Mayan ruins in the Yucatqn a secret room in a tomb age-old skeletons. To anthropologist Gideon Oliver, the renowned Skeleton Detective, the invitation to join the archaeological excavation of Tlaloc promises two months of paradise on earth. That is, until an ancient series of Mayan curses against desecrators of the site is unearthed. When the first one comes to pass ("The bloodsucking kinkajou will come freely among them"), it's taken by all as a practical joke. But by the time the fourth one is apparently consummated ("The one called Xecotcavach will pierce their skulls so that their brains spill onto the earth"), nerves have begun to fray and suspicions and discord to mount. The steamy jungles weigh down upon the band of eccentric anthropologists as one by one the curses continue to materialize. It takes Gideon's special talents for deduction--along with the enigmatic insights of Mexico's one and only Mayan-Indian inspector of the state judicial police--to resolve an ancient riddle and a modern, murderous mystery.
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October 06, 2010
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Excerpt from Curses! by Aaron Elkins
* * * *
I can't understand it," Julie said, lifting a dog-eared pile of term papers and theses from the chair at the side of the desk. "You are basically a neat and orderly man. You don't throw your socks on the floor. You don't leave your underwear hanging on chairs. You clean up your own--"
"Careful," Gideon said. "This is going to my head."
Julie looked unsuccessfully around for someplace to deposit the pile. Gideon pointed to the back left corner of his desk, already three inches deep in paper. "Jam it up against the wall so it doesn't slide off."
She did, began to sit down, and winced. From beneath her she extracted a metal nameplate: "Gideon P. Oliver, Professor of Physical Anthropology," the plastic insert said. She propped it on top of the papers.
"So why," she continued, "do you live in an office that looks like this?" Her gesture took in the entire cluttered space: the desk, the gray metal file cabinet, the two standing bookcases, the wall-mounted shelves over the desk that he had hung himself, defying university policy. All of it was overflowing with paper and books. Many of the books were open, lying helter-skelter with their spines up and bristling with torn-paper markers.
"It's a pedagogical device. Students get uneasy if professors' offices don't look the way they do in the movies."
"No," Julie said, "I think this is the real you. The monster beneath the surface."
"Grr," Gideon said, and leaned over from his chair to pull her face down and kiss her softly on the lips. For a moment he kept his eyes open, looking up at the smooth, lovely face. Then he closed his own eyes and kissed her some more, moving his lips to nuzzle the velvet of her cheeks, and then her jawline, and then her throat.
"Gideon," she said, pulling back a few inches, "the door's open. What if one of your students came by?"
"Are you serious? On a Sunday during winter break? No students for miles. No teachers either. Only me, trying to get this damn monograph in shape." The thought of it effectively broke the spell. He sighed, leaned back in his chair, and slapped the uppermost sheaf of papers on the desk.
"And are you?"
"Getting it in shape? I don't know. I've lost the rhythm or something. It all seems stale. Or I seem stale." He lifted the top sheet. "'A Reassessment of Middle Pleistocene Hominids,'" he read aloud. "'Taxonomic Reconsiderations Based on Recent Second Interglacial Evidence from Eastern Europe.'" He grimaced. "What do you think, does it grab you?"
"Me neither, and the title's the best part."
They both laughed and Julie squeezed his hand. "Come on, it's your birthday. I'm taking you out for lunch."
"I thought you had to work."
"Olympic National Park can get by without me for a few hours. Why don't we drive into Seattle? We could be there by one."
"I don't think so, Julie. We wouldn't be back till late. I'd really like to finish up this paper and get it out of my hair. Then I can do something else for the next three weeks."
"Oh, I don't know. Build some bookcases for the study...maybe clean up all those fir cones in back...get the garage straightened out..."
"Oh, poor baby, you really are in the dumps, aren't you? Okay, we'll just go someplace here in Port Angeles. How about a steak at the Bushwacker?"
He shrugged and hauled himself to his feet. "Okay, sure."
"What's wrong, Gideon? Is it just the forty-first birthday blues?"
Yes, he supposed it was. That and the misty gray rain that had been sifting continuously down for nine dismal days and looked as if it wouldn't let up until summer. He was a confirmed lover of rain and fog, but the dreary, dark winters of western Washington were going to take some getting used to.
And then there was the fact that it had been a year and a half since his last dig. A year and a half without the renewing process of hands-on anthropology, a year and a half spent in classroom and office. And no prospect of fieldwork in sight. He felt, he explained to Julie, as if his career were standing still.
"Let me remind you," she said crisply, "that in that year and a half you've started here at a new school, you've gotten your full professorship, you've solidified your formidable reputation as 'the Skeleton Detective of America'--"
"Watch out now, don't push your luck."
"--and you've published three papers."
"Four. I know, Julie, that's all true. I guess I need to do some real work, not just paperwork. And I don't mean identifying dismembered skeletons for the FBI."
"Well, couldn't you get in touch with some of your archaeologist friends? Wouldn't they be glad to have you on a dig?"
