MeiMei’s ruminations on her knack for blowing off men just when they were getting interesting–and useful–were interrupted by the appearance of a tall, athletic Black woman, decked out in tropical whites whose simplicity only advertised their expense. Recognizable at once as the languid lounger from Zama. She blinked into the blaze of reflected sunlight, then gaped as Aphra said, “My guess? He was too small to keep, anyway.”

She swiveled elegantly and unbidden into the chair Tuan had just flounced out of and inclined her head to the chubby mama in charge. Who had been glaring at MeiMei for whatever sins had caused her to drive off a good customer, but immediately brought another wine cooler over to Aphra. Sisterhood, and all.

Which was the card Aphra laid out to MeiMei Chiang. “Listen, girlfriend, I heard that guy’s tantrum, and his bit over at Zama. Skin tone caste system crap. Tell me this…” She laid her long, strong arm on the table, shining ebony against the white table top. “Where do I fit in?”

She was putting on just a slight glass of southern girl accent that she’d found to be effective and disarming. Her mother had praised the full-on pickaninny dialect she called “Tom Tom Club”, but Aphra really never got the handshake right for Steppin it.

MeiMei said nothing, just goggled at the sudden invasion of this electric model who looked like a dropout from Aphrodite’s Child and moved like a hunting cat. It was obviously her day for eclectic chat-ups.

“So we establish, I’m thinking,” Aphra went on, “That ain’t neither of us exactly leisure class tourists. And that you got something on your mind, don’t got nothin to do with suntans or dating pools.”

MeiMei smiled. If nothing else, this should be entertaining. “Just a working girl, here,” she said. “And it’s not working out.”

“Kind of work you do? Offhand, I’d rule out the hospitality trades.”

“Apparently. I’m an archaeologist, actually. And I can’t seem to find the Meso-American paleontology hangout around here.”

“No shit? You out there finding lost arks and temples like Indiana Jones? Ah… you’re here for that Mayan stuff, huh? Chichen Itza and shit. Sacrificed virgin skeletons.”

“Mayanology’s my specialty, but I’m more theoretical. I can barely remember the last time I got chased through a tomb by mummies.”

“Well, I bought ‘Mummies For Dummies”, but I couldn’t get into it.” Aphra snapped her fingers and dug into the cloche purse that clung to her flanks. “But see what I picked up in town just today. Genuine Mayan stuff, probably made by coolie slaves in Szechuan.”

MeiMei looked at the silver ashtray with bright enamel design. Homage to the ancients, she thought. Grind out your fake Cuban cigar on the face of the Gods. “Actually, that’s the Aztec calendar,” she said. “Taken from the Sun Stone in Mexico city. The Mayan depiction you generally see is a guy squatting with a tumpline on his forehead, surrounded by twenty glyphs. We call them ‘day signs’.”

“Oh, and they just all the rage, these days. But you see this thing, keep hearing about all this Mayan Calendar, Mayan astrology, Mayan Prophesy stuff.”

“I know, believe me. That’s sort of my specialty-specialty. And the fad nonsense around it is getting pretty ripe.”

“Damn, this morning I buy a calendar, ain’t even got a naked man on it, today I’m talking to an expert. So, what’s the skinny, honey? We talking about the end of the world? Or just same shit, different millennium?”

“It’s a pop myth. A buzz like the 20K thing.”

“No. Scuse me, cause you’re the expert here, but I don’t think it’s the same thing. That 20K bizness was all inside computers, right? All those geniuses didn’t know they’d need three numbers in thirty years. But it ain’t really the End Of The World, what I’m saying.”

“Actually, they just ran out stone during their production runs.”

Aphra didn’t get stopped short in conversations very often, but MeiMei was an adept of the inscrutable Asiatic straight face so the Black woman just stared at her a moment. Then got the slim, Kuan Yin smile.

