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THE DISTINCTIVE SKYLINE of the Strip could be seen from the third floor of Wright Hall at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The Eiffel Tower, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof, shared the view with a giant neon Coke bottle, a forty-five-foot-tall golden lion, and other eye-catching landmarks. Vivian Mc Queen gazed longingly at the glamorous hotels and casinos, barely more than a mile away. Maybe she could talk her husband into a night on the town after work? It had been too long since they'd gone out to dinner somewhere nice. Bellagio, she mused, or perhaps the MGM Grand?
Sipping on a late-afternoon cup of coffee, she strolled back to her desk at the center of the college's Department of Anthropology and Ethnic Studies. Professors, aides, and students filled the bustling corridors surrounding her cubicle. Her inbox was overflowing with schedule changes, budget reports, grant applications, scholarship requests, and other paperwork. As office manager, Vivian liked to think that she kept the entire department running smoothly, but she wouldn't have objected to a few more administrative assistants. A UNLV calendar, extensively annotated, was pinned to her bulletin board, next to various memos and news clippings. A plush college mascot perched atop her computer monitor. Framed photos of her kids added a personal touch to her desk. A bowl of Hershey's Kisses betrayed her sweet tooth.
"Excuse me?" A nervous-looking freshman approached her desk. Judging from his gray complexion and hungover body language, he had been doing more partying than studying lately. "Is it too late to transfer out of Dr. LeGault's Cultural Studies class?"
She reached automatically for the appropriate form. "Fill this out, and get it signed by Friday."
Clutching the document as if it were a stay of execution, the student awkwardly retreated from Vivian's domain, nearly bumping into the mail cart as it parked right outside the cubicle.
"Hey there, Viv!" Henry greeted her. The jovial mailroom guy glanced at the clock on the wall, which was steadily creeping toward five P.M. "Ready to call it a day?"
"And then some." She could practically taste the Grand's exquisite Kobe beef. "What have you got for me?"
Nothing too urgent, she hoped. I'm getting out of here on time for once.
"Don't ask me." He dropped a stack of correspondence on her desk, along with a package wrapped in plain brown paper. About the size of a shoebox, the parcel was addressed to the head of the department, Professor Malcolm Kim. Colored labels, reading "Fragile" and "Handle with Care," were affixed to the wrapping. "I just deliver this stuff."
He continued on his rounds, leaving her alone with the daunting stack of mail. Unwilling to face all of the various envelopes just yet, she contemplated the parcel. That's funny, she noted, there doesn't seem to be a return address. She hefted the bundle experimentally and found it lighter than, say, a textbook. Wonder what's inside. It was the wrong size and shape for a manuscript. Maybe some sort of lightweight fossil?
As far as she knew, Professor Kim wasn't expecting any new artifacts, but perhaps one of his colleagues or former students had dropped one in the mail anyway? Dr. Kim was a popular instructor with many successful former protégés, after all.
Succumbing to curiosity, Vivian reached for her letter opener. She routinely screened Dr. Kim's mail for him, so she knew he wouldn't mind. The brown paper was quickly consigned to the wastebasket beneath her desk, exposing a plain cardboard box with no obvious markings. Lifting the lid, she found the interior packed with crumpled tissue paper. A folded piece of paper, about the size of a memo pad, rested on top of the tissues. Intrigued, she unfolded the paper to read the inscription printed inside in bold red type:
The foreign-sounding phrase meant nothing to her. Was it a message or the name of the sender? Putting the note aside, she looked to see what else was in the box. Careful, she reminded herself. The wrapper said "FRAGILE." Her fingers gently peeled away the protective tissues.
A shriveled little face looked up at her.
A startled yelp escaped her lips. Vivian yanked her hands back as though she had accidentally touched a red-hot coal. Her dinner plans -- and appetite -- completely disappeared.
Inside the box was a shrunken head.
Copyright © 2008 by CBS Broadcasting Inc. and Entertainment