En Route toa Commissionaire, Ocosingo, Chiapas, Mexico
“You expect us to ride in that?” Camazotz asked.
Elena inspected the bus.
“What’s wrong with it?” she asked. “All the locals use it. It’s a bit overcrowded. And the chickens and goats seem to ride first class with the passengers, but, that’s how it’s done here.”
Camazotz squirmed as did Acan.
“I do not think Los Indigenos would approve of us. We will join you ladies in town. I may come when you least expect to see or hear me. Be warned Sénora, I speak to those who serve me in mind, spirit, and voice.”
“If you insist,” Elena said not really hearing or understanding the god’s words. “Come on Francesca. We can squeeze in. I’ll show you how.”
“If you say so,” Francesca said doubtfully. “It looks a bit . . . crowded. Are you sure we can find a seat?”
“We’ll sit on the roof,” Elena replied confidently. “It’s cooler that way. Most of the woman and animals ride inside the bus. It’s only the men who ride on the roof. It’s easier for them to get off when they come to their stop.”
Elena Roberto Eduardo de Gonzales and her new found young friend Francesca Coleman mounted the uneven steps of the rickety bus and forced their way down its aisle. There were no empty seats. None of the men offered to give up their seats. The sultry day’s hot air blew in through the bus’s open windows.
“Excuse me,” Elena said.
She climbed over a pregnant lady holding a chicken in a basket on her lap, sidled past the man next to her, and squirmed through a window lacking glass. She reached up to the roof of the bus, grabbed a rail that formed the luggage rack, and pulled herself up. Francesca followed behind her at a slower pace, making sure she did not step in the face of the expectant mother. She grasped the rail on the bus’s roof and hauled up her tired body. Gasping in the stifling, fetid air, Elena and Francesca held on to the rail while settling into a cross-legged position.
“How long will it take us to get back to town?” Francesca asked.
“Hard to say. It depends on how many stops the driver makes between here and Ocosingo. What happened to your chaperone? I assume you started out with one.”
Francesca’s face turned red. Even in the approaching dusk, Elena saw the girl’s face change color from drained white to drained red.
“My stepmother came out with us, but I forgot to wake her up this morning.”
“You forgot or did you walk out on her without saying a word?”
“Worse,” Francesca admitted, “I drugged her fruit juice with sleeping pills this morning so she wouldn’t interfere. I wanted my Spanish teacher all to myself. That was a mistake!”
“Your Spanish teacher not interested?”
“Oh, he’s interested, but not in me. He wants my stepmother. What a creep. Who would’ve thought that he would prefer age to beauty?”
“You’re a bit young and tender for him. I applaud his sense. Aren’t there laws in the States about teachers’ messing with their students?”
“Francesca drew back and snapped.
“Only if you get caught.”
Elena didn’t say anything for a while. She scanned the trees’ foliage as the bus slowly rolled along. Vines and bushes appeared to be growing on the very limbs of the trees, as if fighting for sunlight. Parrots uttered their piercing human sounding cries while howler monkeys answered in a shrieking chorus. Elena swung her eyes back to Francesca and saw her bulging backpack.
“What do you have in there?”
“Stuff I found after the game.”
Elena studied the teenager nonchalantly.
“It’s against the law in our country to take relics from a temple’s grounds. You can get into a lot of trouble.”
Francesca looked up and met Elena’s accusing blue eyes.
“I didn’t steal them. I found them . . . after that weird soccer game. Didn’t you find it peculiar that some of the male tourists or the boys from my Spanish class were missing? I particularly noticed that my Spanish teacher, Señor Tairino, also disappeared. In fact, the only people remaining beside those natives were the women tourists -- the girls from my class, you and me. Even the extra tourists from the bus were gone.”
“You weren’t exactly abandoned. I’m sure the men and boys are still around. They’re probably just doing the tourist thing and forgot to bring you along.”
“Well, my girl classmates and those women tourists already left on a second tourist bus. That leaves you, me, those Indian guys, and the men tourists missing in action. I still think it’s pretty odd. How am I going to explain this to my stepmother, as if she would believe a word I said anyway?”
“You’ll find a way.”
Francesca dropped her eyes and kept fiddling with her fingers. Elena studied her, leaned forward and looked Francesca straight into her eyes.
“Let me see what you took. Then, I’ll decide whether you’ll need to declare it to the authorities or not. I’ve got enough trouble already without adding your crimes to the mix.”
“All right. Just give them back, okay? They’re probably not worth much, but I want them.”
