The Pot Thief Who Studied Ptolemy

The Pot Thief Who Studied Ptolemy

by J. Michael Orenduff


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The Pot Thief Who Studied Ptolemy by J. Michael Orenduff

To steal back a collection of missing pots, Hubie must break in to a high-end high rise
Pot thief Hubie Schuze is back, and this time his larceny is for a good cause. He wants to recover sacred relics lifted from San Roque, a mysterious pueblo that is closed to outsiders. Usually Hubie finds his pottery a few feet underground—but these artifacts are one hundred fifty feet above the New Mexico soil, on the top floor of the Rio Grande Lofts.

Hubie will need all his deductive skills to craft the perfect plan—which is thwarted when he encounters the beautiful Stella. And then he is arrested for murder. That tends to happen when you are in the room with the body, with blood on your hands. Follow Hubie as he stays one step ahead of security toughs, one step behind Stella, and never too far from a long fall.

The Pot Thief Who Studied Ptolemy is the 2nd book in the Pot Thief Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781480458796
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 01/28/2014
Series: Pot Thief Series , #2
Pages: 290
Sales rank: 350,040
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 12.80(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

J. Michael Orenduff grew up in a house so close to the Rio Grande that he could Frisbee a tortilla into Mexico from his backyard. While studying for an MA at the University of New Mexico, he worked during the summer as a volunteer teacher at one of the nearby pueblos. After receiving a PhD from Tulane University, he became a professor. He went on to serve as president of New Mexico State University.

Orenduff took early retirement from higher education to write his award-winning Pot Thief murder mysteries, which combine archaeology and philosophy with humor and mystery. Among the author’s many accolades are the Lefty Award for best humorous mystery, the Epic Award for best mystery or suspense ebook, and the New Mexico Book Award for best mystery or suspense fiction. His books have been described by the Baltimore Sun as “funny at a very high intellectual level” and “deliciously delightful,” and by the El Paso Times as “the perfect fusion of murder, mayhem and margaritas.”

Read an Excerpt

The Pot Thief Who Studied Ptolemy

A Pot Thief Mystery

By J. Michael Orenduff


Copyright © 2009 J. Michael Orenduff
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-5854-3


If you're looking for a hero, you've come to the wrong place. I lack the iron will and steel nerves the job requires.

I lead a calm and contemplative life, selling pots by day and digging them up by the light of the moon. I used to excavate in broad daylight. We called it treasure hunting in those days. Then Congress passed the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, turning me into a pot thief and my day job into my night job.

My shop is in Albuquerque's Old Town where I get about as much human contact as I do out in the dunes. The price tags on my merchandise—at least four digits to the left of the decimal—create long dry spells between buyers. Few opportunities to chat with customers, even fewer to process their MasterCards.

Technically, I'm a criminal, but I don't think what I do is wrong. I have scruples. I never dig on reservations or private land. Let the Indians and the landowners do what they please with their patches of earth. I stick to public land. I figure I'm part of the public, so why shouldn't I have the right to prospect on our land?

I love being alone under the bright desert stars with only the spirits of ancient potters for company. I'm a sucker for the lure of buried treasure, the thrill of the hunt, the satisfaction of the find. It's hard to describe the pleasure I feel when I find a long-buried pot, overwhelmed by knowing I'm the first person to touch it in a thousand years. Sometimes I think it might be better than sex.

But how would I know that? I've been living like a monk. It's not easy meeting women when you're on the wrong side of forty-five, only five six and live in the back of your shop.

I'm not abstemious in other matters. I enjoy margaritas at Dos Hermanas Tortilleria most every weekday with Susannah Inchaustigui. Don't worry about pronouncing her family name—it's Basque. Our watering hole is romantic in a rustic way, but it doesn't help my chastity thing. She and I are just friends. But it sure puts an end to my silence. Susannah's quite the talker. Although we discuss anything that comes to mind, the conversation frequently turns to her love life and my illegal adventures, both of which fate seems to delight in contorting.

On this particular evening, the chartreuse emulsion in our glasses had sunk perilously low as I told Susannah about some pots I wanted. They were not on public land. They were stashed in the Rio Grande Lofts. With my constitution, just the thought of skulking around a building full of people sets my stomach churning. Which makes it all the more difficult to understand why I broke in there seven times, got trapped in its basement and seduced in its elevator.

I jiggled the ice around in my glass hoping to generate another sip and said, "The longer I looked at the place, the more it resembled Fort Knox."

