In steamy downtown New Orleans, Gregory Thorpe is presenting an exhibition that could rewrite the history of the ancient Mayans. But when fake artifacts begin appearing alongside the authentic ones, Thorpe’s reputation is thrown into jeopardy. To trace the fraud, Thorpe hires Micah Dunn, a world-weary private detective whose tour in Vietnam cost him the use of one of his arms and provided fodder for decades of nightmares. PI work is boring, repetitive, and safe, but clearing Thorpe’s name will expose Dunn to the kind of danger he thought he left behind in the jungle.
Dunn has experience working with archaeology, and he knows the field is cutthroat. Thorpe is not well liked on the Tulane campus, and any of his colleagues or grad students could be responsible for the fraud. When one of the suspects turns up dead, Dunn realizes that someone in New Orleans will kill to keep the Mayan past buried.
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The Maya Stone Murders
By M. K. Shuman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 M. K. Shuman
All rights reserved.
I stood on the hot sidewalk outside the Crescent City Cultural Center looking at the exhibition poster, but I was thinking adultery. Why else would he have asked for a meeting here at the museum, instead of in his Tulane office?
Located a block south of Poydras, the Center is a simple brick building with flags sticking out from the facade on poles, and unless you look hard when you pass, you might mistake it for the consulate of some third-rank country. It was ten in the morning, yet the air was already steamy, the way it gets only during a New Orleans summer, with the moisture thick in the air from the previous day's rain. My guayabera already wanted to stick to me, so I was glad to go through the glass door and into the air-conditioned lobby.
The posters said it was a special exhibition from the Mayan city of Ek Balam, on the Yucatán Peninsula. The middle-aged lady selling tickets told me they would be open in just a few minutes if I wanted to wait. I thanked her and gave her my card.
"I'd like to see Dr. Thorpe," I said. She smiled and handed the card to a black man with a white shirt and bow tie. It was one of my plain cards, with just my name, Micah Dunn, no address, just the box number of a fictitious insurance company.
The man led me through the gift shop, where a worried-looking young woman was arranging imitation Mayan curios in a display case, in anticipation of the day's visitors. We passed through a door at the rear and into a narrow passage whose shadows seemed an ominous contrast to the brightly lit rooms outside. Ahead was an open doorway and the man with me halted and knocked.
I heard voices inside and he handed in my card. A second later he gestured for me to enter, then faded back into the corridor. I stepped forward and found myself in a richly furnished office dominated by a large oak desk.
"Mr. Dunn," said the man behind the desk, peering up at me through thick bifocals. He held my card as if it might be unclean and then laid it in front of him on the glass surface. Perhaps fifty, he looked much older, with a skewed bow tie under a long face, thin nose, and sandy brows. The muscle of a former athlete was long gone, but there remained a certain tenacity in his features. He nodded at the doorway, not offering to shake hands. "Would you please close the door?"
I did as he asked and then waited.
His eyes went over to my left arm, as if he had hit on an interesting problem. I was used to it by now, but most people's eyes left again, quickly. His stayed. "Is there something the matter with your arm?" he asked.
"It doesn't work," I said evenly. "A war wound."
"Don't you find it a hindrance in your occupation?"
"No more so than in any other. There's not much strong-arm stuff to being a detective, Dr. Thorpe. Most of it involves examining documents, typing reports, and waiting. Lots of waiting."
"I see." His nose wrinkled as if he'd smelled something unpleasant. He played at squaring my card on the tabletop and I guessed he was having trouble finding the words to explain how he had sunk so low as to require my services. I started to tell him that it was a symptom of our times, but I had a feeling he didn't need to be reminded.
Finally he made his decision and looked up. "Mr. Dunn, I have a problem and I can't go to the police."
So it was blackmail. "Do you want to tell me about it, Dr. Thorpe?"
He gave a jerky little nod. "But this can go no further," he insisted. "You have very good references." He cleared his throat. "The Tulane police chief said you were the best."
"Chief Butler's very kind."
"Naturally, I didn't tell him about this. I, ah, just, obliquely, approached him about private detectives and security services in general ..."
"But this must be completely confidential."
"It always is," I told him, a little tired of standing. "Although, if there's a crime involved ..."
"A crime?" Thorpe looked up, shocked. "Of course there's a crime, or else I wouldn't ... Oh, I see. You mean, if I ..."
He shook his head vigorously. "Mr. Dunn, I am a tenured, full professor at Tulane University. I can assure you that the very insinuation is ..."
"No insinuation," I said. "I just wanted to get the ground rules straight. Now what is the problem exactly, Dr. Thorpe?"