Francesca swung her backpack off her shoulders and laid it in her lap. Unfastening its ties, she dipped her hand into the pack and brought out the first object her hand grasped. Without looking at the object, Francesca deposited it into Elena’s outstretched hands. Elena studied it. Francesca poked her face into Elena’s.
“Well? Is it such a terrible thing to take a pottery shard? Is it worth anything? Yes? No? Let me see what else I can find.”
Reaching back into her pack, this time Francesca removed a parrot’s feather. She placed it on Elena’s lap. Dipping her hand one final time into her pack, Francesca found that it required both hands to grasp the final object. In her cupped hands, Francesca presented a bleached skull to Elena.
“What about this one? Do I have to give it back?
Elena stared at the feather, pottery shard, and skull. She pushed back the feather and the bit of pottery shard.
“These are of no value. The feather is part of a headdress that the God of the Dead wore when his followers sacrificed and worshiped him. This pottery shard is part of a vessel used by the high priests when giving the sacred drink to an intended victim. It looks like it’s stained with blood or red berry juice. You can have them back -- but the skull, I’m not sure you should keep it. That looks like the ball the Mayans used when playing their sacred ball game. They used a defeated warrior’s skull and covered it with rubber.”
“Yuck. Somebody’s skull – no shit.” Francesca said.
“If I give it back to you, you must promise me that you will take it to the Mexican authorities and find out whether it’s real or not. Promise me that, and I’ll give it back to you. If not, I’ll keep it.”
Francesca wetted her lips. She stared at the skull. It didn’t take her long to make up her mind.
“I’ll take it to the authorities, okay? This stuff is so much more interesting than studying stone temples. Parrot headdress feathers . . . a blood-stained pottery shard that might be real instead of berry juice . . . a five-hundred-year-old warrior’s skull.”
Elena shook her head as if she didn’t quite understand all that Francesca said.
“Not sure if la commissionaire is opened. It’s getting late and they usually close the building after the afternoon’s siesta. Still, that skull calls to me as if I should know it, but, never mind. Just can’t put my finger on it.”
“You sound like Miriam, my stepmother. She’s always says stuff like that especially when she wants to sound mysterious.”
“Aiee!” Elena screamed as the bus shuddered to a stop. Francesca and Elena slid forward and almost toppled from the roof. Three banditos, their faces hidden behind neckerchiefs, stood in the middle of the dirt road. Each pointed a rifle at the bus. The one standing in front of the other two gestured with his rifle at the bus driver.
The bus doors opened and its passengers spilled out onto the rutted, dirt road. Chickens, ducks, and goats ran amuck and into the jungle. Women ran after them yelling. They ignored the bandits as if they didn’t exist. Only the men remained behind standing with feet spread apart, their arms behind their heads, and waiting with lowered eyes.
" Usted, también, Señora y Señorita. Bajar y mantener las manos donde podamos
verlas.” (You, too, Señora and Señorita. Climb down and keep your hands where we can see them.)
Trembling, Francesca inched her butt over the bus roof and slid down the windshield. Elena followed behind her slowly.
“Vamos, que no tengo.” (Come on, we don’t got all day!), a second bandit barked.
Francesca slid off the hood of the bus and sprawled on the dirt. Elena leaped off the hood and landed on her feet. She slipped her right arm around Francesca’s shoulders and hugged her. Francesca struggled to her feet, half shrugging off Elena’s protective arm.
“I’m fine. I can take of myself,” she hissed.
“Que no! (You there,) the first bandit shouted, aiming his rifle at Elena. “Ven conmigo.” (Come with me.)
“Guess you get to go to la commissionaire and show him your souvenirs. This is where I get off,” Elena said, attempting to sound unconcerned as she dropped her arm from Francesca’s shoulder and strode toward the bandit.
“Amigo fácil, ya voy. No le hagas daño a la niña. Ella es una Nativo.′ (Easy friend, I’m coming. Don’t hurt the girl. She’s a nativo.)
The bandits spat plugged tobacco into the ground at Francesca’s sandals. She heaved, coughed and spluttered. Laughing, the lead bandit grabbed Elena’s arm while his two friends looked her up and down undressing her with their eyes.
“No vale mucho, pero, una verdadera belleza. Esposo pagar mucho por ti! “(She not worth much, but you, a real beauty. Husband pay much for you!)