"What's Fort Knox look like, Hubie?"

I shrugged. "I have no idea."

"Then how do you know Rio Grande Lofts looks like it?"

"It's just an expression, Suze, like 'solid as the Rock of Gibraltar'."

"I don't suppose you know what that looks like either, do you?"

She knew I didn't because I don't travel. "I've seen pictures of it in insurance ads."

"But you've never seen a picture of Fort Knox?"

"They don't advertise. Can we get back to the point I was trying to make?"

"You had a point?"

I turned up my palms in mock exasperation. "I've forgotten."

"Maybe a second round would jog your memory." She waved to the willowy Angie, who brought us fresh margaritas quicker than you can say Quetzalcoatl. We lounged under the west veranda enjoying the last warm rays of a dry October evening. I dipped a chip in the salsa and washed it down with the first swallow of my new drink. Like Albuquerque in autumn, the salsa and drinks at Dos Hermanas are unfailingly refreshing.

"The point I was trying to make is that getting into the Lofts is going to be difficult. I don't think I can do it."

"I have confidence in you," she said. And then she gave me that enigmatic smile, eyes narrowed, only the left side of her lips bowed. "You've broken in to better places than that."

"I've never broken in to anything," I protested.

"You broke in to that apartment in Los Alamos."

"I didn't break in. You kicked in the door."

"You tried to get in by stuffing some of your potting clay in the bolt hole, remember? But it didn't work."

"That's because I only put the clay in a little ways."

"You know what the Church says about that, Hubert: Penetration, however slight, constitutes the offense."

I smirked. "The Church may have lost a bit of its moral authority on sexual matters."

"Good point." She scrolled an imaginary one in the air. "But there was that house in California."

"Okay, I committed one break-in. But I didn't steal anything. I'm not a burglar."

"So you keep saying. But you steal old pots."

"They don't belong to anyone, so it's not stealing."

Here came that smile again. "What is it? Finders-keepers?"


"No offense, but if you dug in my grandmother's grave to get her wedding ring, I'd consider that stealing."

"So would I. But I don't rob graves. And the stuff I dig up is a thousand years old. Surely there should be some statute of limitations."

"But that stuff belonged to somebody's ancestors," she persisted.

"We don't know that. For all we know, the ancient peoples of this area died out and the current tribes moved in from elsewhere."

"You don't know that."

"True," I said, warming to my subject, "but here's what I do know. All of us—black, brown, red, yellow, and white—are descended from a woman we anthropologists call the African Eve who lived in the Rift Valley about two-hundred-thousand years ago."

"In the Garden of Eden?"

"I don't know if it was Eden, but it was where humans first appeared on the scene, and every human being alive today is descended from that woman."

She gave me that Mona Lisa smile. "Come on, that's just a myth."

"Maybe she didn't chomp on an apple, but she's no myth. The scientific evidence proves it. There's a genetic marker in our mitochondria."

"I think there's a vaccine for that now."

"Joke if you want to, but genetics proves we're all one family, so I have as much claim to the loot in the ground as anyone else."

"So at the end of the day, you and I are both African Americans?"

"All of us are."

"I'll drink to that."

We clinked our glasses together.

Susannah left for class. She's in her late twenties and brings youthful enthusiasm to my occasional illegal capers. When she's not drinking margaritas or kicking in doors, she waits tables two blocks from my shop at La Placita and attends classes three nights a week. She studies art history but changes majors the way most people change socks. She may be working her way through the University of New Mexico catalog.

I graduated from UNM with a business degree and returned a couple of years later to study anthropology and archaeology. I unearthed some valuable pots during a summer dig. They weren't from the official excavation site. I figured out a better place to dig and hit pay dirt.

Literally. I sold the pots to a wealthy collector for more than I earned during my two years as an accountant. I viewed the money as a reward for having a better sense of where to dig than the professors who supervised the project. Digging up old pots wasn't illegal back then, but the university didn't care about legal quibbles. They expelled me.

"Can I get you another one, Mr. Schuze?" Angie's dark eyes peered at me from under those long lashes. How could I say no?

I sipped a fresh margarita as my mind drifted to those coveted pots. I've been hooked on digging up old pots ever since that fateful summer. It isn't just the money. Every touch of that clay connects me with the ancient potter. I suspect she is proud it lasted so long. I even fancy she's happy I've found it.

I use the pronoun 'she' because anthropologists such as Margaret Ehrenberg have argued convincingly that women invented agriculture and created the first pots to carry the seeds and store the grains. My sense of connection is one potter to another, two fellow humans who walked the same earth and dipped our hands in the same clay.