Thorpe leaned forward as if about to impart a terrible secret. "Mr. Dunn, the excavations at Ek Balam carried out by the Middle American Research Institute, or MARI, as we call it, are among the most important ever conducted in Central America. They prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Maya civilization continued in northern Yucatán at a time when it had collapsed in Guatemala, to the south. This exhibition brings to the public the results of a five-year program of investigation that I, myself, directed. I cannot—archaeology cannot—afford to have the fruits of our efforts destroyed."
I got tired of standing and pulled up a chair. So it wasn't blackmail after all. "May I assume, Dr. Thorpe, that you have a problem with artifact smuggling?"
He nodded eagerly. "Yes. That's exactly it. It could wreck everything we've done."
"I understand. How many artifacts have been taken from the museum, Dr. Thorpe?"
He shook his head violently and his thin brown hair went from side to side like the plumage of a bird. "No. You don't understand at all. It's just the opposite."
The jerky nod again. "Yes." He half-rose from his seat, his eyes angry. "You see, Mr. Dunn, they're not smuggling artifacts out. They're smuggling them in."
I must have dropped my usual poker face because Thorpe's own expression changed to one of chagrin. "Do you find something amusing, Mr. Dunn?"
I straightened out my smile. "No, Dr. Thorpe. It's just that it's generally the other way around."
"Agreed. And that's why I half-suspect that this is someone's perverted idea of a joke. An attempt to make a fool of me." He gave a hopeless little shrug. "I know I'm not the most popular person at the Institute."
I said nothing.
"But if it's a joke, it could have horrible consequences. It could ruin this entire exhibition, cast a shadow on the integrity of our excavation, prevent us from obtaining funds in the future. Any hint whatsoever of fraud can be disastrous."
"What, exactly, is being brought in, sir?"
In answer, Thorpe shot to his feet, a marionette without strings. "This way," he indicated. "And if any of the staff asks, you're an insurance appraiser."
He led me through the doorway and back down the dark hall into the shop, but this time, instead of turning right, to the lobby, we went left, into the display area, where muted lights highlighted the showcases. My feet sank into thick carpet.
He took me to an exhibit of tiny clay dolls. "Here, the figurines. You see?"
I looked down. Four small figurines were propped upright. Each was perhaps three inches high, and two bore pronounced male genitalia. It took me a minute to see what he was talking about, but when I went from the dolls to the signs describing them I understood: The descriptions were of three figurines and yet there were four on the other side of the glass.
"Three days ago, that's when I noticed them. It was horribly embarrassing. I mean, a woman came to one of the guides and pointed it out. Naturally, the guide was terribly confused and called me." He shook his head again. "I removed it immediately. I was sure that it was some kind of mistake, but none of the curatorial staff would admit it. Then, when I checked the accession records, I saw that the piece wasn't listed, and yet it was so similar it might have come from the same cache of artifacts."
"You mean it could have come from Ek Balam?" I asked.
"Could, but didn't. Mr. Dunn, I know what came from my own site. Most of the artifacts, of course, are stored in the Mexican National Institute. National policy, you understand. They let us take these out specially for this exhibit."
"In any event, I replaced the figurine in this case when I came in this morning to give you an idea of the way it was. It was the second doll from the left." He indicated one with an exaggerated penis.
He walked quickly over to a case in the center of the room, tiptoeing as if someone might be listening. This case bore a display of Mayan pottery, some only fragments and others whole bowls, decorated with kings and plumed warriors.
"Then, the day before yesterday, there was an extra polychrome bowl, next to the one in the center. I have it in the office. Again, it was so similar it might have come from the same site. But it had not come from our excavations, according to the records. I removed it and initiated an inquiry. I called in every member of our staff, but no one knew anything."
He hurried over to a third case, this one with some spear points of black, glasslike material.
"The final blow was yesterday," he declared. "Here, in the display of obsidian blades. There was a fifth blade that nobody had ever seen before."
I bent down and examined the display glass, then walked over to the wall and checked the connection. It was a vibration-type alarm system, and like all such systems it had its strengths and weaknesses. "How many people have a key to the control box?" I asked.
"Myself; my secretary, Katherine Degas; my graduate student, Gordon Leeds. And that's all, except for Jason Cobbett's people."
"The director of the Center. I don't work here, you understand. Cobbett's putting on our exhibition. I only borrowed his office because I knew he wouldn't be in this morning and I wanted you to see everything in situ, as it were. Quite frankly ..." He lowered his voice and looked around. "There's been some friction between our two groups. I believe Cobbett and his people thought we should just have handed them everything and walked away. I insisted that, since we were responsible for the artifacts, we should have daily access to them and should work with displaying them. Naturally, after a few weeks we could have faded out, but this is the first week of the exhibition and I wanted to make sure there were no foul-ups. If you want it done right, I say do it yourself."
"So there's another whole crew with access to the alarm system."
