Baltic Amber: Petrified Tears by Robb T. White

In 1940, ex-con Rusty is persuaded by his old Alcatraz cellmate to travel to Nazi-occupied Europe for an unlikely criminal scheme; by Robb T. White.

Mac "Fingers" McFarland did time with me on the Rock, so I was curious to hear what he had to say.

"Rusty, how's tricks?"

"So-so. I'm between jobs at the moment," I said.

"Ha-ha, me too."

That same cackle that used to drive me crazy in my bunk at night. He was in the cell to my right, while Tom "Skeet" Bradshaw occupied the left.

"You hear about 'Dollie' Lloyd, you know, what he done last year?"

Lloyd Barkdoll. Lloyd tried to escape Alcatraz along with three others from the same tier as "Fingers" and me. They didn't make it. Nobody's made it yet, although they keep trying. Art Barker in '39, two years after I got transferred, was killed. I heard from an old ex-con living in the Tenderloin say Art was still tying pieces of wood and canvas together on the shoreline like he was on a beach picnic when the guards told him to stop. When he started to shove his raft into the water, they shot him dead. Brains and heart. They don't miss. Lloyd and his pals wound up in the "Treatment Unit," that's D Block, where you don't go to work or leave your cell for a week at a time. That row faces the Golden Gate Bridge and it gets mighty cold in winter. Warden Johnston doesn't permit mail to be delivered, or any reading material, for that matter, other than the bible.

I got out in mid-November. With my record, I was lucky to get put on the night-shift at the Drake. I take a bus and then catch the trolley uphill from Market. I can get a glimpse of the lighthouse on the island just before I get off at Market for the trolley ride uphill to the hotel. I won't look. It reminds me of those lost years.

My job's OK but doesn't pay much and the maintenance staff consists of gossips who love nothing more than yakking about some big shot or politician staying in the hotel. Last week, Hedy Lamarr was in town selling war bonds and those jerks went out of their minds looking for any excuse to bring her newspapers or deliver flowers sent up to her room. They almost had a riot downstairs when one of the colored bell hops took up some flowers. The guy in the beefeater suit outside was forced to settle the dispute. Now they cut the cards in the employee breakroom in the basement to decide who does the deliveries.

Some studio head down in Hollywood ordered up a big box of chocolates for her and the guy who delivered it to her room came downstairs and said he saw papers on the coffee table. "They were filled with math formulas and diagrams on them - technical stuff," he said.

One knucklehead on my shift said: "You mean a dame with a chassis like hers has an actual brain in her head?"

Another knucklehead chimed in: "Naw, can't be. Her boyfriend probably works for the War Department and he left them."

"Maybe she's a spy," knucklehead number three said.

You see what malarkey I have to deal with every night?

So I was glad to hear from "Fingers" when he called me out of the blue. He got his moniker when a goon working for a rival boss slammed a drawer on his fingers back when Mac McFarland and I were in the bootleg hooch business. I was working the Vancouver end of the transaction when we first met. "Fingers" thinks about crime the way some guys think about home-cooked meals and dear old Mom baking apple pies. When he was in the Hole back in our Alcatraz days, he actually read the bible instead of ripping pages out of it to throw around the floor just to irritate the guards. He said you could get some good ideas from it. I mean, that's dedication. Sitting in a dark, cold cell all day, one shower a week, and they remove the lousy mattress in the morning so that you have to lie on the floor or stand at the bars all day like a monkey in a zoo. Some guys go crazy after a week, but not "Fingers." He said he put the time to good use reading it to get his schemes for making money.

That's why he called. He wound up in the Hole again for smart-mouthing a screw in the chow line. Most of the guards assigned to the Rock are older men with lots of experience in the federal penal system. They're "professionals," as we say. They don't have anything to prove and so there's a lot less friction between guards and inmates than in some other prisons. The average Joe, he thinks cons out there on the island are slavering like dogs and climbing the cell walls like maniacs, but there's very little of that going on. The routine numbs you from the moment the first whistle goes off at 6:30am. to the standing count at 5:00pm. Sure, it happens when you get a younger guard who thinks he's tough guy. "Fingers" didn't say what he did to get himself jammed up for ten days, but he was eager to meet me up as soon as his release date came up in November. I figured he had some scheme, and I was right.

We met at a diner in Daly City because his sister lived there. He said she was putting him up until he got back on his feet, which I knew meant until he had planned out his next score.

"Let's hear it."

He was in no hurry. The waitress who poured our coffee was a pretty young filly and he was too busy making goo-goo eyes and flirting with her.

"Come on, give," I demanded. "You're wasting my time here, Mac. She's probably got a boyfriend."

He stopped swiveling his neck to watch her hips while she passed among the tables. He turned to me and said a single word: "Amber."


He repeated it and nodded his head as if that were enough to explain. "It's a jewel. You know, the gooey stuff that ran out of trees way back in the dinosaur age."

I started to get up to leave.

"Wait, Rusty! Sit down a minute, will ya? Jeez. Just give a beak a chance to explain."

