Authors: Lyn Hamilton
Tags: #Women Detectives, #Detective and Mystery Stories, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Mystery Fiction, #Women Sleuths, #Antique Dealers, #McClintoch; Lara (Fictitious Character), #Archaeology, #Fiction, #Maya Gods - Merida (Mexico), #Maya Gods, #Maerida (Mexico), #Maya Gods - Maerida (Mexico), #Mayas - Maerida (Mexico), #Merida (Mexico), #Murder, #Mayas, #Mérida (Mexico), #Mayas - Merida (Mexico), #Excavations (Archaeology)
The Xibalba Murders
I am called smoking frog, named for one of the greatest warriors in the annals of my people, the conqueror of Uaxactun.
I am not a warrior, I am only a scribe, and many, many transits of Venus separate my time from his. But perhaps it is fitting that I bear his name. For while the great Smoking Frog’s brave exploits ushered in the most glorious age of our people, I believe that I may be witness to its end.
The pale bearded men from across the waters are not gods, as we first believed. They are instead human emissaries of the Lords of Xibalba, the Lords of Death.
Soon they will have conquered us not by arms, not by their terrible diseases, but by eliminating our words, our history, and our gods, and replacing them with theirs.
I have seen how they throw down our
the images of our gods, and only four nights ago I watched from my great canoe as a glow lit the sky over Ix Chel’s island, fueled by the pyre on which they threw our sacred texts.
But the Ancient Word is eternal. I carry it with me, though it means death if I am found. I will travel to the sacred rivers of the Itza, even to the jaws of Xibalba, and hide it there. If I survive this time, I will return for it, and remind my people of its teachings. If I do not, then I pray that in a better time it will be found, and the power of our words will once again ring across the land.
A lot of people have asked me—and I suppose the next to do so may well be a Mexican judge and prosecutor—why I flew thousands of miles to help someone I didn’t know all that well look for a small furry creature with big ears, a pink nose, and literary aspirations.
A more pointed question would actually be why did I persist in the search when people kept turning up dead around me?
I blame my ex-husband, Clive, ex-spouses being convenient scapegoats for almost everything, since it was because of him that I had so much time on my hands.
The real reason, of course, is rather more complicated. In retrospect, I think it was because, having lost all that I thought really mattered—a business that I had built up over several years, and a painful marriage I had clung to—I felt I had nothing left to lose.
In the end it took a spiritual journey into darkness, and a personal encounter with people I have come to associate with the Lords of Death, to restore my sense of wonder at what the world has to offer.
The beginning of this journey was a phone call from Dr. Hernan Castillo Rivas, a scholarly gentleman whose enthusiasm and knowledge of the ancient civilizations of Mexico have inspired in me a lifelong interest in that part of the world. He had been the executive director of a private museum in Merida, Mexico, that specialized in Maya antiquities, and after his retirement, the Mexican agent for my company—former company, I should say—a shop that sold objets d’art, furnishings, and accessories, really wonderful stuff, from all over the world.
“Lara,” he began, “I understand from the Ortizes that you are studying hard and that you have chosen as your subject an area of great interest to me,” he said. The Ortiz family were longtime friends, and it had been they who had first introduced me to Dr. Castillo—Don Hernan, as I liked to call him.
“I have what I hope is an interesting proposition. If I am correct, your school term is ending, and you have a break for a month. I would like you to join me here in Mexico to assist me with a project I am working on. I need a partner.
“I cannot tell you more about it right now, but I can assure you that it is—what is that American expression?— right up your alley, and that it will interest and possibly even excite you?”
“You’ll have to tell me more than that!” I laughed.
“This is not a subject for discussion over the telephone,” he replied. “The risk is too great.”
And then, perhaps fearing I wouldn’t come on the strength of so little information, he relented a little.
“I will give you a hint, then, since you are a student of the Maya. We seek what the rabbit writes.” And that was all he would say.
It was a ludicrous request, so of course I went.
As I have already mentioned, I had the time. Several months earlier, finding myself in a period of forced inactivity, I went back to university to begin to study the Maya, an ancient Mesoamerican civilization that reached its peak in the fourth to tenth centuries in what is now Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.
Before that I had been one of two proprietors, my husband, Clive Swain, being the other, of a very successful shop called McClintoch and Swain located in Toronto’s fashionable Yorkville area.
Clive, whose interest in working for a living could most charitably be called, in my opinion, desultory, had unaccountably become most enthusiastic about the business in the dying days of our marriage.
The price of my freedom was half the proceeds of the sale of McClintoch and Swain, and the admonition from my lawyer to stay away from that, or any business, for at least a year.
“If you start a new business right away, Lara, he’ll be back for more,” she had warned. “He is trying to take you for everything you have!”
There was no question I could afford a year off. Half the proceeds of the sale would not make me rich, but with care I could survive a year or so. But it galled me to give Clive half the money for what I saw to be considerably less than half the work, and I was still smarting from the acrimony of the split-up and the embarrassment of admitting I had been wrong about him.
The one consolation was that the woman to whom I had sold the business, Sarah Greenhalgh, seemed to love it as much as I had.
I tried the life of leisure for a while, but the less I had to do, the more time I had to dwell on my situation. Hence the return to university. I found, though, that the academic life, as interesting as it might be, had not really served its purpose of keeping my mind off the emotional and financial wreckage of my life. I’ll admit the call from Don Hernan came as something of a relief. Within minutes of talking to him, I called my travel agent and bought a ticket to Merida.
It was on the day the Maya would have called Imix, the day of the Earth Being, that I locked the door of my little Victorian cottage, handed the keys to Alex Stewart, my neighbor, who promised to care for my house and my cat, an orange tabby who went by the name of Diesel. He had been the official “shop cat,” and was essentially, in my mind at least, all I had to show for twelve years of work.