"I suppose. Certainly Cobbett and his assistant, and the security guards, have them. They didn't want us to have keys, of course, but I insisted. Entre nous, Mr. Dunn, I think you might want to look in their direction."
"Why wasn't the exhibition put on at the University?" I asked.
"Well, no space, of course. Who'd climb four flights of steps to the top of Dinwiddie Hall? But down here, near Riverwalk, during the tourist season, well ..."
I walked back to the exit and examined the infrared barrier. It looked fairly secure, but, then, I've never cared for that technology: A bird or a bat raises hell with it and after a while it gets turned off in frustration, which means no protection at all. Vibration alarms, on the other hand, are harder to set: Too much sensitivity causes false alarms and not enough makes them useless. I always recommended something like Sonitrol, which gives you an ear in the alarm room, but in this case it was academic because it was clear to me that this must be an inside job.
"One other thing." Thorpe sidled up to me. "About your fee ..."
"Three hundred dollars a day and expenses," I said. "And you get a written report every week."
He flinched. "That's a lot."
"It's the going rate."
"Well, I don't suppose I have much choice. I can't let this go on." He bit his lip, the light from the displays reflecting from his glasses. "You wouldn't have any idea how long this will take?"
"With luck not more than a day or two. Depending on what you want, of course. Discreetly letting the guilty party know that somebody's looking into this will probably make them stop. But if you want to know who it is, that could be a little more difficult."
"Yes, I'd already come to that realization. I really need to know who it is, of course. I have to be sure it isn't one of my own people."
I nodded. "All right. If you'll give me a list of your associates and also of Cobbett's, I'll get on it right away."
We started out the way we had come and suddenly the archaeologist gave a little shriek. I whirled, afraid he was going to collapse, but there was no danger of that. Instead, he was facing a display case on the left, his eyes glued to the glass and his skin the color of dead fish. I followed his gaze to the cluster of small green jades that were arranged in a semicircle on a creme background. Each one bore the likeness of a Maya warrior, with almond eyes, hooked nose, and giant earrings. I read the labels, already knowing what I would find.
"My God," Thorpe stammered, unable to control his trembling. "He's done it again."CHAPTER 2
I walked back out into the sunlight and stood for a few minutes at the intersection of Constance and Poydras, trying to convince myself that Gregory Thorpe was going to get his money's worth. Three hundred a day was a steep price to pay for unmasking somebody's joke. On the other hand, someone had gone to a lot of trouble if the only object was to make Thorpe out a fool. I took his list out of my pocket and glanced down the names. One of them was almost certainly the culprit, and odds were I could shake loose an admission without too much trouble. I stuck the list back into my pocket and walked toward the river. The '84 World's Fair had been a disaster, declaring bankruptcy before the last tourist had bought a ticket, but the city had salvaged the old wharf area where the fair was held, transforming it into a multi-level mall of shops and restaurants called the Riverwalk. One of the stores had a cash-flow problem just now, and the manager suspected the flow was into his cashier's pocket. I had a woman planted there as a clerk and I drifted across the plaza now and into the first level, where already a healthy summer crowd was beginning to build. The air smelled of popcorn and candy, changing to fresh croissants as I walked. I went up a stairway, past a clown with balloons, and found a table at a little doughnut shop where I could look into the doorway of the shop in question. I ordered coffee and beignets and sat quietly for twenty minutes, watching the people pass. Then I got up slowly and meandered out, down the hall, confident that I had caught the eye of my operative.
I was standing at the rail, looking out at the river, when she appeared at my elbow. A thin, attractive black girl, Sandra can go from Newcomb coed to Butterfly McQueen in five seconds, as the situation demands.
"It's the morning cashier," she said with just a hint of satisfaction in her voice. "I saw her making out the sales report for her shift yesterday. There was a lot of erasing to make it come out right. Then, just half an hour ago, she palmed a ten-dollar bill she'd stuck up on the register to make change."
I nodded. I like doing a good job but it always saddens me to learn the worst about people.
"Was it our money?" I asked.
"Sho' were, honey. When I ask her to change a twenty later on, I'll get it back and I'll give you fifty to one the serial numbers are the same."
I shook my head. "You worry me, Sandra. You like your job too much."
She gave me an enigmatic smile and blended into the mosaic of strollers. When she was gone I stared back out at the river, toward Gretna, a mile away. A string of empty barges bored upriver, barely making headway against the current. For a moment I was seeing another river, one with sampans and junks and a rickety ferry crowded with people, pigs, and chickens. A vapor trail overhead told of another load of body bags headed home, and from somewhere in the distance came the painlike throb of rotors as a chopper skimmed by just over the rooftops. I reached for the rail to steady myself, then remembered where I was.
Excerpted from The Maya Stone Murders by M. K. Shuman. Copyright © 1989 M. K. Shuman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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