by Beryl Gorbman
Madrugada will be released soon, first on eBooks and then as a hardcover. This is the beginning of the book, a tale about theft of artifacts from a Maya dig called Yaxum. The main characters are the same ones as in 2012: Deadly Awakening, but Madrugada takes place some years earlier.
Jesus, but it was hot. The puto maintenance boy had turned off the air conditioning at nine p.m. and even though it was nearing three a.m., the Yucatan night was still stifling both outdoors and in. The handle of the magnifying glass in Ignacio’s Lopez Uicab’s hand was slippery with sweat as he sat at his desk, and the high-wattage bulbs from his desk lamp felt like furnaces.
He dotted the final “i”s and crossed the final “t”s in his notes and reverentially replaced the jade artifacts in the wooden storage tray, ready to go into the museum vault. He glanced sideways at the three-foot-long, gleaming obsidian axe standing in the corner of his office and felt a slight shiver. I’ll be damned if I’m making two trips up and down the steps in this heat, he thought. The thing can stay in the office overnight.
Was that a muffled sound in the hall? Surprised that anyone else was there at this hour, Ignacio stuck his head outside the door.
Silence. “Now I’m hallucinating,” he muttered, as he gathered up his things, the tray in one hand and his briefcase in the other.
He carried the tray carefully down the first flight of stairs and had started down toward the basement before he heard the sounds. Heavy breathing. A definite footstep.
The hairs went up on the back of his neck. Just as he turned, he felt the impact of the blade on his throat. Hard and swift. His eyes opened in horror as he registered the retreating mass of black obsidian, still gleaming, now dripping with deep red arterial blood. He stared stupidly for a few seconds at the regular spurts of blood – huge amounts of blood – pumping pumping pumping. My God, he thought, that’s mine!
A confusing maze of images inundated his brain. Why was the black obsidian retreating? Was he falling? No, his feet were still on the floor. He tried to scream, but strangely, he had no breath.
The impact of his head hitting the stone of the stairway confused him for a few moments.
Seventy kilometers southeast of Merida, Yucatan
How hot must a person get before her skin starts to deteriorate like a rotting tomato left too long on the window sill? And how hot would I have to get before I passed out? My thoughts as I schlep miserably down a narrow, sun-drenched road in the middle of the Yucatan Peninsula in the killer summer afternoon heat.
About five minutes ago, Id driven through a charming town called Dzam, known for its stone carvings. As I continued north, my windows open wide to let the hot air hit my face, the engine in my un-air-conditioned rented Nissan sputtered and died, as if it had gone on strike due to unacceptable weather.
The next town up the road is Mani, a village with a giant and historic cathedral. It is six kilometers ahead. Dzam is over ten kilometers back. I walk miserably toward Mani, which happens to be my destination today.
Not only is it beastly hot, but the humidity is so high that my skirt feels damp to the touch. I’m sweating so hard that the blue bandana I’ve tied around my forehead is dripping. Everything is wet, even my usually comfortable Birkenstocks, which are rubbing against my feet and creating new areas of inflamed hell. And my camera strap has forged a permanent dent in my neck.
My plane was late getting in from New York last night, so on top of everything else, I’m sleep deprived.
This is better than frying in the car, I tell myself. I could see the headlines now. “Foreign Woman Found Dead of Dehydration In Car.” An ignominious end to a confusing and unresolved life.
In a Herculean effort, I’d pushed the Nissan to the side of the road and extracted my camera case, pack and half a bottle of precious water. Now I’m hoping I make it to Mani before sunset, when droves of mosquitoes will descend on every living thing, especially me, and dine until they can barely fly.
I’m looking forward to meeting my colleague, Ignacio Lopez Uicab, in Mani. He’s an archaeologist with the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, commonly known as INAH, the agency that oversees Mexican museums and archaeological sites. Right now he’s coordinating work at a new dig called Yaxum, about fifteen miles southwest of the world-famous Maya city of Chichen Itza.
Ignacio is writing a scholarly paper about some of the surprising findings an American archaeological team has unearthed in the Yaxum ruins, and has asked me to come down and do the documentary photography. I’ve been taking pictures professionally for about seven years. Buildings, artifacts, animals, furnishings, food, anything but people. Photographing human beings means looking into their eyes; it’s an emotionally intimate process I’d rather avoid. This assignment is perfect, even though it’s July and the weather is stultifying and horrendous. I love working with inanimate objects.
If I’m lucky, my buddy Katrina will show up in Mani too, on her way back from a week in Belize. I’d told her when I planned to be there, and she was going to try and time her drive accordingly.
Oh, if Ignacio could see me now. I’m picturing him sitting in the garden of the Mani cathedral, in back near the convent, marking up his manuscript. He is relaxed and serene, sipping away at a glass of iced tea. The thought of clinking ice cubes makes me crazy. To make my fantasy even worse, there is a second glass on the table next to the sweating pitcher as he waits for me.
Maybe after a while he’ll wonder where the hell I am and take a ride down the road to find me. Or maybe Katrina will be driving in from this direction. Wishful thinking.