"If there were some human bones involved, sure. And if some other physical anthropologist wasn't already part of the team." He shrugged. "I guess that's what I'll do." And then he'd wait months, years maybe, before anything came to pass. Popular accounts notwithstanding, human skeletal remains didn't turn up on digs very often.
"Fine. Good. Anything else bothering you?"
"Julie, do you know how old Rupert Armstrong LeMoyne is?"
"Ah, now we're getting to it. Who's Rupert Armstrong LeMoyne?"
"The dean of faculty. He's thirty-nine years old. Two years younger than I am."
"Gideon, would you want to be the dean of faculty?"
"Of course not. That's not the point."
"Would you like to be soft, and white, and self-satisfied like Rupert Armstrong LeMoyne?" She pushed him back into his chair, dropped into his lap, and put her arms around his neck.
Gideon submitted happily. Married two years and still his skin tingled when she touched him. "How do you know he's soft, white, and self-satisfied?"
"Come on, with a name like Rupert Armstrong LeMoyne?" She opened the top two buttons of his shirt and slipped her hand inside. "Does Rupert Armstrong LeMoyne have a furry, warm chest?" She kissed the bridge of his nose, flattened when he'd boxed in college. "Does he have a manly and attractive schnozz? Does he have a square, sexy jaw straight out of Superman comics?" That too was kissed, and she looked into his eyes from three inches away, her eyes slightly crossed. "How am I doing? Is this cheering you up?" Her hand was still on his chest, the fingers moving in slow circles.
With his hands on her hips he shifted her, seating her more firmly on his lap, and then stroked her thigh through the twill of her National Park Service trousers. Had he really been sitting there, listless and dispirited, just a few minutes ago? "I don't know if cheering me up is exactly the way to put it," he said, "but it's doing something. Why don't we forget about lunch and drop over to the house for an hour or two?"
"Tell me," she persisted, "is Rupert Armstrong LeMoyne the author of the best-known book on comparative early hominid phylogeny?"
"The only book on comparative early hominid phylogeny."
"Don't quibble. Now," she said, and kissed his nose again, this time on the tip, "did I or did I not just get a pretty good offer on how to pass the next two hours?"
"You bet. And then let's give some thought to going someplace for a few days where it's not raining."
The telephone rang as he began to rise with her still in his arms, and they both sank back into the chair. "This," Gideon said confidently, "will be a very short call. You answer it. Tell them I'm on my way to an extremely important consultation."
"Is this the way your secretary answers the phone? From your lap?"
"It'd be a thought if I had a secretary."
She picked up the receiver. "Dr. Oliver's office..." She leaned her head back and laughed. Her hair brushed his temple and he aimed a kiss at it but missed. "Well, hello!" she said. "Yes, he is, right here."
"Thanks a lot," Gideon grumbled.
Julie continued to listen on the telephone. "You're kidding!" she said, turning her head to look at Gideon. "He's not going to believe it."
She handed the telephone to him with a peculiar grin. "You're not going to believe it."
The old man's thin voice promptly brought out a smile. Abraham Irving Goldstein, his onetime professor and continuing mentor. Avram Yitzchak Goldstein of Minsk, who had begun his career in America as a seventeen-year-old peddling ribbons from a pushcart in Brooklyn, and ended it as a distinguished scholar. Abe Goldstein, longtime friend.
"Abe, hello! Where are you calling from?"
"Where should I be calling from? Yucatan. Listen, how would you like to come down here to Tlaloc for a few weeks and give me a hand on the dig? Julie, too, if she can get some time off."
Gideon covered the mouthpiece with his hand and looked at Julie. "I don't believe this."
Abe, as a member of the board of directors of the Horizon Foundation for Anthropological Research, was at a Horizon-sponsored excavation about sixty miles from Merida, near Mexico's Gulf Coast. Tlaloc, a small Mayan ceremonial center, had been discovered only ten years before, and work had begun in 1980. But when a scandal had made the site notorious in 1982, the Mexican government's Institute Nacional de Antropologia e Historia had shut down the excavation. "For all time," they had declared somewhat histrionically, "to bury the memory of this shameful hour." Gideon had been there at the time, just finishing up work on the collection of human bones that divers had recovered from the cenote--the sacrificial well--a few hundred feet from the buildings, and he had been as shocked and disgusted as anyone else by what had happened.
Afterwards, the site had remained locked for over five years while Horizon and the Institute engaged in recriminations and negotiations. Eventually, Horizon had made handsome amends and the threat of a suit had died quietly away. Then six months ago the government had relented further, allowing Horizon to begin work again, "subject to stringent review by the Institute." One of the express provisions was that Dr. Abraham Goldstein (who had had no part in the original dig) would personally direct the start-up, lending his impeccable reputation and expertise to an operation that had been sadly botched the first time around.
This, Gideon had no doubt, had been subtly engineered by the "retired" seventy-eight-year-old professor, who had left Sequim for Yucatan in early December to begin laying the pre-excavation groundwork. Gideon had not been asked along; the dredging of the cenote was finished, and no further burials were expected.
