Friday

Belize Survivor, part 101

In the months that followed, the home-based business in San Ignacio began to boom for Alexis. Many of the visitors to the jewelry room gift shop in Miss Carmen’s house were young British soldiers, lonely for company and anxious to find a keepsake for their girlfriends back home. Belizeans came to buy occasionally, but most of the visitors to the Lost Gringo Trading Company were young wide-eyed Americans and Europeans on vacation. Although tourism was still in its infancy, recent interest had grown after a feature story in National Geographic, and as a result, a few hardy souls were venturing inland to visit the Mayan ruins. With them came their U.S. dollars, money which was happily spent on black coral souvenirs.

Other visitors had a different look – shady characters with dark eyes and obscure backgrounds. On the run from authorities, some were drug smugglers looking for pilots, suppliers, and middlemen; others were corrupt opportunists and speculators, drawn to small gringo-owned businesses in the same manner as a vulture is attracted to dead meat.

Even before he opened his mouth, Alexis took a dislike to the tall man standing in her doorway. With his large nose jutting out beneath hooded eyes and shaved head, Alexis noticed the shiny scar above his eyebrow. The man sniffed perpetually and his stance and attitude gave clear warning signals.

"I'm here to see Maximilian. My name's Brad Tongas. Is he here?"

"No, he's not. May I help you with something?"

"Are you Mrs. Maximilian?"

"Max is his first name. Max Lord. I am his wife, Alexis Lord. Are you a friend of his? Or are you looking to buy something?"
The corner of his mouth rose up further, as if he were about to make a smart remark and then thought the better of it.

“Not exactly," he said. "He and I have a mutual friend. His name is Perez." The name was familiar, and Alexis couldn't place it where she’d heard it.

"Max is right down the road at the San Ignacio Hotel having a beer if you want to go look for him. Otherwise, you can come back later. He should be back in an hour or so."

"Okay thanks." Without another word, the man turned abruptly. As he walked away, Alexis noticed a slight bulge under his shirt at his waistline. Then it struck her. The man was concealing a gun.

Alexis could hardly keep up with the volume of jewelry sales at the Lost Gringo Trading Company. Sometimes the steady stream of customers prevented her from making any headway at all on her daily quota, so she hired a local girl named Lupita to help with the household chores and Jordan, and assist her in black coral production. In the beginning, she had made black coral beads, pendants, and earrings from polished branches. But, as her skill progressed, she had perfected three-dimensional carvings of sharks, sailboats, and porpoises. Now, more interesting and unusual challenges were arising from Her Majesty’s contingent. An officer stopped into her shop one afternoon with one such request.

“I say, Alexis, do you think you could make a miniature black coral helicopter? Not one of those little Scouts or Gazelles, mind you. Those are Army Air Corps. I'm RAF, Royal Air Force, and we fly Pumas. Are you familiar with them?"

"Not really,” she replied. “But if I had a line drawing of one, front view, side view, rear view, I could probably carve it for you."

The end result was a precise miniature of the Puma with authentic air intakes of inlaid silver and tiny hammered silver blades and rotor. The RAF officer was overjoyed. He paid Alexis more than what she asked and took the small treasure back to Airport Camp. Within a few days, she found herself swamped with custom orders.

Several officers were interested in larger works of art. Through experimentation Alexis had learned that black coral could be bonded and joined by a special process. The only real limitation was the size of the raw stock. So when an officer asked if she could make a sailfish large enough for a tabletop conversation piece, she was thrilled with the challenge. By using seventeen individual pieces of black coral, Alexis carved, bonded, and shaped an eleven-inch sailfish with a narrow bill and graceful arching sail. She mounted the finished product on a piece of teak and sold it for a hundred and fifty dollars.

After that, the sky was the limit. One after another, the requests for elaborate custom projects came rolling in. Another RAF officer commissioned her to make a five-inch Harrier jet fighter which she mounted on a piece of rosewood. A wealthy Belizean woman asked her to carve the torso of a pregnant woman for her obstetrician to use as a paperweight. For another customer, she made an African woman of black coral, naked to the waist, with a basket balanced on her head. At last, Alexis had found a market for her creative talent and it was making money for her.