Francisco Museum was interested in acquiring a Chinese dragon rug. Not just any dragon rug, but a particular one, a rug described in the 17th century by a French traveler named Ferrier, who had discovered it in China. Disguised as a Chinese monk, Ferrier had stolen his way into an inner sanctum, a palace within a palace, where he found and later described a knotted rug that was used, he thought, much as altar cloths are used in Western religious ceremonies. It was small—he guessed at 1.5 meters by 3 meters—and he described it as “haunting.” A flamboyant, five-toed blue dragon lay on a saffron field. The Frenchman had been mesmerized by the dragon’s staring eyes.

Most scholars believed that, if the rug had ever existed at all—that is, if Ferrier had not been lying or exaggerating or romanticizing about it—there was a good chance that it would have been preserved. So-called “inner palace” artifacts from China’s Ching Dynasty were famously well preserved. They had been regarded as holy and hence were fanatically well cared for by the monks to whom they had been entrusted. Other inner palace woolen carpets had come down through the centuries intact, if sometimes discolored and battered. So there was reason to hope that the Ferrier rug might turn up someday.

That was the rug the San Francisco Museum was seeking to acquire. Of course, all museums sought to acquire the Ferrier Dragon Rug, as it had come to be called. What was remarkable now was that the San Francisco Museum was offering a million dollars for it. Or, at least, that was the rumor.

“A noble figure,” Avery thought. “It would be amusing to secure the Ferrier dragon rug for the San Francisco Museum, wouldn’t it—even if I have to weave it myself? Of course, I don’t know what the rug looks like. But, then, neither does the museum. Which is really quite convenient, when you consider.”

Avery had enjoyed his chardonnay. It soothed him, but, alas, it was now gone. He eyed the buffet table where the wine pourer was still pouring.

Tomorrow morning at 11 o’clock he would meet with the curator of Oriental Rugs and Carpets at the San Francisco Museum, Sarah Atwood. But right now he thought it would be nice to have another glass of chardonnay. He liked the hotel and thought it might be a good place to stay for a while. He would have to work out something about the money. But first, wine. He stood and headed toward the wine, patting his pockets.

handspun wool for oriental rugs

When a Dragon Winks

  • A novel by Emmett Eiland

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