Mac had spent too much time in the jug, I thought. He was doll-dizzy, for one thing. Guys who go without female companionship are like kids in a candy store: every dame on the street looks like the next Greta Garbo. His slang, like his white shirt frayed at the collar and buttoned to the neck, spoke poor-house, and his tie that looked like something made from a hoop skirt in the last century. He was out of touch. It happens to cons when they do too much time. Or they get like "Doc" Barker and flip their wigs. The world passes them by. When they get out, they don't know what to make of it and most of them can't catch up. Just this year, they've invented a guitar that plays on electricity and somebody, maybe one of those rich DuPonts, invented synthetic rubber. Who knows what's next? The war is speeding things up like nothing else.

I looked at "Fingers" with pity in my expression. "Jewelry. You want me to help you knock off a jewelry store, you dumb mutt."

"Can it, Rusty, will you? People can hear you."

He wasn't out of the joint long enough. People in public don't need to whisper like cons worried about the wrong person overhearing you. He was used to the convict grapevine. Guys standing on the top bunk to talk through the ventilator shaft. I heard some guys in state prisons will even empty out the water in the toilet just to talk to somebody in the tier below.

"You mean tree sap, don't you? The stuff that has bugs trapped in it."

"I'm talking about red and yellow amber. Yellow as honey, red as rubies, smooth as silk in your hand when it's polished and set into necklaces and earrings."

"Where did you get this hare-brained idea?"

"From the bible. Last time they chucked me into the Hole." "What?"

"Yeah, Rusty, reading about gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and stuff like that back in the olden days. You know, Jezebel, Salome - them dames, they went crazy for jewels, you know that. There's a huge market now with the blockade. Diamonds for Amsterdam ain't getting through like before the war with all them U-boats out there."

I should have known.

"Where, pray tell, is all this amber?"

I was thinking he expected us to go traipsing down to some jungle in Mexico, like Chiapas, maybe, somewhere like that with machetes and slice it off the trees where it had gotten stuck in the bark.

"That's the beauty of it, see? It's just lying around free on the beach for anybody to walk by and pick it up."

"Pull this leg, 'Fingers.' It's got the bells on it."

"Look, Rusty, we can get in on it before anyone else, corner the market. Me and Karl, we thought this all out. He's already got a set-up over there. That's where all the premium stuff rolls up on shore..."

Over there meant the Sambian Peninsula, a place I'd never heard of. Karl Garlauskas grew up in Kaliningrad about 25 miles from the Baltic Sea where this amber rolls up on shore with the waves. You just walk along the shoreline and you scoop it up in handfuls with these screens attached to poles. It's crazy...

"...little kids walk off with pockets full of it every day. I'm telling you, Rusty, this is pennies from heaven..."

"You know there's a world war going on over there right now? Uncle Joe Stalin runs that part of the world now," I said.

"Not anymore," "Fingers" said.

I wanted to knock the smug look right off his face.

"What are you talking about?"

"Hi-de-ho, Rusty, you need to catch up on current affairs."

Now it was his face that wore the woeful look.

I admit that, in recent years, ever since I did my last stint in the Graybar Hotel, I have been worried about getting old and dying poor. Unless something affects me directly, puts money into my pocket or takes money out of my pocket, I don't care much for it.

The whole city was buzzing with war news and talk about Japan. Convicts don't get to join, not that I was looking to go fight the Nazis. But I also knew McFarland wouldn't have rung me up in my crummy, one-room apartment on 3rd Street near the 101 just to chew the fat about old times.

Artie Shaw's swing band started "Begin the Beguine" on the jukebox. That was our song, Caroline's and mine, that is. The last time I saw her was the day before my transfer from Joliet to the Rock. She said she couldn't handle another prison sentence.

"OK," I said, "I'm listening. Spill."

He did. He and a pal of his named Karl Garlauskas, who was from Riga, were planning to go to Latvia to set up the operation. He was vague about what this Karl did for a living except he was a friend of some "important people" in Los Angeles. One night, Karl gets himself ossified at some nightclub in Beverly Hills and says something insulting to a woman at a nearby table. The woman happened to be Benjamin Siegel's moll, and when he found out, "Bugsy" and a couple of his trigger men paid Karl a visit. McFarland gets a call from the hospital a couple days later. Karl's in traction with a broken jaw and two busted limbs. He's going nowhere for a while and we need to move fast.

"So I'm your backup?"

"It's not like that," he said. "You speak German, right? So Karl speaks Latvian and some Russian. Between the two of you, everything's jake."

"Why not just wait for Karl to get out of the hospital?"

"Karl's gonna be sipping his meals for a month according to the doctors. He'll have casts on for the next six weeks. Believe me, Rusty I was just about to call you when Karl goes and pulls this cute stunt with "Bugsy's" woman, this Virginia what's-her-name."

Still, I didn't get up from the table to leave. I was desperate for a score. My hotel gig was going nowhere, cash-wise.

"Keep talking," I said. "Tell me more about this amber stuff."

A pair of teenagers came in and began putting nickels into the jukebox, which made it hard to hear "Fingers." Somewhere between "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and "Chattanooga Choo" the teenagers started to dance between the tables. The short-order cook came out of the kitchen scowling, but the skirt "Fingers" was drooling over a moment ago clapped her hands and cheered them on. To me, those kids looked like they were being electrocuted instead of dancing. It wasn't how Caroline and I used to dance.

