A novice archaeologist, Clay Holliman came to the Yucatán Peninsula in search of the secrets of the Maya. Taken in by the family of Doctor Leon, an expert on the local excavations, Clay discovered a world where the mysteries were not fully buried—where even the city was a jungle. Ten years later, his career is in a tailspin, Doctor Leon is dead, and the Yucatán is calling him home.
Although he tells the man at customs that he has not come to dig, it will not be long before Holliman is lured back into the jungle. He goes to the infamous site at Chan Chen that has already claimed the reputations and lives of several brilliant archaeologists, and which Holliman must conquer if he is to unearth the truth about the jungle—and himself.
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About the Author
Malcolm Shuman is an American author and archaeologist from Louisiana. After serving in the US Army, Shuman pursued doctoral studies in the field of cultural anthropology. He has been on the faculty of universities including Texas A&I and Louisiana State, and continues to work as a contract archaeologist. Shuman has also published fifteen mystery novels under various pseudonyms. He lives with his wife in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Read an Excerpt
A Pete Brady Mystery
By Malcolm Shuman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1981 Nordon Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The man in the hammock heard the plane as it passed overhead, the thunder of its descent breaking the stillness of the afternoon. A moment later its shadow crossed the window, and when he craned his head to look out he saw it, hot silver against the blue sky, wheels already down, as it sank toward the earth like a bird that had burned itself against the sun. Then it was gone and after a few seconds its sound was gone, too, and the only noise was the barking of a dog, somewhere on the other side of the plaza.
New Orleans. He turned his head back to face the bare plaster walls and suddenly he felt something tighten in the pit of his stomach. He shoved the wall with his foot, setting the hammock into motion, stirring the thick air. He only had the feelings when something, like the plane, caught him by surprise. He wiped an arm across his face, blotting the sweat. Of all the times, April was the worst. A slow oven. Well, he had made it through three Aprils here. After all, it was just a question of endurance. You just hunkered down like the campesinos and endured. In another month, with luck, would come the rains.
Now even the dog had stopped barking, like everything else beaten down by the heat, and the only sound in the man's universe was the regularly spaced squeaking of the hammock hooks in the wall rings. How many squeaks to a man's life, he wondered and could not fight back the crooked smile. Some anthropologist ought to do a study. It would correlate with something.
Jose Dzib, standing in the rear of the bus, bent his head to look out. The road widened all at once into a boulevard. It was bare on both sides, like all the road from Oman and Muna, with thorny brush and henequen beyond, floating in an ocean of heat, and little humps in the fields which were the mounds built by the old ones who had been killed in the flood. But in the center of the boulevard was a man frozen in brass, an upraised finger denouncing the sky, which once, in real life, had fallen on him, and Jose Dzib knew that it was the statue of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, and that they were in Merida.
Then he heard the plane. It came thundering over the highway, hung for an instant in the frame of the window, and then slipped over the cyclone fence which marked the airfield. A moment longer he could smell its fumes, and then he let his attention wander back to the boulevard. There were cars and motor bikes and businesses over on the left side now, while the aluminum fence stretched interminably ahead on the right. He took a deep breath of the air sucked in by the window. The air was hot and smelled of concrete. But it was the air of a city. He had arrived.
The man in the airplane looked down through the Plexiglas window at the green water two miles below. He tried to remember the last time, but it had been a decade ago. His dark good looks were accentuated by the frown that knotted his brows, and gave him an almost Mephistophelean appearance. A decade ago when he had been a graduate student, just into his twenties, it had all been new. Now ... The intercom announced the beginning of the descent into Merida, and he saw the Customs pier jabbing its long finger into the Gulf from the white beaches of Progreso.
Right about down there, he thought as he watched the dotting of houses which were oceanside vacation homes. A little past Yucalpeten. A white beach house with ... He shut off his thoughts and just as quickly saw the seaport die into a flat brown wasteland, sprinkled with scrub. The plane seemed to be following a thin ribbon of highway off to the left, and he could see tiny vehicles crawling along it. Rambling taxis crammed with seven, eight, nine Maya villagers on their way back from the market in Progreso with the scattering of pesos representing the day's earnings; roaring buses with bodies packed inside like so many store manikins, stopping at each little rancho or hacienda to let down an old man with chickens in a wooden crate or a stout woman with basket and sisal bag; Volkswagens and Renaults taking the Banco Agrario officials on their rounds ... He remembered it all, and so he tried to blot it all out of his mind and see the surreal, other-side-of-the-moon landscape as it had been twelve, thirteen hundred years ago, with the pyramids, temples, dwellings flung out for miles in all directions. But his imagination guttered like a candle flame, and flickered out in the blast of desolation, and all he saw was a village disappearing under the left wing, a diorama of houses centering on a toy plaza with a red water tank, like a tiny island in what had turned into a seaweed ocean. Henequen, he thought, and wondered which village it was: Chablekal, Komchen, Lubanche ... Ten years ago he would have known. Then as if to mock him he saw an archaeological mound, the ruins of some ancient pyramid, rise up out of the even rows of henequen plants, gaping with the hole someone had made to extract its treasure. The poor huts on the outskirts of the city were passing now, only a stone's toss below, and there was an avenue with a red bus creeping along it. He felt a bump as they touched ground and bent forward as the engines braked with a roar. He began to tighten his tie and fasten his collar. The plane came to a rest beside the new terminal, and he gathered up his attaché case and duty-free liquor and unbent his long legs to follow the other passengers down the aisle. He stepped from the cabin door into a blast of desert air and pounding sun. The breeze came like a current out of some inferno, and, by the time he had made it across the cement, past the fat, tired Customs guard in khaki, and into the long hall of the building, the sweat had plastered his clothes to his body. Here, out of the sun, the heat had coagulated, a heavy mass that seemed to permeate every molecule of air, and he tried not to breathe in. The footsteps of the others sounded lonely, as if each person had drawn up into himself to avoid the terrible heat. He came to three desks and presented his tourist card to the woman at one, who checked it and then passed him to another desk in the center of the hallway, behind. The officer there looked at the name on the card and then at a list before him. He gave back the card and sent him to a final desk, where a man in blue took the card, turned it over in his hands, and then looked up at the American.
