The Corundum Conundrum
(A Mineralogical Murder Mystery)

by Stephen Bespalko

Lithosphere (June 1994); Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society, Inc.; Fallbrook, CA

"Mr. Hewitt requires you in the den," the butler announced to the two young women who were huddled together in the middle of the bedroom. Strewn around them were dozens of travel brochures.

"Thank you, Bubkis," Realgar said.

"That's Bukvitz, Madame," he said, hiding his anger at the insult.

"What do you think he wants this time?" Orpiment asked.

"Who knows?" Realgar shrugged. "He complains about everything."

"Probably," Orpiment went on, "he's going to tell us that it's okay for us to go to Europe just before your birthday in August instead of waiting for mine in September. He'll complain about the two weeks we'll be away from the office before giving in."

Realgar agreed, "Considering all the work we do for his silly company, it's the least he can do. If your birthday was only two weeks later in September, we would be arriving on the first day of Oktoberfest, which starts on the 24th this year. We might as well go the last week of August and not worry about the weather."

"I agree. Let's go in August," Orpiment said as they got up to walk out of the bedroom.

"Do you think we should ask him about . . . you know," Realgar said haltingly.

"No!" Orpiment snapped back. "He'd never do it. Making the survey public would not only ruin us, it would ruin Keith and Uncle, too, for that matter."

"Well, ok," Realgar said. But secretly she wasn't convinced. The fear of what Keith could do to them was causing her stomach to churn.

As they approached the den, Realgar and Orpiment could hear raised voices through the closed door. One of the voices belonged to Ronald Hewitt, a man who had grown wealthy designing housing tracts along the California coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The other voice belonged to Keith Hernandez, Vice President of Operations for Hewitt's architectural design company.

The room itself was comfortable, but reflected Hewitt's position. Along three of the walls were display cases with shelf upon shelf of spectacular gems and mineral specimens. On a small table between the two men sat a spectacular ruby in a baseball-sized matrix. Upon entering the room, Realgar noticed the specimen and assumed that her uncle was explaining that it was what the stone in Keith's ring looked like before it was cut. She tried to get the conversation off on a cordial note.

"Gee, ruby may only be a 9, but it's a 10 in my book any day."

Ronald saw Keith's puzzled look and explained, "What she is referring to is the mineral's hardness. Ruby along with sapphire -- the other form of corundum -- is one of the harder minerals. It rates a 9 out of 10 on the hardness scale. Only a diamond is harder."

Keith shrugged revealing his lack of interest.

Thinking that Ronald was in a good mood since they had been discussing gems, Realgar decided to bring up the trip. "Gee, Uncle, Orpiment and I were just talking about going to Europe for two weeks in August . . ."

Outraged, Ronald jumped out of his chair and roared at his niece, "I can't believe that you lied to our biggest customer!"

"I didn't lie -- exactly," Realgar whimpered.

"What?" he shouted. "You told him you had finished the bid but couldn't send it because you didn't have a stamp!"

"What's the big deal, anyway?" she retorted. "We got the lousy contract."

"The big deal, as you so coyly put it, is that this is a big deal." Ronald stopped to catch his breath then, looking at his nieces, said, "I can't trust either of you with important matters anymore."

"That's a load of garbage you old fossil. Where would you be without us?" she shouted, trying not to lose control completely.

"I can tell you where I'd be. I'd be running a successful business without two ungrateful nieces." It took about two seconds for the implications of what he said to sink in, then he added, "You're fired!"

"I could just kill you, Uncle!" Realgar shrieked then marched out of the room.

"I suppose you need to start doing your hair since we only have two hours before dinner," he said sarcastically to his remaining niece.

Orpiment ignored the comment. "There was something I wanted to clear up with you, Uncle, but this clearly isn't the time," Orpiment huffed as she got up from the couch and walked out of the den.

"That's fine with me. Keith and I have a matter to attend to before dinner," said Hewitt. "I'll deal with you later."

Although everyone but Ronald had gathered in the dining room, there was little conversation. Hewitt's two nieces were sitting next to each other while their parents and various other relatives were scattered around the table at the other place settings.

Orpiment's father, Lewis Arsenic, who was seated next to his wife, Cynthia, broke the awkward silence. "So, girls, what are you planning for this year's birthday? I'm sure what ever it is, it will be good."

The two women looked at each other not quite sure what to say. Just then a loud crash was heard from the nearby den. They all rushed out of the dining room in the direction of the noise.