Suddenly I hear a crashing in the dense bush beside the road. Maybe I’m not alone after all. I stop walking. The sounds continue and a giant anteater sidles out onto the road and majestically crosses to the other side. I wish I could get my camera out to capture him, but I don’t have the energy, so I’ll just have to remember.
He’s a bizarre looking animal, about three feet tall, with brown fur and a nose that reaches to the ground. He looks prehistoric and I am mesmerized, lucky to see this rare creature.
Maybe this awful walk is worth it – just to see him. But as I start walking again, my feet burning, sweat running into my eyes, and the sun beating on my bare head, I conclude that nothing is worth this, not even anteaters, armadillos, and deer combined.
Despite my whining about the heat, I love the Yucatan. I have a long history here. I used to come down with Michael, my then-husband, and my son Jay. Ten years ago my life changed drastically when Jay was killed by a hit-and-run driver on Riverside Drive, Manhattan, right in front of our apartment building. It’s been hard to get me happy since Jay died. The best I usually go for is peaceful.
I am fighting to keep from thinking about my son right now, because I need to concentrate on what I’m doing. Even after all these years, if I dwell on his death, I go to a place in my heart that I’m sick of visiting. I don’t want to shed another tear; I’m tired of crying. I avoid children of all ages.
The heat isn’t helping me shift my concentration. Despite my best efforts, I’m beginning to slow down – it’s getting to me. I’m feeling a little dizzy and there isn’t anywhere to sit down or get out of the sun. My water bottle is empty. The two-lane country road has tall, dense bush on both sides. The vegetation is thick and bristly and filled with biting ants, scorpions, snakes, and other delights. Although these little beasts are fascinating, I don’t want to meet them today.
The sound of a car engine approaching makes my heart leap with optimism. Just the sound changes everything. No one would pass a pitiful person like me walking in this heat. No matter who it is, they’ll stop and give me a ride, I’m sure of it. As the sound gets closer, I turn around and see a State of Yucatan police car coming my way, shimmering in the heat like a vision. Absolutely, they’ll stop, but they’ll annoy me with endless questions. A small price to pay.
The car slows and halts about ten feet from me and two police officers unfold themselves from the car, clanking with violence-oriented accoutrements. They’re both in their thirties, one tall, one short, both wearing the unattractive brown uniforms and little visored caps of the State police. The tall one has a huge, carefully cultivated mustache and a swagger to go with it. The short one, a bit on the chunky side, simply looks bored. They’re both wearing big wraparound sunglasses, the kind I’ve seen on police officers all over the world.
“Good afternoon, Senora,” says the mustache in English, as they approach.
“Buenas tardes,” I reply, and he smiles, obviously glad to be relieved of the struggle to speak English. We continue our conversation in Spanish.
“Is that your Nissan down the road?” asks the officer.
“Yes. The engine died, so I’m walking to Mani.”
“We would be glad to give you a ride, if you wish.” Of course, I take them up on this kind offer and mustache holds the back door open as I almost leap into the air-conditioned freshness of their vehicle.
“Thank you so much,” I breathe as I relax, knowing that in a few minutes I’ll feel human. Right now my feet are throbbing with pain and my head aches.
“My name is Santos and this is Ku,” says the same mustachioed officer, turning to talk to me over the front passenger seat. “Why are you going to Mani?”
Ku fires up the engine and we head north. How efficient the car is, compared to my miserable pedestrian snail’s pace. I appreciate every meter that I don’t have to walk. I can feel my body slowly coming alive, my brain not far behind.
I tell them that I’m on my way to meet a colleague and do some work in Mani. “My name is Miriam Glass. I’m a photographer,” I explain, gesturing toward my camera bag. “The person waiting for me is an archaeologist from INAH and we’re working together on some documents.”
Officer Santos raises an eyebrow. “Who is this person?” he asks.
“His name is Dr. Ignacio Lopez Uicab.”
Santos stiffens, and Ku turns briefly to give me a sharp look. The name seems to jar them.
“Are you a friend of Dr. Lopez Uicab?” asks Santos.
“Yes, a very good friend. Why?”
Santos’s expression changes. He looks at me knowingly and asks whether I often meet Ignacio in out-of-the way places. Of course he has the wrong idea. I try to explain, but can see I’m not making much headway. I’m so wiped out, I really don’t care.
My mind flashes to a time many years ago when I first came to Yucatan with Michael and Jay. We were a happy little family. One Sunday, we met the Lopez family on the Gulf beach at Progreso. Jay and the two Lopez kids hit it off right away, and Ignacio and his wife Mercedes ended up inviting us to dinner at their place in Merida. We were friends ever since.
And when I lost my son, I crawled down here like an injured animal, wanting only to be alone and away from New York. Ignacio and Mercedes had called my room at the Hotel Caribe daily and came to drag me out for dinner or expeditions without let-up, until I finally started to come out of my shell. I stayed nearly eight months that time. I think of the Yucatan as my place of recovery, and Ignacio and his wife are part of that. They are dear friends.