"What's up, Abe?" Gideon asked. "Don't tell me you turned up some skeletal stuff after all?"
"That's right. You remember the building they called the Priest's House?"
"Southeast of the temple, all buried in vines? The one we hadn't worked on yet?"
"That's the one. Only now we got some of the vines cleaned off and, guess what, there's a body a couple of feet inside the entry. I made them leave it alone to wait for you. You can come?"
"What's the weather like?" Not that it made any difference. He could already feel the excitement of a dig building in his chest. But he felt that he ought to show at least a semblance of thinking it over.
"Like it always is here. Hot. Sunny. Humid. Just the way you don't like, but the dig is a pleasure."
Gideon gazed out the window at the rain streaming from the leaves of the soaked rhododendron thicket that backed against the Sciences and Humanities Building. "When did I ever say I didn't like it hot and sunny?" he asked dreamily.
Abe laughed. "Boy, you got a short memory. So, you can come or you can't come?"
"I can come." With bells on, he could come. He squeezed Julie's leg and smiled at her. She had plenty of vacation time saved up. She could come too.
"Ah, wonderful!" Abe said. His pleasure warmed Gideon. "That's fine!"
"What's the crew like?"
"The crew...I didn't tell you?"
"Tell me what?" Gideon asked warily.
"Don't be so suspicious. They're all amateurs, that's all. Old friends of yours."
"I thought the government was insisting on professionals this time."
"When we get down to the technical stuff, yes. But for the first couple of weeks it's just clean-up and preliminaries, so we gave the ones who were here in 1982 a chance to come again if they wanted to. On us. From the original nine, five came back, including your old student Harvey Feiffer. We thought we owed it to them, considering the tsuris they had before."
Tsuris was trouble, of course. Gideon's knowledge of Yiddish had grown considerably in the last ten years, for Abraham Irving Goldstein had not forsaken the accent, let alone the vocabulary, of his pushcart-peddling days. Sometimes impenetrable, often hardly noticeable, it had never completely disappeared. Whether this was a statement of identity, a whimsical eccentricity (one among many), or a plain, honest-to-goodness accent, no one knew for sure, not even Gideon. Maybe not even Abe. If anyone had the temerity to ask how it was that a world-renowned scholar, a master of seven languages, sometimes spoke with an accent out of Abie' s Irish Rose, Abe's response was unvarying. His eyes would grow round, his forehead furrow into a million parchmentlike wrinkles. "Accent?" he would echo, astounded. "What kind accent?"
"So?" he said. "When you'll be here? Tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow?" Gideon laughed. "We have to get our things organized, get tourist cards--"
"You can't do that this afternoon?"
"This afternoon is already taken up." Gideon rubbed the small of Julie's back and smiled up at her. The fact that he was desperate to be on a dig hardly meant that he had lost all sense of proportion. "Besides," he added firmly, "there's a monograph I want to finish up. We'll be there at the end of the week. Friday. How's that?"
A fractional hesitation. "Friday? You couldn't make it a little sooner?"
"What's the rush, Abe? The bones will still be there Friday."
"It's not just the bones. Something's bothering me here. I need your opinion."
"Also," Abe said with the singsong wheedle that meant the clincher was on its way, "we turned up some new Mayan written material. Garrison from Tulane rushed down here to work on the translation, and she's almost finished. I asked her to hold off on her presentation so you could be here for it, but she has to go back the day after tomorrow. I don't have to tell you it's a historic thing, but, of course, if you can't make it, you can't make it."
Gideon was silent.
"Of course it's only a few leaves, post-Conquest," Abe pressed on, "but still, something like this doesn't happen every day."
Or every year, or every decade. Well, Gideon could always take the monograph along. "Okay," he said, "I'm convinced. We'll be there tomorrow."
"Good. Wonderful. There's funding to pay your fare--Julie's too, if she's willing to do a little work--and we'll put you up at the hotel. Meals too. A salary I can't come up with. I'm not getting paid, why should you?"
"No problem." Gideon was more than satisfied. He'd have paid their own way if he'd had to. "Abe, tell me, what's bothering you there?"
"Listen, Gideon, this call's costing plenty. When you get here I'll explain. Let me know what time you'll be here and someone will pick you up at the airport in Merida."
"Okay, Abe, thanks. See you tomorrow, then. If we can get a plane."
When he hung up, Julie clasped her hands lightly about his neck, her forearms resting on his shoulders. "We're going to Yucatan?"
"Uh-huh. How about that?"
"It's wonderful. I've always wanted to see it. But what are you so happy about? I thought you hated the tropics."
"Where do people get these ideas? A dig is a dig. And January won't be that bad down there." He pulled her head down to kiss her. "Anyway, Yucatan is something else. It's unique, you'll see. The jungle, the ruins...once you get away from Merida there's a raw, primitive elemental sense of isolation, a--"
"Did you know," she said, never one to be moved by lyric prose, "that you have dried shaving cream behind your ear?"