“Here’s the deal. You’ve got your main calendar, called the Tzolkin, twenty day glyphs by thirteen symbols called “tones”. Making 260 permutations, unique ‘dates’ that establish a sort of holy ’year’. Nobody used that calendar in their daily lives, you understand, and there wasn’t one hanging on a wall anywhere. All theoretical, of interests to priests.”

“Sound healthier than priests being mostly interested in little boys’ backsides.”

“You get a lot of hubbub just over that. People with their little ‘Mayan Hieroglyphic’ necklaces for their birthdates. The human genome has 260 cell families, so it’s mystical…”

“Shit, I’ve seen a whole book of stuff that the number 42 represents.” Aphra winning hearts and minds.

“Exactly. Anyway, much later when they had enough history around to need longer time lines, they developed another concept called the “long year”. So you’ve got three numbers interacting–they generally show them like cogs on gearwheels–and it produces this BakTun period of about five thousand years.”

“You giving me the two dollar dummies tour here, huh?”

“Calendar 101. If you want more detail I can give you links to my monographs and recommend some books.”

“Oh, Lord, no.” Aphra fanned her glistening ruby nails defensively. “Way too much info. But that five thousand year thing coming up pretty soon, right? Two thousand twelve?”

“Coming soon to a theater near you.”

“Then we getting these tidal waves and comet hits and ninja attacks and what not, right?”

“Worse, a wave of blonde actresses with issues.”

“Damn! Now that’s a right dire scenario. But seriously, since I got an expert here, what’s up with all that? What’s your prophesy, your prediction?”

MeiMei smiled and started to wisecrack, but stopped. She looked at the calendar ashtray, then at the sleek hull of the Nahual. And said, “Believe it or not, there might be a clue to all that. And that’s what I’m here looking for.”

There was nothing in the taut black planes of Aphra’s face to reveal the hot pulse of exultation that shot through her. This was her drug of preference, the sight of the fox tail on the moors. She leaned forward and said, “So you down here hunting up the playbook for the end of the world? Look, you need any help? I always wanted to be, like, Assistant Laura Croft.”

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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.”

“I promise.”

“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.”

“Oh, shit.”

“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.”

“Thank you…?”

“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.”

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Keep turning the crank, May. Maybe you’ll crank out an answer. Hit the right line-up and the past and future will fall out the bottom like a Vegas jackpot and you’ll be PlayDate of the Month for History Channel.

There was something soothing in the clockwork reliability of the wheels turning within wheels, the little gears meshing solidly as they rolled each little Maya glyph in place to generate new combinations of human attempts to depict the silent sheets of time. She’d dialed up her birthday (12 Bakun, 18 Katun, 6 Tun, 3 Winal, 16 Kin, I Cib Tzolkin, 4Mol Haab ), the day she got her doctorate (), the day she lost her virginity(). And kept spinning it all the way forward, to where the glyphs stopped and the last three signified the winter solstice of 2012. 0.0.0.0.0. Otherwise known as 5 Imix, 4 Kankin, Lords of the Night #0 Triple lemon. Locally noted as December 21, 2012 AD. 20/12/2012 does have a little more ring to it than 9/11/2001, huh?

She turned away from the huge calculator, its gearwheels stretching past the floor and ceiling of the museum hall. And wasn’t that a lot of the problem, right there? It was in a museum! Not exactly breaking news. It had been on TV, in U.S.A. today (writhing in glee at the cool graphics to go with the over-simplified factoids), the tabloids. A jillion psychics and psychos, mediums and medianauts, astrologers and asshologers, were all over it. There were seminars and conventions like Star Trek. She been trying to come up with a “Trekkie” type name for Mayan Calendar groupies.

She walked over to the displays of Mayan buildings, highly accurate and spotless white models under the glass floor, stared down at Palenque and Chichen and Uxmal like an astronaut god. They always reminded her of the little white buildings on the “Game Of Life” board. Probably built with Lego then customized, she thought. Wonder if there’s a Mayan Set out with snap-on blue warriors and feathered serpents.