They howled with laughter. Shaken, Francesca managed not to cry. Elena remained calm and gave her a thumbs up signal. Tears welled up in Francesca’s eyes and streaked down her cheeks. The bandits shouldered their rifles and dragged Elena along with them. The rest of the women passengers appeared out of the jungle and returned to the bus having recovered their chickens, goats, and ducks. The men stood up and boarded the bus, ignoring Francesca and leaving her alone on the road. The bus driver got off the bus and forced Francesca back on board. He evicted a man from the seat behind his, and pointed for Francesca to sit down.
“Stay put!” he grunted.
Closing the door, the bus driver twisted the key in the ignition. The bus lurched and rumbled forward. It picked up speed as the road dipped down into the valley. Francesca rested her head against the sweat-stained window and closed her eyes.
Thirty minutes later, they arrived in the city of Ocosingo. Closed wooden stalls and darkened buildings greeted Francesca as the bus rumbled down the main boulevard. When the bus stopped, the driver stood up and blocked Francesca from leaving the bus.
Francesca watched as the women left the bus first followed by the men. When the bus was empty, the bus driver got off. In his place, another man now stood. He was dressed in khaki pants and a short-sleeved shirt, with patched pockets. A baseball cap sat on his brown hair.
“Señorita, the bus driver tells me your friend was taken from the bus. Is this true?”
La policia stumbled through his speech, deliberately concealing the fact that English was a second language for him. Francesca struggled to understand him.
“Are you a cop?”
“Si. This man says another woman was with you. Where is she, please?”
“Bandits grabbed her and forced her to go with them. They didn’t want me. Said I wasn’t their type.” Francesca sniffed.
The policeman scanned the inside of the bus and noticed the window that lacked glass. The rank air smelled of chicken crap, farts, and body odor. Walking toward the glassless window, he poked his head through and looked up at the side of the bus. Scratches on the side of the bus told him that people had climbed out and up onto the bus’s roof.
“Were both of you on top of the bus?”
“There was no other place to sit down inside. Elena said that all the men traveled that way. It made getting off the bus faster.”
Withdrawing his head, the policeman stalked past Francesca and stepped down off the bus. She heard him ask the bus driver.
“Is this true what the señorita says?”
“Yo no quiero meterme en problemas. Esposa, hijos, madre-e n-ley. Voy ahora mismo.” (I not want to get in trouble. Wife, children, mother-in-law. I go now.)
Francesca suddenly stood up and rattled down the bus steps. Reaching the policia, she tapped him on the shoulder.
“It’s okay, officer. Like I said, Elena slid off the roof and joined the bandits. She didn’t want any trouble, especially cause of me. Elena was afraid they would take me instead of her. She sort of volunteered to go, I guess.”
“Que?” (What?) Never mind. We must go inside. It’s not safe out here in the streets talking. Come with me.”
The policeman turned and strode down the middle of the road, looking back as if checking to see where she was and what other locals might be out as well. The silence and absence of anyone else following him seemed to reassure him. Francesca grabbed her backpack and followed at a trot. The policia hurried down the broad dirt road and finally reached a washed out red brick building. Stooping, he scooped his hand underneath a rubber mat and withdrew an old-fashioned key. Inserting it into the lock, he turned it twice, and then pocketed the key into his shirt pocket.
“Coming? The streets aren’t safe for underage girls or tourists. The drug lords are particularly active at night and look for hostages who don’t know how to take care of themselves in a foreign country. I’m surprised that the banditos didn’t take you for blood sport. Inside at once.”
Francesca scooted underneath the policeman’s arm and stepped into the central area of the police station. She scanned the building’s wall and noticed that, except for ‘Wanted’ posters, the walls were bare.
“You can look at those later. Move down the hallway into my office. This station has no windows. Lucky for you no one can spy on us.”
She didn’t say anything as she continued walking forward. The policeman slammed the door shut. Behind her, Francesca heard two dead bolt snap into place. The policeman overtook her and with a pencil flashlight lit the interior hallway. He led her to an office at the end of the hallway.
“Have a seat. I’ll get us some ice tea. From the looks of it, you could use a cold drink.”
Francesca studied the policeman’s office. Diplomas dotted the back wall. On one of the two side walls was hung a painting of a waterfall spilling into a churning pool of white foam and jumping fish. On the other wall was a large photograph of a group of men sitting with arms at their sides looking straight into the camera.
She squinted at one of them. Something in the background of the picture looked out of place. Walking up to the wall, she peered at the photo and noticed a blurred black object reminding her of a wing belonging to a large bird.