Let the officers think whatever they want. They would never understand.
But why are they asking about Ignacio? I feel a flutter of alarm. “Why are you asking if I know Dr. Lopez?”
They seem hesitant.
“Dr. Lopez has been missing for three days. Our captain sent us to Mani to see whether he’s here because we found your appointment on his desk calendar.”
“What do you mean he’s missing?” A knot begins to form in my stomach and I feel weak. The familiar symptoms of an incipient anxiety attack. I quickly dig in my bag for a Valium and swallow it dry as Santos watches me. Since the accident, I’m not good with stress.
Santos continues. “He hasn’t been to his home or his job since Monday. The police are concerned because there have been a series of burglaries at INAH and we’re considering a connection.”
“What kind of burglaries? What was taken?”
The officers look uncomfortable, as if they’ve said too much already. “I’m going to call our captain,” says Ku. “I’m sure he’ll want to come out here and talk to you tonight.” He takes his radio phone from the dashboard and starts punching in numbers.
The day stops feeling sunny and optimistic. Despite the brightness, the countryside metamorphosizes. We are not driving down a winding roadway through a magical jungle full of intriguing wildlife, but rather a narrow, constricted passage to something unknown and deadly. The very air seems to change. The bucolic scene of a few minutes ago is now ominous and threatening.
We are almost to Mani and I jerk back into focus.
“What can I do to help?” I ask the officers. “You guys think Dr. Lopez is okay, don’t you?” No answer.
As we round a curve, Mani rises suddenly before us. The massive, stone monastery looms high, out of all proportion to the modest huts and other small buildings of the pueblo. I direct the officers to the back of the cathedral-monastery complex. This grand building is a historic relic of the violence of the sixteenth century.
As the Conquistadores pushed further into Yucatan, the last part of Mexico to fall to Spain, they systematically destroyed grand Maya cities and built massive Catholic churches out of the huge limestone squares they purloined from the magnificent temples they destroyed. The Maya of Yucatan had assembled their written history, their codices, written in colorful glyphs on bark paper, and hidden them deep in a cave in Mani.
The infamous Bishop Diego de Landa took advantage of a conflict between two Maya families, the Xiu and the Cocom, and convinced one of the Xius to turn the Cocoms in to the Spanish authorities and reveal the location of the codices. Poor Mr. Xiu was overwhelmed by pomp, power, and Catholicism and thought he was doing the right thing.
DeLanda triumphantly marched the books out of the deep cave, and with some ceremony destroyed them, eradicating the history of an elegant and artistic people in one devastating bonfire.
In this single act, he made things very difficult for contemporary archaeologists and anthropologists.
The few tourists who visit Mani want to see where history was destroyed. Most of them stop to admire the monastery and church and quickly continue on to Uxmal or one of the other major tourist stops.
At the entrance to the back gate of the cathedral, I climb out of the car and buy each cop a coke from a tienda across the street. The three of us walk across the lane and sit for a few thoughtful minutes in the cathedral garden.
“Are you planning to spend the night here?” asks Ku, gratefully sipping the cold drink.
“Yes, I guess I’ll stay tonight and if Ignacio doesn’t show up here, I’ll go back to Merida in the morning. Padre Luis lets me hang my hammock in one of the monk’s cells,” I answer, half of my mind elsewhere, running in twelve different directions, all of them frightening. The Valium hasn’t quite taken hold yet and I’m hoping it’s potentiated by the coke. My skin is clammy and my pulse is fast, and all I can do is wait for the drug to kick in.
They say that nothing hurts as much as losing a child. I learned in therapy that it’s good to acknowledge this, because it also means nothing else can ever hurt me that much again. A touch of PTSD, that’s what the shrink said I’d be living with, and the ominous feeling I’m getting from the officers is stirring me up.
I inhale and immerse myself in the images of the late afternoon light on the majestic archways, the worn stone staircase up to the second floor monks’ quarters, and the small garden, carefully planted with bougainvillea, hibiscus, and succulents. Some large, red, earthenware urns stand against the rough stone wall and a shaded bench under a jacaranda tree invites
“What will you do about your car?” asks one of the policemen.
“Tomorrow I’ll get someone to take me down there and push it up here. There’s a mechanic I can leave it with.” Yes, focus on practical issues. That helps.
I wait outside while the two officers go into the monastery for a few minutes, I guess to check on whether Ignacio is here. They come back looking serious and businesslike.
“Please don’t leave Mani this evening. Captain Jose Luis Contreras just radioed me and he’s on his way out here to see you.”
I can’t imagine going anywhere without a shower and some food. “Is there anything else you can tell me?”
“We don’t know very much,” explained Santos kindly. “Just that there have been thefts from INAH where your friend works, and now he is missing. Someone has taken artifacts retrieved from the dig you mentioned – Yaxum.”
“And you think Ignacio is responsible?”
“We think there is a connection, and so, unfortunately, do his superiors,” says Santos as the two of them climb back into their car. They leave, and I pick up my stuff and enter the monastery building to find the Padre. In the heat, I can feel my dull heartbeat.