But she had to admit, Burkhardt had been right. You take what’s laying on the table and build on it, he’d told her, add the next layer. Forstemann had cracked open the hieroglyphics with the Dresden Codex two hundred years ago. And that lay on the table until Thompson, Lips, Deckert and L’huillier had added layers of interpretation on top of that, then that lay on the table until Vickie Bricker came along and figured out the whole calendar system. The remarkable interlocking wheels of days that had suggested the cogwheel analogy she’d just been playing with, though the Mayans hadn’t made any of those sidereal gearboxes. Wheels weren’t their long suit: math and stargazing were. It was the stuff of public imagination, but nobody remembered Bricker now, did they? They talked about Arguelles and McKenna and the other New Age nutrolls.

Burkhardt had pushed her towards the next layer: beyond the Great Cycle. “The Day After Doomsday” was his idea of a killer book. And with her meticulous scholarship and–as the old letch was always quick to toss in–her looks, she’d be a media star as well as an academic hero. The Sagan of archeology, the Lord Carnarvon of MesoAmerica. The Laura Croft of real life. But not if she couldn’t figure out a way to turn this thing up to Eleven.

If she could just get past what she termed “materials failure”. The realworld proof was not co-operating. She turned expectantly as Luis came up behind her. She was sure he’d struck out again. However much he desperately wanted to get on base. The museum staff had gone ballistic when she requested dismounting the Jade Codex so she could examine the back of it. But Luis had been ecstatic to help: convincing the stuffy old political appointed staff at the Museum of Mayan Culture to honor her impressive credentials, doing the physical job and paperwork himself. To end up with nothing.

When she’d first come down to Chetumal Luis had been highly apologetic that most of the relics in the state trophy museum were replicas, especially the big impressive stones. She’d soothed his embarrassment on that issue with her genuine opinion that it was better that way. The reproductions were excellent, sufficient for study, perfect castings taken from molecular polymer molds. People could see the evidence, feel the impact of their past: when they were glorious lords of existence, not marginalized aborigines. Better this way, she said, than looting the original stones and hauling them in like captives. Leave them where they belonged, not kidnapped like the Elgin Marbles.

Luis, a fresh-scrubbed INAH rookie aided by political activities while studying in Mexico City and a powerful uncle with PRI connections, was extremely happy to hear such an opinion. He fit in well with the current National History Institute concept of creating cashflow Disneylands rather than boring digs. And he’d been extremely excited when she showed up talking about the obverse of the Jade Codex.

It was improper to call it a Codex, of course: it was more like a tablet. A pocket calendar, if you like. A slab of very dark jade the size of a legal pad and a half inch thick, it was intricately carved in a medium that had held the detail better than the limestone steles and friezes. Obsessively copied, lovingly displayed. And now revealed as inadequate. Maybe.

She’d shown him the citations to make him believe the probability that there was more on the back of the jade tablet, and that it was highly significant. “Just having an obverse is really unique,” she had told him. “It’s like the U.S. Great Seal.”

“What the escudo of the United States?”

“Yes. The only national seal with an back side. You must have known that. It’s famous.”

“Oh, wait, the pyramid and eye.”

“Exactly.” Find me an archeologist who hasn’t been blown away by that image, and spent a career denying it, she’d thought. “The occult side of the official story.”

“So the Estados Unidos has a Dark Side.” He asked with playful innocence. Like most Latin Americans with college education he pretty much assumed it was all dark.

“Not dark: just out back,” she had chuckled. Then struck a movie pose and wickedly croaked out, “Come over to the Back Side, Luke.”

Her backside was something Luis was dying to come over, but the other side of the ersatz jade slab had come up smooth and empty; mounting studs cast right into it.

But now he stood there grinning, ready to play his trump. It had been like pulling hen’s teeth to get it and she’d know that. There was some deep departmental embarrassment about the Jade Codex. But he’d gotten the lead. He held up a printout in front of her, but couldn’t wait for her to read it. He said, “At Cobá.”

