Read an Excerpt
An Alan Graham Mystery
By Malcolm K. Shuman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2001 Malcolm K. Shuman
All rights reserved.
I checked into the Hotel Colón and wondered if it was going to be the second time a woman had stood me up there. The first time had been fifteen years ago and the woman had been Felicia Esquivel. My wife. I hadn't been back to Mérida or the Yucatán since. This time, Pepper had assured me, things would be different. And they were, mostly: the automated customs procedure, the new Mexican money, the periférico, or loop, around the city. The only thing that was the same was that I was waiting for another woman: Pepper.
Coming to Mexico had been a tough decision. There were too many memories, both good and bad. The happiest days of my life had been spent here, as a young archaeologist intoxicated with the history, the culture, and the people. I'd made friends, learned the Spanish and Mayan languages, and immersed myself in the exploration of ancient Mayan sites. I'd also met Felicia Esquivel.
We'd fallen in love and, after a three-month courtship, I'd convinced her to marry me, not realizing the demons that lurked in her tempestuous psyche. Then, one day, I'd waited for her at the Hotel Colón and she didn't come. It was only later I found out she'd been with another man, a German archaeologist.
I'd told Pepper I wasn't sure I was ready to come back, and she'd asked if I would ever be. She'd pointed out that I talked about Mexico frequently and that sometimes at night I shot upright in bed from dreams in which I'd been walking the streets of Mérida and prowling tumbled pre-Columbian rains. Was I really going to let what was now ancient history keep me away? I'd complained about her going back for summer work with Eric Blackburn at Lubaanah, on the east side of the peninsula. So why not come down and visit? Eric was easy to get along with, and he was eager to meet me. Besides, I needed a vacation—she could tell that by the way I'd been for the last six months or so before she'd left for Mexico in June.
I'd debated it long and hard. The company couldn't survive without me, someone should be close enough to the phone to handle Bertha Bomberg's unreasonable demands when the Corps of Engineers came calling, and there was a major proposal that was still out.
Marilyn, my office manager, told me she'd quit if I didn't go, and David Goldman, my main associate, told me he was tired of seeing me moping.
They didn't leave me much choice.
And so, after stalling as long as I could, I'd made reservations for early August, but had found out there were no available seats on the flights to Cancún, so I'd have to fly into Mérida, the old colonial capital on the west side of the peninsula. Pepper had said she'd come up and meet me at the airport, but at the last minute her plans had changed: We'd meet at the Hotel Colón at four, just as the siesta hour ended. That would give her time to drive the two hundred miles from Bacalar, where the expedition was headquartered.
I told myself, as I stood in the cool lobby, smelling a mixture of bus exhaust from the street and bougainvillea from the patio, that I was hypersensitive. I could have made reservations at another hotel, but I'd opted to confront the demons at the beginning and be done with them. Then, too, I was disoriented from the changes I'd already noted: fewer Indian women in huipiles, the brightly embroidered smocks that had been common in years before; fewer men wearing sandals, which before had been the sure mark of Indian status for males; a total inability to understand what the dollars in my wallet would buy these days; a pervasive use of Spanish, as opposed to Maya, among the people I'd passed when I'd walked down to the main plaza to kill the rest of the faltering afternoon. I was going to have to get my bearings all over again.
Where the hell was Pepper when I needed her?
Then I thought of the long, narrow main highway between Bacalar and Carrillo Puerto, the rain forest home of the insurgent Maya of the nineteenth century, and the equally narrow road that arrowed northwest from Carrillo Puerto toward Mérida. There were lots of crazy drivers and even crazier truckers down here. What if ...?
I walked back down to the plaza, got an orange juice at an open-air café, and when I came back the desk clerk handed me a note.
It was written in Spanish and he said he'd taken it down word for word from the Americana who'd called. I thanked him and moved into the light from the open doorway.
I'm sorry I can't make it. I was supposed to pick up Paul Hayes at a little village called Tres Cabras, just south of Carrillo Puerto, and bring him to Mérida with me so he could do research in the museum. But he never showed up. I'll wait until just before dark and if he doesn't come I'll go back to the camp at Bacalar. If you can rent a car tomorrow morning, I'll meet you in Carrillo Puerto at the Balam Nah at four o'clock. I'm sorry.
The clerk had done the best he could with a strange gringo name. He was a young man with slicked-back hair and a thin mustache, and he smiled as I stuck the note in my guayabera pocket.
"You ever hear of a place near Carrillo Puerto called Tres Cabras?" I asked in Spanish.
He nodded. "Sure. But that's a bad area. Muchos narcotraficantes. Drug smuggling everywhere. I tried to tell the señorita, but ..." He shrugged.