Francesca shook her head and looked toward the doorway. One straight-back wooden chair stood up flat against the wall. Dragging it forward, she placed it in front of the policeman’s battered, metal desk and waited. It didn’t take long. The policeman walked into his office and placed two mugs on his desk.
“Couldn’t find the tea. Hope you like cold coffee. It’s all we had left.”
Francesca sighed and picked up the mug of coffee, sniffed, and stuck her tongue out, tasting the coffee with the tip of her tongue. Satisfied that he wasn’t trying to poison her, she sipped the coffee.
The policeman cradled his own mug it in his hands. He walked behind his desk and kicked out his wheeled chair. Sitting down, he placed the mug back on the desk. He pulled out a drawer and removed a large, yellow legal tablet and peered at Francesca with a weary, concerned look.
“I’m Alvaro Cruz, detective lieutenant. Nice to meet you. Now, to start, what is your name, please?”
“My name is Francesca Coleman. I’m a cheerleader from Dallas, Texas.”
“That explains a lot, Francesca Coleman. Now, this older lady: do you know her name?”
“She called herself Elena Roberto Eduardo de Gonzalez. Said we were all trespassing on her land.”
Alvaro leaned forward and looked intently at Francesca.
“She specifically said Elena Roberto Eduardo de Gonazlez? I’ve heard of her and her late husband. They had plans for the land around the temple ruins. ‘Trespassing’? She said that exact word?”
“Yup. She also said she had run-ins with the bus drivers who brought the tourists to the temple as well.”
“All right. Suppose you begin at the beginning, if there’s a beginning to it.”
Francesca glared at him.
“There’s always a first page to any story. Do you want the first part of why we’re down here or where that lady got kidnapped off the bus?”
The policeman frowned at Francesca.
“For me to make sense out of this mess, you might as well start where you two met. I’ll find out the rest later – if there is a later to this story. It might be a case of mistaken identity at best or an attempt to make quick money with a political kidnapping. Whatever the case, I want to know where you fit in, young lady, so start talking.”
Francesca gasped. Her mind finally kicked in. She could understand his English. Confused, Francesca threw out the first thought that came to mind.
“You speak English pretty good.”
The policeman smiled.
“I learned from the tourists. They felt sorry for barefoot, ragged Indian kids and wanted to give me a step-up into the world should I ever come by their way. I took their kind offer and showed up on their steps after I finished grade school. The rest is history, as you Americans like to say.”
Shaking her head, Francesca leaned forward and placed her mug on the opposite edge of the desk. She got up and ran her fingers along the side of the desk and faced the policeman at an angle. Taking a deep breath, she plunged into her story.
“I met the lady, Elena, at the temple ruins.”
“Were you alone?”
“No, my Spanish teacher, Gabrielle Tairino, and my Spanish class were with me.”
“And, your Spanish class and teacher were at the ruins – for what?”
“Cultural exchange program. He wanted us to see what the Mayans built before the Spanish invaded and enslaved them.”
“Touching. What happened?”
“On the bus? Or before we took the bus.”
“Where did you meet the lady?” the policeman asked.
“I told you at the temple ruins.”
“You ran into her and said, ’Buenos noches, Senora?
“Not quite. We were picked up by a couple of Indian re-enactors.”
“Indian re-enactors? I wasn’t aware that there are, what you call it, re-enactors at this temple. What do they do?”
“Play soccer on a ball court of some sort with stone hoops.”
The policeman stopped writing. He looked up and met Francesca’s eyes.
“What was the lady doing?”
“Talking to the honcho. He was taller and bigger than his friend.”
“His friend who tried to pick me up. I thought he was kinda cute,” Francesca said.
The policeman stopped writing a second time.
“Did the two men have anything in common?”
“They picked us up. They suggested we go sit in the stone seats and watch them play ball. They’ll take us home after the game. They didn’t take the bus. Said their fellow Los Indigenos wouldn’t like that one bit. They said they would fly in and meet us once we got back to town.”
The policeman scratched the side of his neck.
“Anything else happened?”
“We boarded the bus and found that we had to sit upstairs, on the roof of the bus. We sat that way for over forty minutes until the bandits stopped the bus and took the lady.”
“And that was all?”
“That’s it,” Francesca said quickly.
“What happened to Senor Gabrielle Tairino and your classmates? What bus did they take back?”
“Well, umm, the girls left with some older women tourists on their bus.”
“And your teacher, your boy classmates and the older men tourists? What happened to them? Fly into the jungle? Sacrificed under a full moon? What?”