Her gratitude was marvelous to behold. Licking his mental lips, Luis offered to drive her up to the Cobá site himself. She was just so damned hot. Quite beyond the firm curves on the delicate bone structure, the graceful fluting of her face and throat and calves, she was “China”. The Yucatan borrows a lot from Cuba, including music and food, and one bit of slang was the term China or chinita to describe the highest and most erotic style of female. And if there was ever a girl who was chinisima, it was the lovely archeologist, Doctor MeiMei Chiang.

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“The fascinating part of the calendar is what nobody seems to care about. August 13, 3114. Before Christ, like he had anything to do with it. How many peoples have an opening date?”

Winston was wound up, lolling crossways in his matrimonial-sized henequen hammock, tripping his brains out and just dying to share it all. As he usually did, he rocked back and forth in the hammock, each swing bringing the tip of his toe to a bamboo pillar where it could propel his next rock with a mere flick. Beyond that, each swing slightly flexed the hammock’s stanchions, which also supported most of the palm thatch palapa that provided shade and shelter on his handbuilt floating island. It was like a combination, he’d said, of a soveriegn country and a waterbed.

“So let’s look around the world of the times, where dates are a little sloppier, but more historically sanctified. The first Egyptian dynasty circa 3100, “Uruk” the first city of Mesopotamia about the same time, though nobody claims they found the cornerstone. Kali Yuga in India, 3102. It was a time of beginnings all over the world. And you can trace them through the ages of fire, earth, air and water. And now we’re looking at the age of ether, the Fifth Sun, the Age of Center.

“Your people didn’t just do things when it looked good, you see. They timed it all out to the stars and Milky Way. Channel islands of the Pleiades, where they claim your people came from. Our system aligns with Alcyone in the Pleiades every 52 years, the exact length of the Calendar Round. You’re a race of astronauts, illegal aliens.”

For once he wasn’t raving to himself, though it’s uncertain how often he knew the difference. He was taking this particular info-dump on the girl who squatted naked at the edge of the raft, staring down into the water. Which was quite a sight for anyone who cared to stare instead of blathering about crypto-archeology: little breasts as spherical as stone temple houris in India, Chinatown cheekbones, matte skin the color of cinnamon sugar, and sleek black hair so long it brushed the floor every time she shifted her delectable ass (which was the only time it ever got swept).

Her name was XChab and she was as Mayan as they come: he’d found her selling cheap Chilangoware shell jewelry on the beach dressed in a village huipil, tapestry tied around her hips, and about three kilos of braids piled up on her head. Which she considered her working outfit. She’d much rather wear retro-slut black drag with Doc Martins and a buzzcut because she was a ponk at heart—a ponkita, actually, since she was drastically underage. But the only ticket out that had punched her so far was this old hippie, who liked her to wear her hair down and mostly nothing at all, which was fine with her. Anything to quit being Maya village people.

Although she was entertaining doubts about stranding herself on this crazy raft with this pendejo. What her mother would call me’ex ‘áak. What did he do all day? Smoked mota, which nobody did but low class losers, and get crazy on hongos, which nobody did but psychos and gringos. Well, he was a gringo, more of less. So why did he like that jungle shit instead of having some coca, or better yet, crack? She had only heard of crack, but lusted for a taste because the name itself just sounded so very, very bad. Which is to say, of course, good.

She stood up smoothly, though she’d been squatting on her heels for over an hour. She gazed at Winston Bacon, ranting on the bed, and shifted her weight just enough to give her pose a sexual tilt. She rocked her head forward, then shook it, her hair slithering around to hang in front of her the way he liked, her nipples staring out as round and black and beckoning as her eyes. She lowered her brow and stared at him from under her silken lashes, wetting her lips slightly. She said, “Hey, Winston, why don’t you shut up with that crazy Indio shit?”

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