Chapter 5

The fabled and mythical sum of a million dollars! There’s something so satisfying about it.

Three years after Sarah Atwood’s party in Washington, Avery Deane phoned her at the San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts in San Francisco, where she was now curator of the Carpet and Rug Collection. “Avery Deane?” she asked. “Your name seems familiar.” That was a polite way of saying that she couldn’t place him.

“You may have read a thing or two that I’ve written, or you may have read about me. This and that. Here and there. Rugs, of course. That’s what I would like to talk with you about.” She liked his voice.

“Rugs?”

“The Ferrier Dragon Rug.”

“Why don’t you stop by the Museum?” she suggested. And he did.


She offered him a private tour of the collection that morning before the Museum opened to the public. She thought he looked like someone who had once been wealthy. After a few turns through the rug galleries with Sarah, he purred, “You’re royalty, my dear; a queen admiring her treasure.” She may have reminded him of Princess Diana as she guided him through tapestried corridors. Many people had been struck by her lucky resemblance to that lovely woman. And others had told her that she had an air, almost, of owning the rugs in her care. She smiled at Avery, who was barely her height, and asked if he would like to go backstage, so to speak, into the basement storage area of the rug department. Hundreds and hundreds of rugs and carpets—the difference between them, by the way, being only that the small ones are rugs and the larger ones are carpets—were carefully rolled, labeled and protected from vermin of all kinds. There were far more rugs in storage down here than on display upstairs in the galleries. Over the decades, many folks who were enthusiastic about their Oriental rugs had made gifts of their favorites to the Museum, hoping to share them with the public. Fortunately, most such gifts were made posthumously and their former owners never had to know that their beloved rugs—including those that had real merit—would languish forever in the museum’s dim storage areas, never to be displayed. Still, Sarah seemed to take an owner’s pride even in these rugs few people beyond the hired help were likely ever to see unrolled.

Back in the galleries again and heading with Sarah toward her office, Deane enthused over one antique rug after another, literally singing their praises. As for instance: “Oh Lotto on the wall, you’re the fairest of them all. A bloody, bloody beaut!” Each old rug seemed to stir him more than the last until finally he seemed to Sarah to have become quite overwrought. As they walked side-by-side, he moved a few quick steps ahead and then turned to stop her. He glowered. “Jealous louts! They’ll send hooligans here from all the great museums to slash your rugs! Guard them!” he roared, “Watch your back!” She whipped her head around but saw nothing threatening. Then his voice dropped conspiratorially. “Post armed men around that Polonaise. Build a moat, woman.” Then his voice rose again in volume and pitch. “Lock ‘em up!” Sarah was alarmed. Was he mad? Was he going to attack her here in the empty museum? Or was he merely far too enthusiastic about Oriental rugs? She had seen others who had gone off the deep end in their love for them. She waited to see what he might do. He took a deep breath, shook his head and held up one arm as if to say, “Wait, wait, I’ve gone too far. Please forgive me. I’ll settle down.” They resumed their stroll toward her office and he was much more docile.

Even during his rant, though, she had loved his voice.

A few minutes later, sitting across from Sarah at her desk, he said, “There’s just one thing more you need to put the San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts at the top of the list: The Pope collection.”

“Ah,” she agreed, “the Pope collection.” She smiled. “Ulysses is a friend of mine, so I’m assuming he will leave us everything. After all, what are friends for?” She laughed.

“Everyone else assumes the same thing, you know. Every museum. Pope encourages all of them to believe he will bequeath them his rugs.”

“Of course I know that. We all do. But what am I supposed to do? Stop trying? Ulysses has the best collection of Oriental rugs in the world.”

“Strange,” he said, “but I believe you might land it.”

“I’ve made it my mission.” Quite true. It was one thing, she thought, to have become the curator of a good collection of rugs, and it would be quite another matter to be in control of the best collection of Oriental rugs in the country—with an appraised value (if she were to land the Pope rugs) of about $24,000,000. A collection that big and that valuable suggested possibilities.

Sarah’s office was exquisitely furnished. Her simple, tasteful old Spanish desk, its original finish full of shallow dents and scratches from two centuries of use, sat on an antique Berber carpet still in decent condition. A mounted pre-Columbian textile hung on a wall near where she sat, radiating glorious color but unraveling around its edges. It seemed to her as if the man across the desk from her was perfectly in place here. His silk scarf was no more or less worn than her Berber rug; his beret was no more or less battered than her desk. What he and her furniture and textiles had in common, she thought, was the mystique and character that time and use bestow on people and furniture and old tools and ox carts and cupboards alike. Of course Deane was hardly antique. Was he fifty? But somehow one had the impression that he was from an ancient line of…what? Of landed gentry? Of Dukes? Earls? From a long line of moneyed people, anyway.

