I looked all over the crate. “There’s no label, no bill of lading. Completely unmarked. Clearly, these figures are being smuggled in, but are they worth that much?”
I pulled one of the figures over again, and began to really inspect it. The jade was perfectly polished. It didn’t seem like it was that old. I couldn’t explain it, but old things felt old. Just walking among things in a museum, I could feel the age of some of the exhibits, but I wasn’t getting that feeling from these figures. I used my phone’s camera to zoom in on the details.
The phone wasn’t as good as my Nikon, but it worked in a pinch, bringing up details I didn’t notice before, such as the nose, which looked fully sculpted instead of just a bump on the face. There were even two dimples for the nostrils. The eyes also looked very realistic, and carved with exquisite precision. The eyes were wide, and mouth open. If I had to guess, the woman looked afraid, aided by her pose with her arms close together. I set it aside.
The next figure had the same exquisite facial details, but instead of a huddled pose, she stood rigidly. She wore a Chinese style dress, so detailed that the flowers climbing up one side of the dress had been carved in—no, they were carved out, raised above the dress itself like embroidery would be.
There’s no way this could be carved by hand. Was it done with some sort of machine?
I had heard of computer-controlled tools that were supposedly ultraprecise. I didn’t know anything about them, though. Clearly, though, these were not ancient carvings. No ancient hand tool could produce this level of detail.
I set it aside and picked up another one.
“Do you hear that?” Nikki whispered.
I listened intently, then shook my head. “No,” I whispered back. “What do you hear?”
She held up a hand, concentrating.
I went back to my own figure. This one looked in more of a fun pose. She stood on tiptoe with one foot while the other leg lifted up revealing a lot of thigh where her skirt rose. She had on a big smile, but something was off. Her eyes didn’t share in the same joy that her smile suggested. I used the phone again to zoom in close. The eye was very detailed, but didn’t share the smile. Instead, it felt forced. There was something in the corner of her eye, too. I thought it might be an imperfection. I rubbed a finger over it, feeling it raised up slightly. Whatever it was, it was too small for the camera to make out clearly.
“I think . . . I think it’s. . . .” Nikki trailed off, her ear to the figure.
It all clicked, then.
“A heartbeat,” Nikki breathed.
All of the details, the poses, and the expressions. These were real people. What I thought was an imperfection on the last was a single tear, about to roll down her cheek, frozen in jade.