Because of the reverence I feel for ancient potters, it pains me to sell their works. I make sure the buyer appreciates the piece. The best thing I can do for the ancient potter is find a good home for her work. Of course, if a few thousand dollars find a good home in my pocket, then the pain of parting is sweet sorrow indeed.

Although passage of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act made it illegal to dig up old pots, doing so carries little risk. After all, the places one digs for ancient pots are deserted. The same cannot be said of buildings, especially residential ones.

So I should have been worrying. But the margarita was frosty and the sun warm, and my worries evaporated in the desert air.


I recall watching from the windows of my social studies class at Albuquerque High School as the steel framework for Rio Grande Lofts rose skyward. Miss Hinkle's lectures couldn't compete with cranes and girders.

The structure started life as an office building with retail space at the street level. It was the third or fourth tall building in town. In my high school naïveté, I assumed we were headed towards a skyline like Manhattan, which—like the Rock of Gibraltar—I've seen only in pictures. Opened during a recession, the place never achieved full occupancy. Downtown shopping lost its battle with suburban malls. The property changed hands several times and hosted a variety of ventures whose only common denominator was failure. Eventually, rent from the few occupants failed to cover expenses, and the place was boarded up.

Albuquerque's latest revitalization plan encourages people to live downtown, and—surprisingly—it's working. Even my old high school has been converted to lofts. The boarded-up office building also got a facelift. The ground floor was converted to a lobby with an entrance vestibule, mailboxes and storage space. Floors two through eleven were carved up for residences. I suppose calling them lofts was meant to conjure images of exposed brick, high ceilings and industrial elevators. I was interested to discover if they really had that look.

But you already know that curiosity about architecture wasn't the reason I wanted to break in.

Apartment—excuse me—loft 1101 was occupied by Ognan Gerstner, the recently retired chairman of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of New Mexico. He was the person who expelled me from the University. I disliked Gerstner, but that was true before he expelled me. I hold no grudge about it. So revenge was not my motive for wanting inside the building.

Gerstner forced out Professor Walter Masoir shortly before I returned to school to study Anthropology and Archaeology. Gerstner– convinced the department to divest itself of its Native American artifacts. Masoir was the only holdout to this politically correct plan, arguing quite reasonably that it makes no more sense to operate an archaeology department without artifacts than it would to operate a chemistry department without test tubes.

The artifacts were eventually returned to the tribes. At least most of them were. One collection of rare pots allegedly never found its way back to its pueblo. The evidence for this was weak—a statement by a now deceased resident of that pueblo claiming they never received the pots. And the probative value of that statement was devalued further by the fact that the person it was told to was none other than Walter Masoir, hardly a disinterested party.

As I mentioned, Masoir was gone before I started my studies, but I read his work and talked to students who knew him. I came to admire him from afar. Proving the plan he opposed was at least partially a failure would have been satisfying. But you can probably guess that vindicating an admired professor was also not the reason I wanted to break in to Rio Grande Lofts.

Neither curiosity, revenge nor vindication incited my illicit intentions. I wanted those pots.


After leaving Dos Hermanas, I decided to get the pots off my mind by doing a little amateur astronomy. I sometimes select a planet and chart its location every night for a month or so when I know it's going to slow down, come to a halt and head back from whence it came.

Astronomers call this 'retrograde motion'. It's an illusion of course. Planets don't actually turn around. But it sure looks odd. Mars, for example, will stay on a predictable course for almost two years. Then—for no apparent reason—it appears to go in the opposite direction. I don't know who first observed this strange behavior, but the Greeks knew about it thousands of years ago. That's why they called them planets, which means 'wanderers' in Greek. Most people couldn't care less, but the planets fascinate me.

Which is why I stopped by Treasure House Books and Gifts the next morning and purchased a book about Ptolemy, the first person to successfully model the motion of the planets. His theory was that the planets were on a sort of invisible sphere that circles around the earth like a curved glass ceiling. As that ceiling revolves, the planets also go around in circles on the sphere, and those circles within circles explain why they sometimes appear to go backwards. And here's the amazing thing about Ptolemy's system—it still works today. You can use it to predict exactly when a planet will start to back up.

Ptolemy's model of the heavens started me thinking of the lyrics of a song:

Like a circle in a spiral,
like a wheel within a wheel
never ending or beginning
on an ever spinning reel

I couldn't remember the name of the song and made a mental note to ask Susannah about it. Occasionally I stopped reading and drew circles within spheres just to see if I had the hang of it. Occasionally I looked up when someone passed by. None of the passers-by became customers.