"If this place is so small, how could she have called?"
"Señor, almost every village in Yucatán has a telephone these days. You pay the owner a few pesos, and ..."
"Of course." Why should I be surprised? "Look, did she say anything else?"
He grinned. "I didn't write it," he said.
"Didn't write what?"
"What she said at the end. Ella le quiere. She loves you."
That night I ate at Los Almendros, which, to my chagrin, it took me an hour to find. I had poc chuc, a braised pork served with black beans and a stack of tortillas, and I washed it down with three Superiores. The place was full of tourists and it seemed to lack the charm I associated with it in my memory. But maybe my memory was playing tricks, and maybe the restaurant had never really been the way I remembered. I tore my thoughts away to the matter at hand.
I knew of Paul Hayes, the man Pepper had gone to pick up at Tres Cabras. Retired now, he was a linguist who'd done some of the early, crucial work on breaking the Mayan glyphic code. Pepper had mentioned him from time to time, but I wondered what he was doing by himself in a tiny settlement and why he wouldn't show up when he should.
I lay in the air conditioning and told myself everything was all right: Hayes was not just a linguist but an epigrapher, and such people were known for their eccentricity. He'd been working in Mesoamerica while I was still in high school, so there was no reason to be concerned. If he hadn't appeared, then Pepper would drive back to the camp. Hayes was old enough to take care of himself. And nothing would happen to Pepper on the highway in broad daylight.
There was nothing to worry about. I was back in Yucatán, where it had all started for me so many years ago, and I was home. Everything would be fine.
I knew it would.CHAPTER 2
The next morning I ate huevos motuleños at a cafe on the main plaza and then walked down to one of the car rental agencies in one of the narrow, brick-paved streets that threaded their way to the main square. I got a new Dodge Neon and a city and state map, and then bought a hammock from a sidewalk vendor. I drove west, to Avenida Itzaes, a four-lane boulevard with frangipani flowers in the median. They were called flamboyán, and in May, when they bloomed, the whole avenue would have a row of flame down the center strip. I followed the boulevard south, past the airport, all the way to the highway. The road split, one route heading to Campeche and the other to Muná, and the latter was the one I took, rolling down the window to let the heat blast my face, feeling all the tension of the last fifteen years sloughing off like dead skin. I passed ancient haciendas that had fallen to ruin and saw jumbled heaps of stones in the bare, flat fields, marking the locations of ancient Mayan ruins. In days past, the fields had been sown with green henequen, from which rope was made, but I remembered Pepper telling me that henequen, the economic mainstay of Yucatan for a hundred years, was a thing of the past. It had been replaced by maquilladoras, where the former henequen workers produced clothes for the American market.
How many times had I driven this road in times past? How many times had I seen these same stone walls, running alongside the highway, passed the little church shaded by the ceiba tree, passed campesinos on bicycles, pedaling slowly toward their villages under the grinding sun?
Now I saw the first cornfields, the crop half grown by now and yellowing in the drought. I was leaving the arid northwestern corner of the peninsula and entering corn-farming country, and even though it was August, I let myself imagine there was still an odor of smoke in the air from the burning of the fields four months before. The man at the hotel said there'd been no real rain for a month, which was unusual. I could tell the corn was suffering, from the yellow color of the stalks. Soon, now, each village would be calling on its h-men, or ritualist, to do Chhachaac, the rain ceremony. Surely they still did Chhachaac.
I came to Muná, a dusty little town nestled at the base of the puuc hills, a low range that provided the only topographic relief in the whole peninsula. I found a shoe store and bought a pair of alpargatas, or sandals with soles made from old tire treads. Then I went back to my car, removed my socks and shoes, and slipped my feet into my new footwear. My feet would bleed for a week or so until the new leather became pliable, but that was okay: The pain would be one more verification that I was where I wanted to be.
Yeah, I know: just another silly old gringo pretending he was young again and that the year was 1986.
I took the highway east out of Muná, running alongside the hills and slowing for a string of towns: Ticul, Oxkutzcab, Tekáx ... The towns had grown larger, and in Oxkutzcab there was a bypass that I ignored, because I craved the sight of the old market and the people gathered in its shade, drinking liquadas and eating tacos from the stalls.
I bought some tacos from a vendor and noticed that here also the people who walked past were speaking Spanish instead of Mayan.
The books of Chilam Balam, the Mayan prophet who had supposedly foretold the coming of the Spaniards, mentioned these towns in their migration narratives. Ticul, the place where the Mayan Itzá kings were seated; Oxkutzcab, the place of good tobacco; Tekáx, the place of the wilderness.