Lewis was the first into the den. He gasped and ran over to Ronald's outstretched body. The elder Hewitt had fallen against the display case that contained his faceted gem collection. Broken glass and sparkling stones were all around his body. Laying next to the chair in which he had been sitting was a bloody knife. The red stain on the front of Ronald's shirt made clear what had happened.

Lewis reached down and felt Ronald's neck. "He's dead," he whispered. When he realized what he had said, he added, "No one touch anything! Cynthia, call the police!"

Twenty minutes later when the police arrived, the family was milling around in the parlor just off the main entry. Bukvitz opened the door to reveal three policemen and a man in a gray raincoat.

"I'm Detective Brian Walters, homicide," he said. "Where's the body?" he added, skipping the usual condolences.

"In here," said Lewis while walking from the parlor to the den. When he opened the door, he shouted, "What are you doing?"

Realgar was standing over the body. "Look!" she said. "He's holding something in his hand."

The detective pried open the clutching hand. A large oval ruby fell out.

"It looks like the other hand is holding something, too. What's in that one?" Lewis asked.

"Nothing," the detective answered, as he struggled with the stiffening fingers of the dead man's left hand. In a louder voice than he intended Walters mumbled, "What could it mean?" Then, noticing the others watching, he added, ". . . the ruby, I mean."

"He was showing one to Keith Hernandez earlier in the evening," Realgar said. "Ruby is Keith's birthstone."

"Hey! Where is Keith? He was here a minute ago!" Lewis yelled.

Orpiment chimed in, "They were arguing when we saw them in the den just before dinner."

Realgar and Bukvitz both nodded in agreement.

Detective Walters thought about this revelation for a moment then turned to one of the officers with him and said, "Put out an APB on Hernandez and get him down to the station for questioning. I want to talk to that man!"

My name is Clifford Stone. I had moved to Fallcreek, California, after I retired from my job as an investigator for a large east coast insurance company about a year ago. Since I was the only one with an undergraduate degree in mineralogy, I ended up handling most of the cases involving jewelry or collections of gems. The latter were far more interesting.

When the phone rang, I had no idea that offering to do my former employer a favor would get me involved in my first murder investigation.


"Hello, Cliff. This is Wayne Corbett with Hartford Hazard."

Wayne had replaced me when I retired. He was young and had promise as an investigator -- but not in this lifetime.

"Well, Wayne," I said, attempting to disguise my disgust, "what a surprise. What's up?"

"We're swamped with cases and we could use some help. We have to settle the estate of one of your old clients, Ronald Hewitt, and we simply don't have the time to do it ourselves."

"What happened to Ronald?" I asked with some surprise. Although Hewitt was getting on in years, I thought he had a long time to go.

The one-word answer shocked me.


"You've got to be kidding," I stammered.

"Nope, they are holding one of the dead man's employees, a guy named Keith Hernandez. Seems pretty straightforward. It turns out that the police found the key piece of evidence in Hewitt's hand. All we need you to do is update the value of his gem and mineral collection."

I knew that Hewitt had lived in the swank hills up above Santa Barbara about two hours from my home, so I agreed to handle the case for them. Besides, I knew about Ronald's spectacular collection and looked forward to the chance of examining it up close. Wayne and I agreed on a fee of $110 per hour plus expenses and hung up.

I drove up to Santa Barbara and checked into a cheap place near the beach. The next morning I went down to the police station and looked up the detective who was assigned to the case. He was unusually helpful. He let me look at the case file with almost no coercion.

The pictures troubled me for a reason that I couldn't quite articulate. "Hmm. From the pattern of smeared blood on the glass doors it looks like he tried to get into more than one display case."

"We noticed that too," said Detective Walters. "Considering the shape he was in from the knife wound, he couldn't shout. We were amazed that he could even walk. We think he just wasn't that stable and leaned against the other cases to stay up."

"Was there anything missing?" I asked, still trying to figure out what was bothering me.

"The place was a mess by the time we got there but we don't think so. I presume you're here to answer that question."

"Well, I suppose I am."

"How long had you known him?" the detective asked, while I looked through more of the pictures.

"About twenty years. Why?"

"I was just wondering about those two nieces. They really stand to come out of this pretty well off. But I understand there was no love lost between them," he said.

"He brought them up like daughters," I replied, "taught them the business and even sent them on trips around the world for their birthdays, which are coming up pretty soon."

"So you don't think they could have done it?" Walters probed.

"I sort of doubt it, but it's been a while since I've seen them. What did the forensics guys make of the wounds on the left hand?" I asked after noticing two small puncture marks in the middle of Ronald's hand.