"Hey, look at them jitterbugs go, will you?"

Somebody left yesterday's Chronicle on the table. I read Herb Caen's gossip column to pass the time until "Fingers" showed. He wrote that San Francisco is the only town where you can get a good hamburger or a bad girl at 4:00am. Maybe my friend wasn't as far out of touch as I'd thought. Maybe I was the fuddy-duddy. San Francisco was changing too fast. Every club within ten miles of the Wharf used to have a swing band. Now it's a Negro combo with saxophones and a piano. The audience is white men with pointy beards and chicks who snap their fingers in time to the jazz. Jazz. What is that? It's missing every third note is what it is.

Going to one of the most dangerous places on earth was nuts. I should have taken a powder; instead, I recalled something else Caen wrote in one of his columns: "Logic is no answer to passion." I told Mac he could count me in on his amber deal.

If you ever get a chance to take a tramp steamer to Europe, my advice is to pass, and it isn't because of any U-boats prowling around out there. We were in a convoy escorted by Navy warships all the way. It was twenty-five-foot waves that made me green to the gills the whole way. Mac, however, must have gained a pound for every lost over the side. I stayed in my cabin and tried to block the gray light streaming in through the porthole as we bounced up and down in the giant waves. At any moment, I thought the rivets would pop and send us to Davy Jones' Locker. Believe me, the nausea was so bad I wished for that at times.

Mac had been a saltwater sailor in his twenties and had his sea legs. He brought food back from the galley just to torment me.

I'd pulled every cent I had out of the bank for passage. "Fingers" agreed to cover my expenses until we started to make money. I discovered halfway across the Atlantic "Fingers" was using the mobster's cash.

"What kind of vigorish does he expect?"

Mobster boys don't lend out moolah because they're nice guys.

"He's a silent partner," "Fingers" informed me, as if this was minor news. "His cut comes out of the other end after expenses."

Mac wasn't the brightest star in the sky and like every con I ever knew in or out of the Big House, he would never say everything on his mind. Whenever I could hold down some food, I'd pepper him with questions about how this amber gig was supposed to work. First, we had a big problem getting over to Europe without being challenged for our papers, which were forge jobs Mac had arranged before we left Frisco. They proclaimed we were citizens of Canada, qualified deckhands. Except neither one of us could tie a bowline and we were ordered by the captain to stay belowdecks as much as possible during the passage.

Mac kept a map in the cabin and showed me how it was going to play out. Jump ship in England, he said, where "friends of Karl" from back home would meet us with more papers describing us as volunteers for the International Red Cross. Instead, we were heading for Sweden and then by ferry to Latvia.

"There's the reason why we can pull this off," he said and pointed his finger directly on a city about 30 miles from the Baltic.

"Kaliningrad," I said looking at it. "What about it?"

"It's a no-man's land. No laws, no law enforcement. It's a wide-open, free-for-all. Anything goes."

"What's this place?" I asked pointing at a small blue dot near it he had circled on the map.

"That's Yantarnvi," Mac replied. "It's where Karl was born before his family skipped off to Riga to get ahead of the Russians. That's where his family home is. We can operate from there strictly on the QT. We hire a bunch of locals to collect the amber and bring it to us. We use the barn to polish the stones and we ship them out in containers with Red Cross markings. Karl told me where to go in Kaliningrad to get the phony manifests to ship the stones back to San Fran."

He handed me a sheet of paper with odd terms on it. Some German mixed in there.

"Klar, flom, bastard, bone, foamy - what is this, Mac?"

"That's how we identify the qualities of the amber."

"We're not a jewelry shop."

"We don't got to be," he replied. "But we can't turn this over to anyone else, see? We have to control production, sales, and marketing. I'm talking factory to store here. That's how we set the prices - just like the diamond people, you know, them DeBeers jamokes in South Africa. Think about it, Rusty. What's a diamond compared to amber? Just stones you kick with your feet. One's been in the ground a few million years longer is all. You can't eat 'em, you can't do anything with them except to give them to dames as trinkets."

That lesson was followed by Mac's fascination with modern-day advertising in ladies' magazines and radio. He once showed me an article from Popular Science about a gadget that created pictures with sound in a vacuum tube. "The next biggest thing," he said. I told him I'd believe that when the pigs ate my brother - and I ain't got a brother. But we were going to be "Amber Kings" in a year, he said, and before you know it, no pretty woman would want a crappy diamond when she could be dolled up in one of our gorgeous amber necklaces.

I was thinking we'd be a whole lot safer in southern Mexico dealing with local Indians than where we were heading: Nazis and their Gestapo, Russians and their secret police - heck, I told him, the Allies will throw us into the jug if they catch us with these false papers, but nothing worried him. He had a chunk of amber the color of champagne he kept in his pocket; every now and then he'd take it out and roll it around in his hand for good luck. Greed had hold of him by the scruff of the neck and wasn't letting go. I thought of lifting it from his pants pocket while he slept and tossing it over the stern to break the spell it had on him. Let the gulls dive after it.