“Mr. Deane, I’m taking too much of your time. How can I help you? On the phone, you mentioned the Ferrier Dragon Rug.”

“It’s being said that the Museum would like to acquire it. May I ask whether I have heard correctly?”

“It is not the Museum but a private collector who wishes to acquire the rug. I’m trying to help because I would like to see the rug eventually make its way to the Museum’s collection, through a donation, of course, since the Museum could never afford to pay for it.”

“Yes, that is the other part of what I heard, that a figure of a million dollars is being offered for it. I pray that it’s so: the fabled and mythical sum of ‘a million dollars!’ There’s something so satisfying about it.” The small man across from her was aglow. His voice rang. “Don’t you imagine,” he went on, “that, in the movie, the Maltese Falcon must have been worth a million dollars? I don’t remember, but I’m sure that was it. That’s the figure around which novels and murders are plotted. Things start to happen when a million dollars are involved. A million dollars for a rug the size of your tabletop. But is it true? Are the rumors right about the amount of money involved?”

“Where did you hear about that?”

“Everywhere. New York, London, Hamburg.”

“And where are you from, if I may ask?”

“Why, I just told you. Everywhere! New York, London, Hamburg! San Francisco, right now.”

“And why do you ask about the Ferrier Dragon Rug?”

Deane leaned forward—quite far forward over the desk, really, so that Saraha sensed his breath, which was not unpleasant—and he spoke as if he were sharing a secret in his rich, accented voice. “Wouldn’t like to arouse your hopes at this stage, my dear, but I may—and I say only may—know approximately where the rug is.”

Sarah’s face remained impassive. “And where is it?”

“Approximately?”

“Approximately.”

“China. That’s the problem.”

“But not such a problem now, certainly, in this age of fast travel.”

“Not it. The problem is getting it out of China where authorities frown on the exportation of antiquities.” Avery laughed. “‘National treasures,’ that’s what they call them these days, but I remember when a few pounds could get you out of China with a 4000 year old bronze.”

“Well, you’re right,” Sarah said. “I’d rather not become acquisitive about a rug I can’t have. It brings something out in me that’s not at all nice. Let’s not talk about it again until you have something substantial to report, all right? Now, am I right in thinking that you are in the rug business? You certainly know rugs, but I don’t remember hearing your name in rug circles.”

“Haven’t heard my name? Of course not. They pay me extra to be anonymous.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I’m a ghostwriter, my dear. I write for others who sign their names to my work. I’m one of that brotherhood of writers paid to be ghosts: unknown, invisible ghosts.”

“How interesting! May I ask what you’ve written? Do you write about rugs?”

“My lips are sealed. Can’t in good conscience tell you. Breach of contract, my dear.”

“Hmm. Where do you work? Somewhere in the British Empire I would guess.”

“Anywhere I am. San Francisco at the moment, the San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts.”

“What an interesting man,” she thought. “If I can believe him. But how can anyone tell whether he’s what he says he is: a ghost?” He was handsome, she thought, but for a pinch of impatience around his mouth and a certain suggestion in his looks that he might explode at any moment. “Small man, big voice,” she said to herself. But the charm of his big, round, ringing voice was not to be under-estimated. And it was not just his voice. His beautiful elocution and his refined accent were charming, too.

“But, my dear, before we leave the subject entirely,” he said, “would you care to say whether the figure I spoke of was correct? And may I ask who the collector is that would like to acquire it?”

“My lips are sealed,” she smiled. “He or she wishes to remain anonymous. And do you mean approximately how much would the collector pay for the Ferrier Dragon Rug—since you are speaking only of its approximate location?”

“Well, yes, that would be fine.”

“Then, yes, approximately one million dollars. But since the rug you’re teasing me with is locked up in China, let’s just forget about it. Let us change the subject.”

“You’re just like me, my dear,” he answered. “If there’s anything people like us—in love with art—if there’s anything we despise, it’s money. We won’t talk about it again until we have to.”

Sarah smiled and made a motion that meant she was zipping her lips.

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When a Dragon Winks

  • A novel by Emmett Eiland

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