"Clayton Holliman," he said, and the American nodded. The agent looked down at the card again and then back at Holliman. "This is a six months' permit. How long do you intend to be in the country?"
"Five months," Holliman said.
"What is your oocupation?"
"Archaeologist," Holliman said. He could feel a sweat drop making its way slowly down the center of his back.
The officer looked up from the card into Holliman's eyes. "To do archaeology you need a special permit. You cannot enter as a tourist."
"I'm not here to excavate," Holliman told him.
"But that is what archaeologists do," the man replied, as though instructing a slightly backward child.
"Only sometimes," Holliman said. "I'm here to evaluate the results of someone else's excavation. You've heard of John Catlett Davies, the American archaeologist who died while he was working at Bacab Tun? The son-in-law of doctor Alejandro Leon. You know el doctor Leon?"
It was impossible to tell whether the official did or did not. His eyebrows lifted a fraction and then he handed back the card.
"If you are going to dig you need a permit," he said.
"Yes," Holliman said. "I know."
The man looked away from him to the next person in line and fifteen minutes later Holliman was handing the last of his bags to the porter outside of Customs. Suddenly it seemed like forever and a world away since New Orleans and the spring cloudiness hanging over the delta. Less than two hours, he reminded himself. It was the heat which stretched the time, the heat making each minute an hour, and wringing the resistance, the will power, out of you, so that all you wanted to do was sink down to the tile floor and absorb the last coolness from the stones. Then his mind took over, pushed up a scene ten years old, a cool study with bougainvillea outside and the leather smell of books within, gin and tonic on a wicker table before him while a prim little man in white shorts leaned back easily in his basket chair, lecturing. It was all so simple, he was saying. A question of reconstructing cultural history.... And they all listened, Holliman and the others. And even the dark-eyed girl across the room. Oh, yes. It was 1964 and they listened.
A small man tugged at Holliman's sleeve.
"Permiso. El professor Oliman?"
"Si?" Holliman replied.
"I am to take you to the Quinta Leon," the little man said in Spanish.
Holliman froze. Quinta Leon. Then he nodded. "Como no?"
The little man gave him a smile full of gold teeth and showed him out the glass doors and back into the oven. High above, Holliman saw a buzzard circling.
Seconds later they were away from the airport, on Avenida Itzaes, a long, desolate boulevard with dusty oleanders in the center. Like everything else, the oleanders looked dead.
"Un poco de calor," the driver said, looking back at Holliman with a smile, and Holliman nodded. Yes, it was very hot.
He looked over at the margins of the boulevard, where the flamboyans and lluvias de oro burned red and gold above their white-washed trunks. At least there was something alive.
They turned north and moments later were passing under the blessed shade of the trees.
"El Centenario," the driver said and gestured to the right. Holliman nodded. He remembered the zoo.
And on the other side there was still the Neuropsychiatric Institute with its barred windows. "Por alla las locos ..." said the driver.
The car overtook a truck piled high with bales of a yellow fiber that looked like doll's hair, spun from the sun.
"Sosquil," the driver said. "Fibra del henequen."
"Oro Verde," Holliman said. Because that's what they called henequen in Yucatan: green gold. Except now everybody knew that was a lie, the alchemy of a bygone age. One man had said it, fifty years ago. A man who had been governor. Henequen is slavery, he had said. And they had taken him away to that yellow fortress they were passing on the left, the state penitentiary, and then, early one morning, to the cemetery on the other end of town.... Today you could visit his cell, and they had statues to him. There was a town named Felipe Carrillo Puerto. But there were many who still liked to think henequen was green gold.
"Usted conoce Yucatan," the driver approved.
Yes, Holliman thought as they passed the hospital and headed down Colon, into the section of sumptuous, palatial estates which henequen had built in the last century; henequen and the sweat of the Maya peones: yes, I know Yucatan. Or I knew it once. But there are things that have changed. Like the driver. He was new.