What a schmuck I was. To think a small-time grifter like Mac with his busted meathook could put together a scheme like this without money or connections. Every time I asked a question, it was this: "Everything's copacetic," or "Everything's duck soup, leave the details to me," or "Quit breaking my chops, Rusty."

I finally wiggled the truth out of him on that long, stomach-churning voyage. His pal Karl was connected to Jack Dragna in LA. He was a bag man for Dragna's betting parlors and whore houses. This was Dragna's money and it was Dragna's people in LA. who provided the fake identity papers describing us as ordinary seamen and arranged the passage of this leaky bucket of a ship. They'd be waiting for us in Liverpool, no doubt. From there, we'd be escorted by his Sicilians who'd take us by garbage scow across the Channel, get us on trucks, ferries, and fishing trawlers all the way to Malmö and then onto a ferry to cross the Baltic to Riga.

But it wasn't Karl, Mac's so-called silent partner, pulling all these complicated strings; it was Dragna. It had to be. That thing with Virginia Hill probably never happened. Rumors reached us in San Francisco Dragna was fighting off a takeover of his LA operations from "Bugsy" Siegel and the East Coast boys, whoever they were. Everybody's strings were being pulled by somebody else. That's life. I was just a handy American stooge like Mac. The two of us were accountable to a big-shot mobster in California if anything went wrong.

But one thing I learned from doing crime: don't do it halfway. Do it or don't do it. Half measures will always get you caught or killed.

By the time we jumped ship in Liverpool, they were waiting on the dock. If I thought they'd look like a couple "Moustache Petes," I was dead wrong. These were legit stevedores, union guys, but like most union dockworkers in America, they were taking orders from corrupt bosses. They didn't speak much to us, and they didn't answer questions because they didn't know anything other than where to take us and drop us off. It went like that all the way to Sweden. I had a feeling the Norwegian-born captain of the fishing vessel who had the job of getting us there wasn't happy about it or us. He handed us the Swedish passports describing us as deckhands on an ore vessel carrying taconite pellets to Bremerhaven. He told us in broken English the Germans needed the iron ore Sweden supplied; otherwise, they'd have invaded them as well as his country. He made us work the nets along with the rest of the crew. Mac started to get lippy with him, but that giant Viking of a captain threatened to throw him over the side. I couldn't get the smell of mackerel and fish guts out of my nostrils for two days afterward.

Riga, Latvia. You can keep it. The less said about that town, the better. If it weren't for the fact Germany needed the iron ore Sweden supplied, we might have had a tougher time at the checkpoint on the docks if we'd actually had to speak Swedish. We didn't see many German Army troops, but we saw people being loaded into trucks and they didn't look too happy about it. The local police were taking orders from the German soldiers barking orders at them. I got close enough to one officer sitting in a motorcycle sidecar and read the Waffen SS patch.

"Why are those people going in the trucks?" Mac asked me.

"I don't know, but it doesn't look good," I replied. "How soon can we leave here?"

"Not soon enough," Mac said. "This place gives me the creeps."

That was an understatement. That prison feeling came back to me like a bad dream. Being out in the street was too dangerous with all those black uniforms out there and the locals, men who reminded me of leg-breakers back home, wore their armbands and yelled their gobbledygook at one another. They were spoiling for a fight. Menace was a scent in the air you couldn't miss, like a decomposing raccoon in the road.

We had to wait a day for our transport to arrive at the flophouse where they put us up. We sat around peeking out the curtains and smoking my last pack of Pall Malls. The Germans had liberated the people of Latvia from the Soviets but the honeymoon phase was over. Whatever was going on now, we needed to get far from it.

Our driver had missing teeth and smelled like a dead body. He drove us in a battered Skoda that reminded me of the Saturday afternoons in theaters as a kid, those Chicago gangster movies where mobsters fired tommy guns out the windows. His windshield was cracked in three places, the floorboards were rotted out so badly I could see the road beneath my feet, and the doors were secured shut with ropes.

We banged and bumped along a dusty, rutted road for two hours until my jaws were sore from clenching my teeth and trying to breathe through my mouth to keep the old man's stench out of my nostrils. The driver would speak to us, although we didn't understand a word he said and tried to communicate through hand signals the way we did every time we heard a foreign language.

"What's he saying, Rusty?"

"I speak a little German," I told him. "I don't parlez-vouz this guy's language."

"Then tell him to shut his gob. He's getting on my nerves."

When we pulled up to Karl's ramshackle farmhouse, the driver watched us unload our duffel bags and stood by the door waiting.

"What's he want now?" Mac asked.

"He wants a tip."

"I though you couldn't speak the lingo."

"I can't," I said. "He's holding his hand out."

Mac said something obscene about what he could do with his hand. I said, "Better give him a buck, Mac. He goes back to Riga and decides to tell some German officer he brought a couple Yankees out to this place, we're gonna some explaining to do."

I used hand gestures, rubbing my stomach to signal "food" and smoking an imaginary cigarette. I repeated the mime act until he understood and nodded his head and smiled with his blackened mouth. Then he said something in his dialect which I hoped meant he'd bring us supplies. Mac pieced him off grudgingly.

We took our bags into the house.

"The place is a mess," he said.