Francesca caught the policeman’s eyes.
“Funny you should ask. They disappeared along with some of the re-enactor players. Just poof, and they were gone.”
The policeman jumped to his feet. The writing pad fell to the floor, but neither noticed it.
“What do you mean, ‘Poof, and they were gone’? People don’t disappear in plain sight.”
“Well, they do and they did. The men and boys on our side played ball with the re-enactors on the other side of the ball court. They played with this. Almost forgot to tell you. I showed them to Elena. She acted real strange, if you know what I mean.”
“I won’t know anything until you show me what you have.”
“Elena called them artifacts and said I would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law if I took them back to the States, but I didn’t steal them. They were just lying there on the side of the ball court. Discarded by the players or left behind.”
“Same thing. Show me these artifacts. I’ll let you know whether you can keep them or they’re a part of a national treasure,” the policeman said neither agreeing nor disagreeing with what Francesca had said up to now.
Francesca took off her backpack, swung it around and placed it on his desk. She untied its straps and opened it. Digging into the pack, she took out the parrot’s feather and the pottery shard placing them on the officer’s desk. Then, digging into her pack with both hands, Francesca removed the skull-ball. She set it on the desk next to the feather and shard, and sat down with her arms crossed against her chest.
The policeman rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand realizing that she had taken relics from the site without being challenged by anyone. He shook his head as if to clear it, and then picked up the skull-ball.
“I’ve seen this before wrapped in rubber at the cultural museum.”
“It’s a skull-ball. That’s what Acan claimed,” Francesca said nodding her head up and down.
“Who is Acan?”
“The guy trying to pick me up. He said his friend was a god. I thought he was pulling my leg.”
The policeman stared at Francesca as if he didn’t quite believe what she had said.
“A skull-ball was once used in the sacred ball games long ago when the Mayans used them to separate the victors from the losers.”
“Victors? Losers? Separate them? How?” Francesca asked.
“The losing team was led away for sacrificial purposes or became slaves.”
“That’s not what Gabrielle told us.”
“Gabrielle -- you called your Spanish teacher by his first name? That is a forward thinking school.”
By then, Lieutenant Detective Cruz had picked up his yellow tablet and was making more notes.
“Are you finished with the skull?” asked Francesca. “Can I have it? It’s pretty neat. Sure would like to show my dad. He likes old stuff like that.”
“Keep it. It’s not real. Re-enactors wouldn’t use a real skull. The museum curators would throw a fit. What about these two pieces? What do you know about them?”
Francesca poked at the feather and pottery shard lying on Alvaro’s desk.
“Not much. Why? The feather is from a parakeet and the shard is nothing special. I found them near the ball court,” Francesca said.
Alvaro Cruz studied them. The feather held his interest. He picked it up between his thumb and third finger. Bringing it up to his nose, he sniffed. It smelled of body sweat, stale mud, and berry juice.
“Now, that’s odd,” he said, more to himself than to Francesca.
Francesca watched his face as Alvaro sniffed the feather. He drew his lips to a thin compressed line while his eyes narrowed in a squint.
“This feather. It comes from a parrot, but it is part of a ceremonial headdress that hasn’t been worn in centuries.”
“Well, it was worn this afternoon, so you can stop thinking on that. What about that pottery shard? I bet it is blood. What do you think?”
“Blood?” The detective laughed.
“You Americanos have such a vivid imagination. Pottery shards like these were painted with images of the Mayan gods or animals depicting a particular ritual or dance. Blood -- we’ve got enough problems with drug and gunrunners without imagined blood-stained pots once used by a nearly dead civilization.”
“Just a thought. Can I go now with my souvenirs? I’ve told you everything I could. ’Sides, shouldn’t you be going after that lady?”
The detective clucked his tongue. He stared down at his pad and wondered about Elena Roberto Eduardo de Gonzalez wandering about the temple ruins on this day of all days.
“I’ll escort you back to the hotel. You’d better call your father in the morning and have him fly down.”
Francesca smiled, her lips pencil thin.
“Don’t have to. Miriam’s with me.”
“My stepmother. She overslept and didn’t make it to the site with us this morning. She’s gonna be pretty mad at me.”
“Sounds like you need some back-up. Let’s get you over to the hotel before she tries to go after you. I’ll round up the usual suspects for kidnapping wealthy landowners and get to the bottom of this when the sun rises. Let’s go. I’m surprised your stepmother didn’t report you missing.
“She couldn’t. I sort of drugged her breakfast juice . . . “