Things had been going so well until Luis told the local INAH guys why they were there. Then the whole bonhomie and “enchanted to meet the esteemed Doctora Chiang” thing had frosted over and crashed. Luis shriveled as he discussed her quest with them, gesturing around the little Cobá museum. He glanced at her twice and all the come-on had evaporated. She knew the signs of a bureaucrat getting more bad news while hastily clabbering up a salvage plan.
It was so painful to watch Luis’ deflation that she slipped outside. She got a chilled Coke from a machine, and just held it to her temples while watching a sodden group of camera-draped Japanese, obviously completing a tour that involved scaling these daunting stairs. Of more interest was the guide, a very well set-up, athletic-looking guy about her age, probably Mayan himself. She watched him move, loose and unbothered by the sopping heat, his manner obviously ingratiating the tourists. Not too shabby, she was thinking when he waved good bye, pocketed his tips, and walked straight toward her.
His sudden turn and approach had taken her slightly aback, more so because she’d been fairly seriously checking out his shoulders and chiseled calves. He seemed to have homed in on her, striding across the parking lot with no hint of misdirection. Then she realized she was standing between a working man and the Coke machine. She moved aside as he glided up to it, grabbed a can from the slot, then pressed it to his temple like she was. And smiled. Hubba, hubba, some kinda smile, there, was MeiMei’s overall impression of Puch Pop.
The guide nodded a permiso? and moved by her, popping open the can as he entered the INAH office.
She drank half of her own Coke before he came back out and stood looking at her, a man obviously deciding whether or not to speak his mind. MeiMei was always in favor of men speaking their minds and tried to appear receptive and generally Yin. He walked by within a foot of her, using nothing but a glance into her face and subtle shift of his shoulders to suggest that she walk with him as he headed towards a thatch shelter obviously placed for the comfort of tour bus drivers. Boy, this guy knows how to guide, she thought as she followed him.
In the shade of the palapa he turned to face her, shot a glance back at the office to let her in on the idea that he probably shouldn’t be doing this, and spoke in a calm, soothing baritone. “You’re interested in the jade, aren’t you? Not its value; what it says?”
“Yes!” MeiMei blurted without attempt to disguise her excitement. “You know something about it?”
He tossed another signal glance, at the INAH seal on the door of Luis’ VW. “I can tell you,” he said, “But only if it’s private words. Just you.”
“I understand. And yes, this is for me, not the history institute.”
Luis stepped out of the office, flanked by two of the local functionaries and visibly unhappy to see MeiMei over there under a leafy bower with a handsome young stud. But trapped into what the two guys in white guayaberas were saying to him so insistently. MeiMei turned her full attention to Puch, great-looking Native whose name had yet to be dropped. And heard him say, “You want to know about the Oracle? The Talking Skull?”
Hey, wait a minute, did we flash over into Indiana Jones that fast? Archaeologists have to be careful of that, you know. “Excuse me? Talking skull?”
“Ah, then you haven’t seen it.”
“No, and that’s why I’m here. And it’s pretty mysterious that there’s no pictures of the back side, don’t you think?”
“It’s a skull. Not like these here, more the old Palenque style.”
“Okay. Like the Temple of Inscriptions? So it’s giving some news? ‘Talking’?”
“Yes, exactly. A big block of symbols small and close together.”
“Yes, jade because it holds more detail… wait, so you know what it says?”
He nodded but paused slightly, which she read as embarrassment. “I speak Mayan, but I can’t read that old writing.” He smiled again. “Only foreigners can read my own language. And slick chilangos from the Institute.
MeiMei always had an odd feeling around actual Mayans. Not awe, exactly, but a hushed respect like you feel in museums: they are artifacts, vestiges, remains of the day. It’s like meeting a Carthaginian or Cro-Magnon in the flesh.
The guide-muffin seemed to anticipate her thought. “We’re still here. Nobody ever managed to get rid of us. And we do have a legend about that jade skull. It’s like the calendar… you know, the Sun Stone, the Tzolkin?”