It was abandoned, probably for years, and had mouse turds, cobwebs, and spiders everywhere you looked.

"We'd better clean this place up first," I said.

"You do that, Rusty," Mac said. "I'll check out the barn."

The rest of that tiny place was hopeless. Vandals had stolen everything not nailed down, including the curtains and brickwork around the fireplace mantel. Yellowed pictures of St. George spreading his protective hands over shepherds below, the Virgin Mary, and St. Christopher were still hanging from the walls.

But miracle of miracles, the gas stove worked, and the electricity came on when I hit the light switch. Karl must have arranged this for the power we'd need in the barn. If Mac were right, we'd need a power hose and tumbling vats. Some of the amber was going to be smelted like iron ore into sheets and cut up. This wasn't going to be any piker operation. Smuggling it back to America as polished stones, however, worried me. Amber is too light to sink in olive oil, which was Mac's first brainchild - hide the jewels in vats of imported Sicilian olive oil. Latvian timber was my idea. Get it to Sweden where the freight manifests could be doctored for Swedish vessels not under the embargo.

The operation would be most vulnerable there; it's like the money pickup in a kidnapping. It's easy to grab a victim. The hard part is the money drop. Lots of things can go wrong.

The work ahead of us was complicated by the language barrier. The old man who drove us showed up with food the following day and we paid him. I told Mac he was our best bet to intercede with the local farmers who could be hired to pick up the amber. Karl's barn was in good shape, unlike the house; we had plenty of equipment including kettle drums for steam cleaning and dozens of those crooked-handled poles with the basks for scooping up amber in rough surf. I gave it a whirl just to see what it was like. Mac was right. In no time, I had half the basket filled with tiny red and yellowish stones, some the color of tea, others were yellow as lemon. Cut to size on our tables and polished up in our tumblers, they'd be smooth as silk, brighter than honey.

"The ones with specks in them are the best," Mac told me. "Plants, pieces of scorpions, flies, mosquitoes - all that stuff that used to be in the forests."

Millions of years ago, the Baltic Sea was a huge forest of pine buzzing with life. Thousands of insects wound up encased in glittering yellow tombs of resin, preserved forever. Mac showed me one piece where a tiny wing had unfolded too late for escape.

"You know something," Mac said the following day after we'd arrived; "If we drill a hole in it and put a tiny frog in there, it'd be worth double back in New York."

That was Mac, all right. Always bumping his gums, wanting to up the ante to a bigger cockamamie scheme and get more lettuce. Life doesn't work that way.

"Let's get this going first, OK, hot shot?" I did all the extra plumbing we needed for the boilers and the hoses inside the barn without the right tools. I was filthy from sweat.

"What kinda Rube Goldberg contraption you got going there, Rusty?"

"Never mind," I said. "Let's just hope it works."

The geezer had told us who the village big shot was, and we dressed up in our best glad rags to go meet him to discuss business. You can't walk a donkey across the road in Latvia without bribing someone and this guy, Markuss, was the boss out here - chief bandit, that is. We had no choice. He gave us wine that tasted like glue and sent his old wife away while our geezer interpreted for us. "Pickers," I said to him, "amber," miming picking up stones with one of those basket devices. Our geezer, by now, spoke a few words of English and we'd learned a few in Latvian, although Mac, the fathead, called it "Baltic." We told Markuss how many we needed by holding up eight fingers. I did the same thing with our barn workers, holding up three fingers of each hand. "Six," I repeated. "Seši," repeated the geezer, whose name was Emils, although we never called him anything but "geezer" between us. That idea was a little harder to get across. Finally, he nodded his head and replied "Vergu... vergi!"

More hand gestures for the price per man. The geezer and Markuss conducted an animated conversation not a word of which I understood except for "zloty," a Polish currency. The value of money in wartime Europe was complicated. Fortunately, one American dollar could buy a basket of their dollars no matter the language, and we had no shortage of unemployed men, hungry children and old folk only too eager to make some money.

The geezer turned to me and explained using his own fingers and simple words how much each worker would cost us. "Close enough, you thieving goop," I said with a big smile pasted on my mug, shaking hands with Markuss.

We drank another toast with that liquid filth he called wine. We had our team in place.

The first month was chaos. Several times, Mac and I were at each other's throats but eventually things got smoothed out. Our little amber hive buzzed with workers. We had rows of fifty-gallon drums filled with amber stones before long - small stones that didn't look much different from ordinary beach stones, up to fist-size, milky clumps. I got to know the differences fast. After all, it was my money on the line and the more profit, the bigger my cut.

Sea amber is lovely, no doubt about it, far more valuable than what they mine in pits in Russia. It's polished by centuries of wave action and doesn't have that surface crust from the earth. Light as a feather, sometimes mixed with tiny bubbles that catch and throw the light and make it seem to glow in your hand. When our "pickers" started bringing it up from the beach, I thought it would all be yellowish, but amber comes in all shapes and colors: red, orange, white, brown, blue, and "black" from a blending of other colors. Green is rare. Polished up, the red shifts from crimson to ruby. The yellow can range from cognac to honey. I got so good at recognizing the types, I could tell at a glance whether the amber I held had come from the outside or the inside of a tree based on the fissures, those little "wounds" inside the tree the amber filled up.