"Not much," he answered. "It could have been from the knife." The detective sounded unsure of himself.

"It seems strange that knife wounds would be so shallow and close together like that," I offered.

"Yeah, that bothers me too."

"Well, I suppose I'll go out to the house and get started. I'll let you know if I uncover anything interesting," I said hopefully.

"Great," he said, less than enthusiastically.

I finished the inventory in three days, drove back to Fallcreek, took a week to write the report, then mailed it along with the bill for my services. I came up with two and a quarter million dollars for the gems and four-hundred grand for the mineral specimens. Four days later I got an angry call from Wayne Corbett.

"Cliff, you must have made a mistake with the inventory," he said.

"Well, hello to you too," I said with more than a little annoyance. "Are you talking about the one ruby that is unaccounted for?"

"Sorry, Cliff," he said with a minimal softening of his voice. "No. We aren't concerned about the small ruby. The missing stone is a recently acquired 30 carat, pink, marquise-cut diamond that has to be worth at least three million, easy. What gives?"

"There was no 30 carat anything in the collection I saw," I stated. "How can you think I'd miss something that big?"

I thought about this new information for a moment and exclaimed, "Oh, no! The police are holding the wrong person for the murder! I know who did it!"

Detective Walters and Wayne Corbett were sitting with me in the hotel lobby after the grand jury heard our testimony. It probably wouldn't matter since Orpiment confessed and Realgar and Hernandez were singing like birds to avoid getting sucked further into the mess.

"So, Cliff, what gave it away?" Walters asked.

"It turned out to be the combination of the two stones," I said. "It bothered me that Hewitt was found clutching the ruby. I couldn't make any sense out of it. I thought that it might have been an attempt to identify his murderer -- but how? Was it just the fact that it was Keith's birthstone, or did it mean something else that pointed to the murderer."

"Well?" the detective prodded.

"Hewitt must have been holding the two stones when Orpiment came back to see if he was dead. They struggled, which was when he punctured his hand squeezing the pointed ends of the diamond. Then, when Orpiment heard Realgar coming, she grabbed the two stones and ran," I said matter-of-factly.

"Ah!" said Walters with apparent satisfaction.

"So, he only had enough time to get another ruby before he died," Wayne interjected. Perhaps Corbett had talent after all.

"Right!" agreed the detective.

"But what was it about the diamond and ruby that only pointed directly to Orpiment?" Corbett asked.

"Yeah?" inquired Walters.

Corbett's question raised my level of interest. "It was a process of elimination," I explained. "We know that Orpiment, Realgar, and Keith were being blackmailed by Hewitt. That sort of narrows the field."

"Check!" said Walters.

Corbett interrupted, "So, if Hewitt wanted to signal Orpiment and Realgar, he would have picked their birthstones -- a sapphire and probably a peridot. If Hernandez was in on it, it would have been one of those two stones and a ruby."

"Yup!" agreed Walters.

I closed my eyes slowly and thought to myself, "I'm talking to a pair of idiots . . ."

"It wasn't birthstones," I said testily. "The fact that Hewitt had been holding a diamond, coupled with the fact that no one in the house at the time was born in April, means that Hewitt didn't pick birthstones."

"Uhh . . ." Walters, again.

"So, I thought about the properties of the gems. Color couldn't have mattered," I said.

"Nope," said Walters.

At this point I started wondering if Walters was capable of anything other than one syllable sentences.

I continued, staring at the detective, "The weight of the stones didn't get me anywhere but the hardness did. The hardness of a ruby is 9 and the hardness of a diamond is 10. Nine-ten could stand for September 10. And September 10th is . . ."

"Orpiment's birthday!" Corbett blurted out.

"Right! By the way did you ever find the stones?" I asked, even though I knew the answer.

"Nope. Do you have any idea where they might be?" Corbett asked.

"How much do I get if I find them?" I countered, always eager to go rock hunting.

"You guys are all the same," Corbett said.

"Guilty as charged!" I willingly admitted. "So, how much do I get?"

Copyright © 1994 by Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society, Inc.

The preceding article was originally published in the June 1994 issue of Lithosphere, the official bulletin of the Fallbrook [California] Gem and Mineral Society, Inc; Richard Busch (Editor).

Permission to reproduce and distribute this material, in whole or in part, for non-commercial purposes, is hereby granted provided the sense or meaning of the material is not changed and the author's notice of copyright is retained.

Last updated: 18 September 2002