You’ve probably heard the saying “truth is stranger than fiction,” but did you know that the phrase was coined by one of my favorite writers, Mark Twain?
The entire quote is: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”
The true story that inspired me to write The Turquoise Treasure illustrates Mark Twain’s wisdom.
Many years before I met James and his lovely wife, they owned a small jewelry store in Phoenix. James actually designed much of the gorgeous turquoise jewelry they sold.
Recognizing my interest in gemstones, James once spent an evening regaling me with tales of the American turquoise industry.
To understand that cut-throat world, he said, I needed to know how turquoise is valued.
Unlike most gemstones, whose prices are determined by the gem’s color, cut, clarity and carat weight, turquoise value adds an additional factor: The name of the mine where gemstone originated.
The color of the turquoise itself varies from mine to mine. Shades range from the familiar sky blue to a deeper, richer blue. There are even mines in Nevada producing green turquoise.
Why? I suppose in part because the veins add a uniqueness to the gem. Turquoise with veining is like snowflakes; none are totally alike.
If you take a closer look at those veins, you’ll also realize that their colors are different. Turquoise from the Bisbee mine, for example, has rich brown veining while turquoise from the Morenci mine has silver or gold veining.
Some turquoise connoisseurs claim they can look at a piece of turquoise and identify where it was mined.
The value of turquoise is also influenced by its rarity. Turquoise from mines that are now closed and no longer producing is more expensive than turquoise from active mines. Some of the most expensive turquoise comes from “hat mines,” mines in which the amount of recovered gem-quality turquoise would only fill a hat.
For all of these reasons, turquoise dealers and artisans like James keep the source of their turquoise a secret.
He told me he once found a competitor digging through his trash, searching for the return label on a recently arrived package of gems.
After that experience, he instructed his employees to shred all labels after receiving packages.
As I tried to digest the image of a respectable jeweler picking through a competitor’s trash, James underlined the dangers of his former profession by sharing a terrifying experience.
Normally, he received his gemstone supplies through the mail or his sources met him at the store. Occasionally, however, he flew to the source.
On one such occasion, he flew from Phoenix to Los Angeles to examine some top-quality gems his supplier had just received.
James was impressed with the dealer’s new gems and purchased many to sell in his store. After stowing the gems in a jewelry case, he caught a cab to the airport for his flight home. Arriving at the airport, he took his place in line for the security check-in.
This was in the days before x-ray machines and all of the fancy airport security we have today. Security personnel hand sorted through carry-on luggage.
When it was James’s turn, he asked the inspector to screen the jewelry case contents away from the other passengers. He didn’t want the world to know he was carrying valuable gemstones through the airport.
The inspector nodded, carried the case to a side table, then shouted to the other inspectors “Private screening!”
The other inspectors looked over – as did every bored passenger standing in line.
Two men paid particular attention to the inspector’s every move. When the inspector finished, James snatched the case, snapped it closed and hurried to his gate.
To his horror, the two men who’d shown so much interest in the jewelry case followed him onto his plane.
James tucked the case beneath his feet, his mind racing. Even if the men’s appearance on the plane was coincidence, their continued interest alarmed him.
Mentally, he reviewed his options.
He’d traveled with only carry-on luggage, so he wouldn’t have to wait at baggage claim. An expert at weaving through crowds, he figured he’d be able to out maneuver the two men within the crowded terminal. The danger would come when he reached the shadowy airport parking garage.
With a plan in hand, he forced himself to relax. He’d need all of his energy for after the plane landed. Leaning back in his seat, he closed his eyes.
The plane trip was short and uneventful. As the plane taxied to the terminal, James snagged his suitcase and jewelry case. He was one of the first passengers to deplane.
He hurriedly wound through the airport crowd and, finally, stepped outside.
As he approached the airport parking lot, he heard footsteps behind him.
Glancing over his shoulder, he spotted the two men from the plane. Staring at him, they broke into a run.
James turned and ran to his white corvette. He tossed the jewelry and suitcases inside, slid into the driver’s seat and quickly locked the doors. The car roared to life and he backed out of the space.
In the rear-view mirror, he saw the two men sprinting to their own car.
Noting the car’s make and model, James joined the line of cars exiting the parking garage.
As always, traffic entering and leaving the airport was heavy. Once on the highway, he pressed the accelerator.
Now the cars behind him became little more than headlights. Up ahead, he could see the exit to the road that would take him home.
He stayed in the middle lane, waiting until the last minute to cut across traffic to the exit. Several cars followed.
The easily maneuverable corvette allowed James to zip up and down side streets. Each move reduced the number of headlights following him. Finally, he found himself alone.