The Sambian Peninsula was nature's gift, created from alluvial-shaping currents over hundreds of thousands of years to create this twenty-mile plain for these deposits of fossilized resin. Anywhere else in the world other than this godforsaken, war-torn country occupied by Poles, Russians and now Nazis, it would have been plundered by men descending on the peninsula like the silver miners in Colorado or the roughnecks panning for gold in the Klondike. But there it was: floating gold just rolling in with the tides. Mac, for all his big talk, was right. It was duck soup; you just had to walk along the shore, bend over, and pick it up.

We put in twelve-hour days, sometimes fifteen. Our workers were organized into shifts. We put the geezer on permanent payroll just to be safe. I didn't like the idea of him going into town and getting a snoot full of the local giggle juice. Loose lips sink ships, like the posters all say back in San Francisco.

Our first shipment went like eggs in coffee. Markuss made a deal with a foreman at a timber mill to pick up our "specialized" logs marked as teakwood. They were cored at the lumber mill and driven over to us where we inserted our polished gemstones in containers that denoted the relative values of the amber. They'd be shipped to Helsinki, reloaded for New York Harbor, and then transported by lumber-hauling rigs driven by teamsters to a furniture-factory mill north of San Francisco, where Garlauskas had his men collect the logs. It meant a bigger cut for Markuss and the timber company foreman but that's the price of doing business, as Mac liked to say.

We waited a month before receiving confirmation of the arrival of the first shipment from our Swedish contact who altered the shipment certificates of our "teakwood" to jibe with the real lumber shipments. It was late autumn and I was driving the workers on to get more amber into the barn before the waters turned too choppy. The ground was covered with frost in the morning and the unheated barn slowed down production. I brought in a wood-burning stove by the end of October.

We had enough for a second shipment of logs by mid-November. Mac and I made plans to go home. We'd resume in the spring. The Nazis were in control of Belarus and all three Baltic States by now and were calling it Osterland. Their puppet militias were everywhere. We spoke enough pidgin-Latvian with the geezer to know that people were being herded into trucks and driven off. The geezer brought back scuttlebutt in Riga that rumored all the Jews were herded into a single place called a "g-h-e-t-t-o," a word he scratched into the dirt with a stick, although I had never heard that word before. The Germans were stirring up the Arajs Kommando to kill them and burn down their houses.

Mac went into town with one of our workers who owned a farm truck. When I went to pay Markuss off for the second shipment, I learned that Jews were being transported by train (he mimed a choo-choo here) and forced to work in German munitions factories (he made explosive noises, blowing spit-bubbles at me).

I turned to the geezer and said, "It's got nothing to do with this." I rubbed my thumb and index finger together signifying a gesture everybody understands: money.

Mac came back that evening in a sour mood and had no appetite for the first time I could remember. He handed me a stack of old newspapers left behind on a merchant ship in Riga he'd picked up in a tavern. Julian Streicher's hysterical ant-Semitic rants in Der Stürmer seemed to jibe with the atmosphere in Riga. The Paris Herald was dated two months ago but a small column in the back pages told me we might have other concerns: the feds were launching another investigation into Jack Dragna. He was getting pressure from another direction as well: Ben Siegel had the backing of the Cleveland mafia along with his boyhood chum Meyer Lansky to test the Sicilian in a turf war. A young upstart and ex-boxer with Cleveland connections was mentioned in the same article as "a Siegel crime associate." Younger lions were forming a coalition to take on the dominant male of the pride. Jack might not be king for long. Maybe Mac was right about this, too; it was time to go home and collect our wages for the work so far. Moving the amber after delivery was Jack's problem, not ours.

Mac kept pacing back and forth between the barn and the house all night, smoking like a chimney and giving me the silent treatment. Finally, I said, "What happened in town, Mac? You said everything was hunky-dory, but you're moping around here like you're looking for the lost head of John the Baptist."

He didn't answer straight away. He guzzled more of the local booze, clear as vodka but it had twice the kick of a mule. By suppertime he was zozzled. I smoked on the porch of the farmhouse and watched the cobalt sky fill up with stars.

"What gives, Mac?"

"I saw something today... in town. The town square, I mean."

"OK, so do I gotta pull it out of you like teeth?"

"Blood. Lots of it. A huge pool of it. Emils said they - the militia rounded up about twenty-five Jewish men and dragged them to the town square. They beat them to death with axes and metal poles."

"What did the Germans do about it?"

"They stood behind the militia, laughing and urging them on. I think it's just a matter of time before we - before we have to get out of here. It's too dangerous, what we're doing."

"Are you crazy? We're going to be hiring twice as many workers by this time next year. You know how much we're going to have in our pockets when we get home?"

It wasn't until then that I realized I was the one with gold fever.

"You didn't see... all that blood, Rusty."

He walked away singing his favorite tune:

We're in the money, c'mon my honey
Let's spend it, lend it, send it, rollin' along...

Only this time there was no joy in his voice, only sadness - and a note I'd never heard before: fear.