The journey took me first to Miami, then on to Merida. It was a trip I used to do three or four times a year for business, but also because, for many reasons, I loved the place. This time, I suppose because of my studies, I found myself searching below me for signs of the enormous empire the Spanish conquistadores had found when they first arrived in the New World.
How surprised these early visitors must have been to find cities bigger than anything they had ever seen in Spain, or elsewhere in Europe, for that matter, since there were huge Maya cities when Paris was still a muddy village. Now the cities are largely gone, green mounds rising from the floor of the forest the only hint of their former existence.
If I could not find many physical remains of their culture, I was able to appreciate, from the vantage point of the aircraft, the imaginative way the Maya were able to describe their world. The Maya saw the earth as Imix, a water-lily monster, a reptilian kind of creature, sometimes a turtle, more usually a monstrous crocodile, lying in an immense pool of water, the earth resting on its curved back.
Under this creature is Xibalba, the underworld, the place of fear, its atmosphere the water in which the earth being, Imix, lies. Through this watery region, the sun has to pass during its nocturnal journey, becoming, in its passage through the underworld, the fearsome Jaguar God. Above the earth curves a double-headed serpent, the sky serpent whose markings are the signs of the celestial bodies.
Looking down from twenty thousand feet, it is not difficult to imagine the water-lily monster resting in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the sky serpent arching over it from horizon to horizon. In a way, I was disappointed when the aircraft left the forests of the Maya world behind and began the descent into Merida.
I deplaned rapidly, clearing customs without incident. Having done this several times before, on buying trips, I was quickly able to negotiate my way through the throngs of hawkers and hustlers promising everything from cheap lodgings to a good time, then was pleased to see Isabella, the Ortiz’s daughter, waiting for me. She must have flown down from Mexico City when she heard I was coming.
Isabella, Isa for short, and I have been friends for twenty-five years, ever since my father, who had spent his career with the United Nations, was posted into Mexico. We, my parents and I, spent two years there, and Isa and I, growing up together through a couple of awkward teen years, became fast friends.
Isa has built a highly successful business in Mexico City by adapting the classic women’s attire of her native Yucatan, the embroidered
to more modern tastes. Her beautifully designed women’s clothing has struck a chord with Mexican women and her face and her fashions now regularly grace the covers and pages of haute couture magazines. She has a new partner in life, Jean Pierre, a French banker posted to Mexico, who is also her unofficial business manager.
welcome, Lara.” She smiled, giving me a big hug and handing me a bouquet of birds of paradise. “We’re all so pleased you’ve come to visit.”
I dumped my ugly duffel bag into the back of her Mercedes convertible—clearly business was good—and we headed for her family’s little inn, the Casa de las Buganvillas, literally the house of the bougainvilleas. It is on a quiet little side street off the Paseo de Montejo, and the place I always stay when I’m in Merida.
One enters by way of a curved stone staircase lined with colorful tiles in blue and white, then through hand carved wooden doors into a cool and dark domed entranceway. The floors are tiled in terra-cotta, the walls textured plaster in the colonial style. Wooden ceilings are hand-painted in traditional designs and the halls and entranceway lit by large wrought-iron and blown-glass candelabras.
The inn is the ancestral home of the Ortiz family. Burdened by a house far too large to be practical, and with Santiago Ortiz Menendez away for much of the time for his work in the Mexican diplomatic corps, Francesca Ortiz began first to take in the odd lodger, then gradually to transform the house into the wonderful inn that it is today.
There are still reminders of the grander times. The reception desk is just that—a huge old carved desk that had been brought by the Ortiz ancestors on a Spanish sailing ship. Santiago Ortiz Menendez sat there now, smiling his welcome. He retired early from the diplomatic corps, felled by a debilitating degenerative muscular disease. He was now in a wheelchair, still managing to run the hotel from this post.
I leaned over to kiss him on both cheeks, European style. His many years in the diplomatic corps still clung to him with a kind of formality that he used in speaking with everyone, including his two small grandchildren.
“We are very honored to have you here with us again,” he said gravely, “and we look forward to catching up on news of your family and your work.
“No doubt, however, you have had a long day, and would like some time to rest and refresh yourself. I do hope we will have the pleasure of serving you in the hotel dining room? Yes? About nine we will expect you. Dr. Castillo has said that he will, with your permission, join you for the evening meal. The family would also be most pleased if you would join us for a late coffee in our private quarters. My wife is eager to see you and hear news of your parents.”
He handed me the key to my room. I was pleased to see that it was my favorite, the end room on the second floor overlooking the back courtyard. A young man I had not seen before, possibly one of the Ortiz extended family who get their start in the business world by helping out at the hotel, took my duffel bag and led the way up the stone staircase to the second floor.
Once the door had closed behind him, I crossed to the window and pushed the shutters back. The room overlooks a courtyard in the center of which is a small pool, presided over by a terra-cotta statue of a Maya god. Even in the fading light of early evening, I could see the glorious purple bougainvilleas after which the inn had been named climbing up the whitewashed walls of the courtyard.
Over to one side I could see the roof of the veranda, bleached oak trellis supported by columns of local cantera stone. The tables on the veranda were already set for
the evening meal, and Norberto, the Ortiz’s older son, was already there, checking every detail, even though dinner, in the Spanish style of eating late, was at least two or three hours away.
Sitting on airplanes and in airports must qualify as one of the most tiring activities one can undertake. In any event, knowing that dinner was a few hours away, I stretched out on the bed, and soon fell into a heavy sleep.