About four o'clock I started checking my watch. It seemed to be doing its imitation of Mars—slowing down. It seemed like it might never reach five, so I gave up at a quarter 'til and strolled toward the plaza, my eyes on Dos Hermanas.

Susannah waited at our usual table. "I know how you can get in to Rio Grande Lofts. Pretend to be a pizza delivery guy."

Her enthusiasm for my projects is a nice counterbalance to my natural caution.

"Wouldn't I need a uniform?"

Susannah is two inches taller than me and has that healthy ranch-girl look of someone who gets up early to throw around bales of hay or whatever it is they get up early to do on ranches. Her hair is fine and not too long—just below the shoulders when it's down—but there's a lot of it, and no matter how she ties it up, it's usually unruly.

She's a bit unruly herself. She's also intelligent, funny and frank.

"You never order pizzas do you? The delivery guys don't wear uniforms. They don't even use company delivery cars. Pizza places are too cheap to furnish transportation or uniforms."

"Do they get paid at least?"

"Basically, they work for tips."

"Hmm. So I could buy a pizza, drive up in my own car, walk up to the doorman in my street clothes and say 'Large pepperoni for apartment 8'?"

"I don't think they normally announce the ingredients, but, yeah, you just tell them you've got a pizza for apartment 8."

"Then what?"

She thought about it for a moment while she sipped her drink. "Well, I've never lived in an apartment with a doorman, so I don't know what happens next. I suppose they call apartment 8 and tell them their pizza has arrived."

"But since they didn't actually order one, I'd be sunk."

"Yeah, but at least you'd still have the pizza."

I laughed and took a sip of my margarita. Proper form calls for rotating the glass after each sip so there's salt on the rim each time you partake. A deep glass with a small circumference may hold enough, but you run out of salt before you run out of sips. Dos Hermanas glasses are slightly wider than they are deep.

A thought finally came to me. "It wouldn't have to be pizza."

"Of course not. You could pretend to be a take-out Chinese guy."

"What would I do, make myself up like Warner Oland?"

"Who's Warner Oland?"

"He's the actor who played Charlie Chan."

"Charlie Chan, the fat guy in the late night movies with the 'number one son'?"

"That's the one."

"Hmm. 'Warner Oland' doesn't sound like a Chinese name."


Excerpted from The Pot Thief Who Studied Ptolemy by J. Michael Orenduff. Copyright © 2009 J. Michael Orenduff. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Pot Thief Who Studied Ptolemy 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
BeckyMcF 6 months ago
This is a great series for people who appreciate quirky characters, like to learn about new things they knew little or nothing about, and want a good mystery to read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Dear nook please stopp being all stipey you are makeing me worred.
RonnaL More than 1 year ago
In this second 'pot thief mystery', , Hubert, 'the pot thief' is involved with trying to return some ancient ceremonial pots to the people at San Roque---a secret New Mexico pueblo closed from outsiders. In the process of finding these pots, Hubert finds himself in the wrong place at the right time to become a murder suspect. His escapades in getting himself into and out of a 'secure' high rise building are an experience in belly laughs, to say the least. Hubert, and his best friend Susanna, exchange quips and hysterical twisted comments and suggesting involving their dating lives while finding a means to keep Hubert out of trouble in accomplishing his goals with these 'Ma Pots'. In the process, the theories of Ptolemy, the ancient astronomer, are described and turned into possible plans for thievery. Susanna's art history and Hubert's anthropology college classes become involved in a meriod of intriguing ways also. It thoroughly fascinates me, in the way that Michael Orenduff can take intellectual topics, explain them in terms than everyone can understand, add in new vocabulary words beyond the normal mystery read, through in numerous belly laughs, and still come up with a thoroughly satisfying atmospheric New Mexican 'clay pots' mystery'!!! Really enjoying this series!!!
dhtrimble More than 1 year ago
The Pot Thief is an interesting and intellectual work. I found myself engrossed more than not while reading and the author was able to keep my attention throughout the read. I highly recomend that anyone with an eye for an artistic read, pick this book up and you will find yourself reading it on just one session. Excellent work of prose. I have to thank Michael Orenduff for taking us into this world in such a creative way. I can't wait to read the first offering from Mr. Orenduff, as I started with this book, not knowing his work. Now I can look forward to another interesting and enlightening read.