Things weren't going so good by the first week of December. The polishing machines were out of whack and a couple hundred pounds of stones were damages. Amber has a perfect sheen from wave action. Now the stones were coming out of the tumbler all cracked and gouged. Some of the most expensive ones, the ruby reds, were completely ruined. I had to take the machine apart and repair it, another Rube Goldberg fix. I told Mac that if I had to go to Jack Dragna myself and demand cash for replacement parts, I'd do it.

At the end of that week, everybody was on edge, even the workers. Something was in the air. The geezer was demanding more money for the side trips into Riga. "Loti bīstami," he kept saying. I didn't need to know Latvian to know he meant "dangerous."

On December eighth, Mac was laid up with the flu. Normally we'd make the timber shipment together from the timber mill to the Riga docks. Nobody stopped trucks involved in the German war effort.

The mill was located about ten miles south of Riga in the Rumbula forest region near a railroad station linking Riga to Daugavpils. The locals' expression for it translates to "Crow Forest." The driver, Wiktor, originally a Pole from Danzig, had lived in Hamtramck in Detroit and worked for Ford a couple years before the Depression. He came home in '39 just in time to flee the Nazis; he went east to escape them and wound up in the arms of the Soviets. Markuss had some family connection to him and said we could trust him. I insisted on paying him, nevertheless. I didn't trust a man whose loyalty I couldn't buy.

As we entered the forest region parallel to the rail line, I heard gunfire, way too many to be hunters.

"What is that?" I asked Wiktor.

His face lost color. He said, "Šaujamieroči." And when I didn't react, he said it in Polish: "Pistolety."

That I understood fine. "Who?"

This time, he resorted to English: "De Germans, dey are killin' de Jews."

"Can you turn around?" I made a circular motion with my hands.

Too late for that. A pair of militia men had already spotted us from the train station and were coming our way on bicycles. They were dressed like workers except for the automatic weapons in slings across their backs.

Wiktor glared at me and hissed a command not to speak. I didn't understand the words, but I got the message from his hand's slicing motion across his neck well enough. I slumped down in the seat pretending to be asleep. He rolled down the window and a conversation began among the three of them that lasted only a couple minutes - the longest two minutes of my life.

When the talk ceased, Wiktor punched me in the arm and said, "Jūs izkļūt."

I got out. We walked in front to the station while the two men escorted us from behind. At the station, a third militia man, a superior, took our papers and led us into a small office in the rear of the station and handed them to a Waffen SS major in a crisply starched uniform. He wore gloves and held a swagger stick, which he set on the desk while he looked over our papers. He handed them back to us and said to the other man: "Bringt Sie mit den anderen in den Wald."

My stomach dropped like a manhole cover from a tenement roof.

Wiktor must have sensed a change in my expression; he looked at me for an explanation, but I ignored him. The two militia men outside the station were given their orders by the third man and we were led into the forest from a path opposite the station. The barrels of the guns kept prodding us onward.

The pine woods blocked our sight and the non-stop crackle of rifle fire continued and grew louder. Wiktor began stumbling and sobbing. He cried out in Latvian and Polish as we approached the clearing. He knew.

Human eyes can see but the brain can't always record what the eyes are seeing. I looked, trying to understand what I was staring at but not comprehending. Men, women, and little children, some babies in their mothers' arms, were marching in columns that extended farther than I could see. Armed guards of the German police, the Ordnungspolizei, stood at intervals along the columns of people hurrying the line forward to three massive pits, and I saw bundles of clothing and other objects lying in piles. Naked men and women stood shivering nearby.

The closer we got, the less confusion. A cordon of guards with machine pistols forced the line of naked men and women, some with children in their arms, into the pits. As the militia men prodded us closer to the edge of one pit, I saw that these people running into the pits were running right on top of the dead bodies of the people who had been forced into the pit before them. They were told to lie down, packed in like sardines for efficiency, and the staccato gunfire started again from the executioners assigned to kill them. How do you explain that sight to another human being? It was then that Wiktor fell to his knees, unable to move. One of the militia shot him in the head right there. I was hustled forward to a German officer supervising the line of victims.

He handed the officer our passports and spoke in Latvian. The officer scowled and glanced at the passports. "Dieser Mann ist ein Arbeiter, Scheiẞekopf," he said. "This man is a worker." He motioned impatiently for the militia man to take me away.

My legs shook at the knees all the way back to the road. If I fell, I'd meet Wiktor's fate in these woods. He had saved my life. The officer had assumed his passport was mine, a worker for the war effort, and therefore of value to the Fatherland. My phony Red Cross credential meant nothing.

I climbed into the lumber truck expecting any second a fusillade of bullets ripping into my back, but the militia man held fire. I ground the gears all the way back to Riga and almost jackknifed the rig driving around a curve too fast, still in shock from what I had witnessed and barely understood.

Back at the farmhouse, I barreled past Mac with a questioning look on his face and ran into the kitchen, unable to last a second longer. I fell to my knees and sobbed like a baby for long minutes. For a week, I didn't leave the house and I couldn't answer Mac's questions. Somehow, he knew. With informers, trigger-happy militia men, killers in crisp uniforms, local informers and spies, bandits ready to move in on us, it was looking to be a shallow grave somewhere or the hoosegow in Riga, maybe a Gestapo dungeon where we'd be tortured first. We both knew we had to get out of there without delay.

