After six hours in a cash poker game at the Bike, I was beat. "Thanks for waiting, Hobby. I could have taken a cab."
"I wanted to see how you'd do against the big boys, Joe."
"I'm taking home some of their money, but not enough to piss 'em off."
Among others at the table was Pete Francone, a high stakes poker player who is otherwise involved in the grey business world. I was in over my head, getting into a cash game with the likes of him, but I was suddenly flush after getting an unexpected royalty check for foreign book sales.
About 3:00 a.m. Hobby dropped me off at my humble Marina del Rey condo.
I crashed immediately and didn't come alive until noon. While picking up my littered clothing of the night before, I noticed a bulge in my jacket pocket. It was a locket-an engraved gold case, antique looking- about the size of a poker chip, but twice as thick. I couldn't imagine where it came from. A tiny extended clasp yielded to pressure and the lid popped open to reveal a miniature painting of an elderly woman who looked like Queen Victoria.
More astonishing was the brilliant array of diamonds framing the portrait. I was about to settle for leaving a message when Hobby picked up. "Hey, Buddy. How're feeling today?"
"Aah jeez, Joe. If I knew it was you I wouldn't have answered. What time is it?"
"Get a life Hobby. It's almost one o'clock. I wouldn't bother you, but I found a piece of jewelry in my jacket pocket. You didn't happen to put it there?"
"Hell, no. What is it?" After I described it to Hobby he said, "I never saw any such thing. Tell you what though, let's take it to Winship's in Beverly Hills. They handle a lot of antique stuff. I've got to drop the Rolls over there for service today, anyway." "How do you do, Mr. Newton," the Niven-looking salesman said, "what can I do for you?"
"Hello Parker. This is my friend, Joe Crest. He found an unusual piece of jewelry. We'd like you to take a look at it."
"Certainly," he said. I placed it in the center of a velvet display tray. "Oh, my God!" he exclaimed. His eyes bugged and his hand went to his mouth.
Hobby and I looked at each other, totally surprised by Parker's reaction. "I'm sorry gentlemen, but I believe this might be the Mirbel piece." He popped it open, simply nodded and closed the case.
Softly he said, "If I didn't know you Mr. Newton, I would have made a silent signal for the police. This priceless object with the miniature of Queen Victoria by Mirbel was the centerpiece of Hiram McKay's collection that was stolen two weeks ago. How did you come by it? Mr..."
"Crest, Joe Crest. It seems unbelievable, but I found it in my jacket pocket this morning. I have no idea how it got there."
"I'm sorry sir, but I'll have to call the police." "I understand. Go ahead," I said.
You would have thought I'd stolen the crown jewels from the Tower of London. Even with the help of my friend Lt. Tom Victor, who vouched for me as an upright citizen, it was two hours before they turned me loose. Hobby's patience had worn thin.
"Gee, Joe. Being a friend of yours can be quite a liability."
"What's the matter? Did I put a kink into your busy schedule?"
"Well, I did have to cancel my haircut appointment, but I'll forgive you if you'll tell me what's going on."
"The cops didn't give up much, and they made me promise not to tell anyone about the locket. But I've got an idea of what's going on. When I mentioned I was playing poker with Francone, they were surprised and went out for a conference."
"So?" Hobby asked.
"I think my poker playing acquaintance is into fencing hot merchandise. He may have slipped the locket into my pocket. Why? I don't know." My cell phone rang as I was pondering my last thought.
It was Lt. Victor. "Gosh Tom, I thought I'd gotten away with the crime of the century. Don't tell me you've decided to lock me up."
"Stop being a wiseass, Joe. This is serious business and you may be in danger."
"What do you mean?"
I said, but even as I got it out I realized that whoever put the locket in my jacket would want it back. I could be in trouble.
"Joe, someone may be after you. We learned the Feds picked up Francone outside the casino last night. He might have been tipped off and slipped you the locket. But Francone has been released. You better work with us, Joe. We can help you, but you'll have to cooperate. Please come back to the Hollywood Station."
"I'm the patsy now, Hobby. I don't like the idea of walking around with this million-dollar locket, and I'm not sure the cops can protect me."
"Don't worry, Joe, you'll be safe on Lazybuns even if the cops screw up." "I do trust you, buddy. Now if you'll stop by my place, I'll pick up some things." The place had been trashed. I didn't have to guess what they were looking for. As we drove to the marina Hobby said, "I think we're being followed."
"Shall I call the cops? I asked.
"No. Don't bother. We can get aboard before they can get to us."
Without being obvious,I watched the car from the fantail of Lazybuns. It certainly looked like we were under surveillance. Hobby hollered from below decks, "Telephone, Joe. It's a Mr. Francone."
"Mr. Crest. I had the pleasure of losing money to you last night, and just to show I'm even more generous, I'll put up ten big ones for whatever little trinket you might have. Do you get my meaning?"
A chill went up my spine. "Yeah, I got your meaning." "Come to the casino tonight, seven o'clock. We can even play poker if you like."
"I don't think so. You know where I am. Why don't you come here?" I hung up. "Hobby, that was probably reckless of me, but I hate the way these goons think they can push people around."
"I'm proud of you, Joe. Screw them. Let them come to us and meanwhile call the cops."
It looked like a slamdunk. We would only let Francone aboard to get the locket and when he left the cops could nab him. An hour later, Francone and two hunks approached Lazybuns. Hobby stood at the top of the gangway and said, "Just you, Mr. Francone." The three of them started towards us, but stopped when Hobby unveiled a Clint Eastwood style .357 Magnum. Before Hobby could say, "Make my day," Francone said, "Okay, I'll come alone."
I was anxious to give up the locket and get it over with, but Francone was in no hurry. "Nice boat you got. Since I went to the trouble to come out here, why don't you show me around?" I was suspicious, but Hobby, always the genial host, agreed. After a tour of the bridge and upper decks we went to the main stateroom.
I gave Francone the locket and declined his promised payment saying, "Just consider it a good deed." When I suggested, "Your friends might be worrying about you." I hoped he take the hint to leave, but quite the contrary.
"The sea air makes me thirsty. Could you give a guy a drink?" Before Hobby got to the bar I heard footsteps of several people on the deck. Could the cops be coming aboard? Funny thing, Francone was smiling. Four men in wetsuits brandishing weapons burst in. They were not the police!
(To be concluded in the next issue).