He turned the car toward home.
As I listened to James’s story, I couldn’t help wondering what Kim would do if someone followed her onto a plane.
Osprey Beach is a good 40 minutes from the nearest airport. And Kim drives a van, not a zippy little sports car.
She’d also be suffering from jetlag if she’d been flying in from California . . .
No, wait, not California . . .
Kim would visit Arizona, home of some of the world’s most famous turquoise mines.
This is how a real-life story turned into the foundation for The Turquoise Treasure.
Below is the first chapter, where you can get a hint of the true story that inspired Kimberley West’s flight from Arizona:
The flow of people seeking their seats had slowed to a trickle, but the thud of suitcases, duffel bags and totes landing into the overhead compartments continued. The aisle seat she’d reserved to allow freedom of movement now felt exposed.
A man dressed in a black, hooded sweatshirt rushed in. Kim stiffened and slid lower into her seat.
But there was nowhere to hide.
Using the back of the seat in front of her for cover, she leaned forward and pushed the jewelry case out of sight.
From her bent-over position, she listened to footsteps thump toward her.
Each stomp sent prickles up her spine. She pictured those eyes, one blue, one brown, staring at her from the back of the check-in line.
“He’s a killer,” her friend Sherry had said.
And he’d been in the airport, his face partially hidden by a black hoodie.
But he couldn’t hide those eyes.
Thump, thump, thump.
A pair of brown cowboy boots appeared.
Had the man worn cowboy boots?
Stupid question. She was in Arizona. Every man wore cowboy boots.
The boots passed, then paused a few seats behind her.
She risked a quick peek.
A clean-shaven teenager shoved a black backpack into the overhead compartment.
Kim straightened and once again stared at the front of the plane. With only minutes before the scheduled takeoff, shouldn’t someone close the door?
Ladies and Gentlemen, the captain has turned on the Fasten Seat Belt sign. If you haven’t already done so, please stow your carry-on luggage underneath the seat in front of you or in an overhead–
A frail-looking woman clutching a paper tote bag stuffed with gift-wrapped boxes shuffled in.
Please take your seat and fasten your seatbelt.
Maybe he didn’t buy a plane ticket. Maybe, even now, he was following Sherry back up the winding road into the mountains.
Oh, Sherry, please be safe.
–make sure your seat back and folding trays are in their full upright–
C’mon, c’mon, close the darn door.
A flight attendant rushed down the aisle and yanked the holiday packages from the new passenger.
“Let’s put this into the overhead, shall we?” The attendant forced a smile.
“But everything will get crushed up there.”
The woman reached for her bag, but the attendant shoved it into the already crowded compartment.
Please turn off all cell phones and other electronic devices.
The attendant marched off, leaving the hapless passenger staring at the now-crumpled paper bag. She reached up as if to adjust something, but she was too short to touch the surrounding items.
Kim unsnapped her seat belt and stood.
“Let’s see if we can fix this,” she said.
She removed the paper tote bag and handed it to the woman. As the woman inspected the boxes for damage, Kim studied the remaining assortment of suitcases, backpacks and overcoats.
More footsteps shuffled in the aisle. She risked a glance to her right. A tall businessman removed something from the overhead compartment, then slid back into his seat.
She turned her attention back to the compartment in front of her. If she pushed the heavy wheelie thing into the back and shifted the softer backpacks to the side, she could create a pocket large enough to lay the stack of boxes flat.
She shifted the luggage, then smiled at the woman.
“I think this will work.”
“They’re for my granddaughter.” The woman smiled as she extended the tote bag. “She’s only five.”
“That is such a fun age.”
Kim positioned the paper bag, smiling and nodding as the woman babbled granddaughter stories.
Satisfied that the bag wouldn’t slide side to side, she turned to the compartment above her seat and snagged the jacket she’d worn. She tucked it around the paper bag, one more layer of protection.
She closed the compartment so no one else could accidentally damage the packages.
The woman extended her hand.
“I can’t thank you enough,” she said. “Kristy would be so disappointed if her packages were damaged.”
The hand was light as a bird, the skin translucent. For the first time, Kim noticed the wig the woman wore.
Impulsively, she drew the woman into a hug and whispered “Enjoy your visit and give Kristy a hug from me.”
She helped the woman slide into her seat and fasten her seatbelt, then turned toward her own seat.
She crashed into a man’s chest.
“Oh, I’m sorry!”
She stepped back.
“I didn’t see–”
The man towered over her, the hood of his black sweatshirt framing a pockmarked face and clenched jaw.
His narrowed eyes — one blue, one brown — pinned her in place.
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