"It's time," Mac said.

Speechless still, I nodded my head.

"To hell with the amber," I said.

Things had worsened in the time we were overseas; it took twice as long to get back to New York, and we had some close calls in Free France before we finally hitched a ride on a tramp steamer that was actually worse than the one we had taken over to Europe. We took a room in Brooklyn close to the Battery near the Navy Yard. It was jammed with workers coming and going. America's war effort was in full swing now that the Japanese had bombed us. Mac had Garlauskas wire the money for plane tickets back to California. It was my first time in a plane. I liked it.

I never collected my full share of the loot. I was lucky to leave the deal with my life, Dragna said through one of his goons who paid me off in the Mission district. "Holy smokes, get a load of that pachuco, will ya?"

A young lad with Hispanic features wearing a purple pork pie hat and orange zoot suit walked past us. He was swinging a long watch chain in one hand. I watched his jaunty stride while he crossed the street. The zoot suit had come up to San Francisco from Los Angeles. Down in LA, riots broke out involving these zoot-suited young Mexican-Americans and the white servicemen heading overseas to war from the port of LA.

"Yeah," I said. "Herb Caen is complaining there's six-hundred-thousand people in the city nowadays. Traffic's getting terrible."

The big lunk looked at me and asked: "Who's Herb Caen?"

Most of the money I had coming from the amber was "confiscated" by Jack Dragna. "Think of it as a fee for leaving me in the lurch," he said.

I used half of what I had left to do something that had been sticking in my craw ever since my experience in the Rumbula forest. I had the best forger in town make me a set of papers that gave me a brand-new identity. I joined the Army. I asked for a combat division and I got II Corps, the 45th Infantry of Seventh Army. We landed in Sicily and fought our way through Palermo up Monte Cassino along with nineteen other divisions. The war ended for me in Hürtgen Forest in Germany at the "The Battle of the Bulge." I was frostbitten, lost two fingers, and was wounded toward the end of those three miserably cold months. I wound up losing an arm and was sent home to recover.

Before I left for boot camp, I called Mac, who got paid the full amount (much less than both of us thought, however) and told me I was a "sucker" for not going back to Latvia "because of a measly world war." This time, he said, Dragna was sending Garlauskas with him. The operation was too successful to close down. I tried to talk him out of it in that same diner in Daly City, but he had those dollar signs in his eyes again.

That small-timer who had caught Bugsy Siegel's eye, the one I'd read about in Latvia from those old newspapers, turned out to be Mickey Cohen. He took over the LA rackets around the time Mac left for his second amber excursion. Mac never came home, and I live in a boarding house on a pension. I still read Herb Caen. His columns are like love letters to San Francisco; he calls it "Baghdad-on-the-Bay."

I take long walks downtown and sometimes pass by the Francis Drake Hotel, where I used to work the night shift. I think back to when Hedy Lamarr stayed there, around the time I went off searching for amber with Mac.

The world's a crazy mess. I spent most of my life helping to make it that way until that day in the forest outside Riga. Now I'm just taking my time, watching life pass me by, a one-armed man in a city he once despised. Maybe, like Herb Caen, I'll get to love it someday.

There's an ancient myth I read one afternoon in the library about amber. The god Phaeton was riding his chariot when it fell down and burned the whole continent of Africa and turned its people black. Zeus, the boss of the gods back then, got mad and shot him out of the skies with a thunderbolt. Phaeton's sisters bawled when they came across his dead body. That just made Zeus angrier, so he changed them into trees. Their petrified tears are amber.

Wiktor wasn't stupid. He knew those trees contained sacks of amber. That day in the forest, he told me a story from his country's folklore in his broken English, which I remember this way:

"Once upon a time, a beautiful princess lived in a palace made of amber. She was lonely and unhappy. One day she fell in love with a poor fisherman. But when the King of the Sea discovered the lovers, he was furious and shot a thunderbolt at the fisherman, killing him stone dead. Then he murdered the princess and busted up the beautiful amber palace for good measure. Those tiny pieces fell into the sea and during storms, the Baltic Sea tosses them onto the beach."

Wiktor smiled when he finished the story, and I said to him: "You know, it's like that everywhere in the world. The toughest, most vicious guy always wins."

"No, you're wrong," Wiktor said to me - and I remember to this day the sadness in his voice: "It's to make us remember the power of great love."

Maybe he's right about that.


  1. I thought you made good use of local, historical and ethnic idiom; you also employed events, eras and specific time-relevant factoids to enrich and give your story more believability and authenticity. Nicely done.

    1. Bill, Thank you. It was learning about Hedy Lamarr's invention for the Navy that inspired the rest of the story. --Robb

  2. Interesting period piece. Sounds as if the author were there.

    1. Much appreciated, Ken. --Robb

  3. I hadn't heard Herb Caen's name in years - I grew up in the area. This was a super read and I agree with the others in that this had huge authenticity.

    1. I spent a wonderful couple days in San Francisco sight-seeing decades back. Never made it out to Alcatraz, however, and I think the story was my way of saying thanks to a great city.