“It’s my specialty, actually.”
He nodded solemnly. “That’s wonderful. Anyway, it orders our days. It’s why there is order, how our lives move through time, you understand? But outside that circle of order there is chaos, like a jungle or wilderness where things came from, and go back to when they’re no longer in time. I hope I’m making sense. And the skull on the jade is telling about that disorder, about the life outside of time. Telling the living about the world of the dead, of the unborn.”
MeiMei almost whispered. “Do you know where it is?”
He lowered his voice as well, leaned in close to her. “I am trusting you now. Please don’t mention what I’m telling you to anybody else. Especially not that guy you came here with.”
“It’s in private hands now.”
Puch saw the dark squall that blew across the face of the pretty Chinita and knew why. He was surprised at the hardness that set up in her serene face and mild voice, saying, “Oh, man! Same story everywhere. Grabbed off…”
She spun around and looked at the unlikely little local museum with narrowed eyes. “Probably why it was brought here? Easy place to lose something, am I right?”
She must have transferred some of her anger when she turned to him because he made placating gestures. “Not me. I grew up around these ruins. If I wanted to steal artifacts…” He surprised her with a sharp, clear laugh. “Actually, I have stolen them.”
She didn’t even manage to shift gears to deal with that confession before he went on. “We used to pick up things from the old buildings, then sell it out at the highway.”
Raggedly little Mayan kids flogging broken carvings and potshards to tourists, she thought. Well, it was their stuff, wasn’t it? “I wasn’t thinking of you. But maybe you know who has it?”
“Of course not.” But he was speaking from a too-straight face, so she waited. “It would be crazy to know that, you understand? Dangerous. What if was some rich, powerful Chilango collector, kind of guy who runs Mexico, does whatever he wants?”
She thought it over a moment, watching Luis run through the elaborate leave-taking process. Better cut to the chase here. “That would be a bummer. Some guy up in Mexico City, you’re saying.”
“Probably not. His headquarters has been Cancun almost since they built the place. And the word is that he bought a big yacht and is outfitting it like a palace, plans to live on it, traveling around the world.”
“And where is it now?”
“The lagoon on Isla Mujeres. Last week they installed a helicopter platform on it. I know some guys who worked on it.”
“Ohmigod… so he’s leaving the country?”
“Impossible to know. This guy is… well, he’s not really a person like you or me. More like a government.”
“He works for the government?”
“The government works for him.”
“This is Mexico, chinita.”
Luis was heading towards them now. She spoke quickly. “Would this non-person who didn’t do what we weren’t talking about have a name?”
“Julio Cesar Ronchel del Cumbre.”
“My name is Puch.”
“I’m May. Thanks so much. Listen…” She could sense Luis approaching and blurted without really believing she was doing it, “How can I get to Isla Mujeres? Right now?”
He shook his head mockingly, but she could see fun and admiration in his look. “From Tulum. Local buses pass on the highway.”
She was already moving past him, towards the road. And people say I’ve never impulsive, she thought. She turned her head without stopping as he called to her. She saw Luis standing and staring, the Mayan guy effortlessly catching up.
“Look, if you’re going to Isla Mujeres,” he said quickly, “There’s this girl there. She works at that “swim with dolphins” place. Blonde. Her name is Curtsy.”
“And if I see her?”
“Well, I guess…” it was cute seeing a guy as self-possessed as him flustered and unsure of himself. “Could you tell her…?”
“That you think about her a lot?”
“Yes! Thank you.”
“Oh, no,” she said firmly as she quickened her pace along the access road, her shirt already plastered to her skin. “Thank you.”
“If you plan on trying to take on Ronchel, you don’t want to thank me. You should stay away from him. He can like turn everything against you: police, government, heaven, earth, hell. You know?”
“Only in a really vague way. But I have to see that skull. It’s like the summit of my work, my life.”
“That’s exactly what it is.”