Jose Dzib sat on an iron bench in the main plaza with his sack of possessions by him and looked around. Some of the taxi drivers were nodding on the benches beside the curb and one, with a bench to himself, was spread out with a newspaper over his face. The calezasstood motionless, the horses hitched to them patiently waiting, while their owners slept inside the cabs.
The plaza was an island of somnolence in a sea of sun. Across the street the cathedral shone like a molten cliff, and by its side the buses choked and coughed on the afternoon air, as they took on the few people who were caught out at this time. At the army headquarters, a few buildings down, the military policemen slumped against the doors they guarded, and even the vendors crouched beside the walls of the buildings, seeking sustenance from the shadows.
A sudden whiff of smoke sent a pang through Jose Dzib, and brought back the world he had left. By now everyone in Noholchen would be in their hammocks, except for a few who would be straggling in from the fields. It was time to burn. Soon every milpa would be ablaze and men would be performing the ritual offering, the yukulil-col, in compensation to the balamob—the lords of the forest and field. Soon now in the evenings the men would be visiting the house of his uncle Pedro, the men, the shaman of his village, confirming Pedro's reading of the xockin, the count of the days, discussing again the predictions for the coming of the rains.
Jose Dzib lowered his head as he thought about his uncle. He had tried so hard to explain. But his uncle had been unwilling to make the effort to understand. And so now, for the first time in many years, Pedro Ek, the men of Noholchen, would be going to his field alone.
They passed out of the Avenida Colon and into the glorieta, or traffic circle, which stood at the end of the Paseo Montejo. In the last half of the nineteenth century the Paseo had been the cultural heart of the city, the avenue upon which the owners of the henequen plantations had built their mansions out of the fabulous wealth pouring in from the fields, where Maya serfs sweated in the hundred and five degree sun. It had been a good time then, they never tired of saying later. Yucatan held the world monopoly on green gold, and rope made from the fibers of its henequen was used by the navies of the world, and the cord was sold to the United States as binder twine. The buyers had been happy, the sellers had been happy. Even the Maya in the fields had been happy. Before the trouble. Before it had fallen like a house of cards. Before the Revolution.
Today the Paseo was still genteel at first appearance. But if you looked closer you could see the new hotels, the travel agencies, the souvenir shops. Like a woman fallen on hard times, it had done what was necessary. But the houses were still there, set back off the sidewalk, behind iron fences, and shaded by ceiba trees. Maya women in white huipiles still were to be seen on the sidewalks. Calezas, the horse-drawn carriages, still plodded down the sides of the street, weaving in and out of traffic. Only today they had Coca-Cola signs painted on the backs of the coaches. The Paseo had not become a whore, thought Holliman, just a courtesan.
They passed out of the glorieta, with its baroque monument to Mexican history and into the Prolongation. Once this had all been outside the city of Merida, a part of the little village of Itzimna. Now Itzimna was but a colonia, a suburb on the northern end of the city. The faded grace of the Paseo had vanished now, replaced by a bakery, a doctor's office, a Ford agency on the left. When they crossed the railroad track there were a few more stately homes, but most of the buildings were recent. Ten years ago most of this had been a rock-strewn field, Holliman recalled, and the Quinta Leon had been on the very outskirts. Two-storied homes with picture windows and two-car garages went past, and once more they turned. Holliman at once recognized the forbidding wall, topped with broken glass. They were all that way down here, and he had often wondered if they were afraid people would get in or out. The wall gave way to an iron fence and all at once Holliman saw it, the white mansion that was the Quinta Leon, set back among the trees on a carpet of green. As the car turned into the gravel drive there was a moment of déjà vu, as if time had slipped back ten years and it was the first time, once more. It had been a day like this, that first time, a young graduate student just arriving ... It had been hard to understand at first, the explanation the driver had given that they must go straight from the airport to the Quinta. Holliman's Spanish had not been good then, and for a time he wondered if he were being taken to the right place.
"Al profesor Davies?" he kept asking, afraid that there had been some terrible mistake, and the driver Martin had kept nodding impatiently.
"Si. Al profesor ... En la Quinta Leon."
And just as he was about to demand that he be taken back to the airport, they had arrived at the Quinta, turning up the driveway just as they were today, ten years later, and the bewildered American was being ushered into the house, a vast and palatial building smelling of floor wax and furnished with busts and tapestries which swallowed the lonely sounds his footsteps made. Following his guide he had come at last into a salon, a salon in which sat a fat Maya woman, an old man whose face seemed to contain a map of the world, and a city woman in a shapeless, store-bought dress which stretched hard against her fat stomach. Their eyes went to him as he entered, and then lost interest. They seemed to be waiting for someone, and Holliman knew for certain that he was in the wrong place. He was about to try to stammer a question to the guide when the door had opened and she had come out. Josefina, as beautiful a woman as he had ever seen, he thought as he watched her come across the floor toward him, her dark hair showering her shoulders, her waist tiny in the slacks he later found out she always wore. She had smiled and introduced herself in perfect English.
"I can see that you are confused. My father is doctor Alejandro Leon. This is his home. It is also his office—a second office. They come to him even during siesta. But I think you are healthy enough, no?"
Excerpted from Mayab by Malcolm Shuman. Copyright © 1981 Nordon Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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