I drank in the sights and smells and wondered if my life at home, in the States, had been a dream. Because now, as I shot down the two-lane highway, with cornfields and orchards on either side and men on foot carrying stacks of firewood on their backs with the help of tumplines, I felt as if I'd never left.
It was a dangerous mood, because fifteen years ago I'd taken the same road to find Felicia after she hadn't met me in Mérida and when I'd reached the archaeology camp a few miles west of Chetumal I'd found out the truth.
Last night I'd dreamed of her for the first time since meeting Pepper. Felicia was telling me that I'd only imagined my life in the States and that no one I'd met there was real, as I'd find out when I reached the camp.
I shoved the dream out of my consciousness and tried to concentrate on driving.
After Tekáx there isn't much, just a few little towns shimmering in the dry heat. I was headed for the last stronghold of the Maya, in what, a hundred years ago, had been deep rain forest.
At Polyuc I came to the first army roadblock. They were set up to stop westbound traffic and they waved me through, but I saw a Honda they'd pulled over, with its doors open and hood up.
There'd never been army roadblocks in the old days and I had a sense of foreboding.
I reached Carrillo Puerto at a quarter to four and gassed up at the Pemex station. Then I made my way to the old church that dominated the east side of the main plaza.
The Balam Nah, it was called in Mayan: the House of the Lord. The rebellious Maya had built it in the mid-nineteenth century, patterning it after a Catholic church. In it, they'd worshiped God, who revealed Himself through a talking cross. With the help of an interpreter, the cross had advised them on battle strategy and admonished them when they failed. They called the town Chan Santa Cruz, or the Little Holy Cross. And they'd been safe here until a hundred years ago, when a stubborn Mexican general named Bravo had built a railroad from Mérida all the way through the jungle to this town, using the rails to ferry soldiers and ammunition. The Mexican army had entered Chan Santa Cruz early in May 1901, but the Maya had fled. Years later, after the last rebels had been seduced into capitalism by the chicle trade, the town was renamed Carrillo Puerto, after the martyred socialist governor of Yucatan. But the cult of the talking cross still existed in little villages scattered throughout the forest.
Now I waited in front of the old church and wondered if the desk clerk in Mérida had understood Pepper correctly.
When five-thirty came and went, I decided he hadn't.
All I could do now was drive south to the archaeology camp at Bacalar and try to find out what was happening.
There was another army roadblock on the southern outskirts of town and this time they were checking traffic from both directions.
I showed my passport and car rental papers and the soldier nodded and handed them back. As I was returning them to the glove compartment, I noticed a Humvee coming from the other direction. But instead of pulling it over, the soldiers waved it past, and I caught a glimpse of the dark, round-faced driver.
The village of Tres Cabras was so tiny I almost missed it, just a cinder-block store with a Coca Cola sign, a Baptist mission with a basketball court, and a pair of speed bumps. I pulled in at the store and nodded to the big-eyed children who watched me get out of the car. A fat man in a T-shirt was behind the counter. I told him I was looking for a gringa and showed him Pepper's photograph. "Her name is Pepper Courtney," I said.
He nodded. "Sí, como no? She used the telephone. She came yesterday and waited for a long time and then left, and then she came back again this morning."
"Did she leave again?"
"She took the road to Oxté." He gestured behind him.
"Ten o'clock, maybe eleven."
"And she didn't come back?"
"No, señor. I tried to tell her it wasn't a good road, but she was looking for the other one, the old gringo."
"How far is Oxté?"
"Thirty kilometers. I told her it wasn't a good place to go." He shook his head. "Muchas contrabandistas. Es peligrosisimo. The drug smugglers will kill anyone."
"Is it possible she could have returned another way? A way you wouldn't have seen?"
"This is the only way in, señor, and the only way out." He shook his head again. "I told her not to go."
"Where is this road?" I asked.
He left the counter and walked out into the fading sunlight. I smelled wood fires and the odor of pork cooking.
"Over there." He pointed and I saw an unpaved track leading into the trees. "It goes to the coast. Oxté used to be a fishing village. Now ..." He shrugged. "It isn't a good place to go."
I thanked him, got back into the car, and drove onto the track. Its surface was red earth, stable enough so long as there was no rain. I had an hour at most before darkness. Thirty kilometers was just under twenty miles. I decided I'd go as far as I could in half an hour.
Behind me, at the clutch of cinder-block houses that was Tres Cabras, eyes watched me, no doubt wondering at the foolhardiness of gringos. I nudged the accelerator and started down the narrow trail.
Excerpted from Last Mayan by Malcolm K. Shuman. Copyright © 2001 Malcolm K. Shuman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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