CRYSTAL SKULL

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Chapter 1

 Miami Beach – 1987

Collins Avenue between Twentieth Street and Twenty-first was a street fair of purposeful chaos. A sweat-stained Bible thumper condemned anyone who heard him. Four men in orange robes and shaved heads stood, with prayer beads threaded through their fingers and a stack of Return to the Godhead magazines piled at their sandaled feet, and chanted the “Hare Krishna” in front of a dreary, X-rated movie house. A solitary; tottering old man with a flowing beard followed by a pair of elderly ladies in pan­cake makeup ambled by. On the corner, two slender men in matching leather pants entered Wolfies as several tourists in shorts hurried across the street toward the ocean.

Typical day on Miami Beach, Nicholas Pierce thought as he emerged from the cultural hodgepodge. He crossed Twenty-first, and strolled toward a building set back from the street on an expansive lawn. He was a tall, lanky man at the cusp of youth and middle age. His hooded hazel eyes gave him a drowsy look, and there was something undeni­ably vulnerable about his face, as though he registered the world about him as some aspect of a dream, and himself as the dreamer, half-awake.

He moved on up the walk and entered a wide foyer with beige pocked walls made of coquina. A rush of cool air swept over him, drying the film of sweat on his brow. He ran a hand through his unruly hair, smoothing down the dark brown strands, then tugged self-consciously at the la­pel of his jacket and adjusted his tie.

Jesus, he hated wearing suits in the Florida heat. He’d almost dispensed with the convention, but at the last mo­ment he’d remembered the prim tone of Paul Loften’s voice and the man’s position. Reluctantly he’d tied the noose and donned his jacket, his coat of credibility.

He spotted a long-haired kid in a uniform behind a desk and walked over to him. He was no doubt a security guard, but he reminded Pierce of a theater usher.

“I’ve got an appointment to see Mr. Loften.”

The guard looked up, asked his name. He told him, and the kid lifted his phone and tapped a button.

Pierce looked around as he waited and saw several people filing into a room to his right. He noticed a man in a baggy-looking dark suit with slicked-back hair falling over his collar. He was staring in Pierce’s direction.

“Mr. Loften will be with you in a few minutes,” the guard said in a soft voice. “You’re welcome to take a look at our new Mayan exhibit. It’s a preview showing. It doesn’t officially open until this evening.”

Pierce gazed over toward the exhibit. “I guess I can enrich myself.”

The guard handed him a booklet that looked like a theater program. On the front of it were a drawing of a feathered serpent and, below it, the title, “The Blood of Kings: A New Interpretation of Mayan Art.” He glanced over it, folded it in half, and slipped it into his coat pocket.

He walked into the exhibition room and glanced around at the displays of ancient clay pots and urns, and small figurines of Mayans with high cheekbones and prominent hooked noses. The stuff didn’t do much for him. It seemed remote, out of place. Looking at it here was like listening to music from another culture that sounded great in the country of origin, played by native musicians. But take a record home and it sounded different. That ineffable link with the home turf, the culture, the local color and context was missing.

The exhibition extended into a second room, separated by glass walls. In it stood a series of upright slabs of stone, all of them eight or nine feet high. As he mean­dered over to the entrance, he saw the baggy-suited man staring his way through the glass wall. There was an ob­sessive cast to his eyes. Like the guy was an artist. Or a maniac. And a jagged scar sliced across his lantern jaw. As Pierce passed through the entrance, the man moved away.

Pierce focused his attention on the stones. They were covered on the front with a stucco-like substance, and carved with Mayan glyphs and figures wearing robes, ornate jewelry, and impossibly complex headdresses. It seemed that the artist had wanted to make use of every bit of space available on the stone, and consequently the figures literally floated, one above the other. Pierce noticed a plumed serpent across the top of one of them. He stepped closer, examining the creature. He reached out, and just as his fingertips brushed over the wings, someone spoke from behind him.

“We’ve saved our prize piece for tonight.”

Pierce pulled back his hand, straightened, and turned to see a handsome middle-aged man with a neatly trimmed beard and short gray hair receding from his forehead.

The man smiled, offered a hand. “I’m Paul Loften. I bet you’re Nicholas Pierce.”

“Glad to meet you.”

Loften’s grip was firm, and there was a jocular look in his pale blue eyes that suggested an eccentric edge. Nothing prim here. He wore a pair of black jeans, a billowy white shirt, and a string tie with an abalone clasp.

Loften nodded toward the stone slab. “You know, it took some real detective work to solve the puzzle of these glyphs.”

Pierce looked at the vertical row of squares with rounded corners and hash marks and odd designs inside. “Yeah, I bet.”

“Would you like me to show you around?”

“That’s okay, I don’t want to waste your time. But what’s the prize piece you mentioned?”

Loften grinned, patted him on the back. “You asked the right question. Follow me.”

Pierce trailed the museum director down a hallway to a door marked by Loften’s name and title. He slowly surveyed the room. The walls were painted black; they matched the car­pet. Behind Loften’s desk, black wallpaper studded with the Milky Way swept up the wall and across the ceiling. “In­teresting office.”

“Thanks. I like to redecorate every couple of years. This time I decided on something gelid and soothing.” He smiled mischievously. “I guess I took it to an extreme, but I find it very tranquil. My escape from the heat and the chaos.”

He should’ve been a planetarium director, Pierce thought.

Loften gestured for Pierce to sit, then walked over to the Milky Way wall. He pulled open a panel; inside was a wall safe. He twisted the dial back and forth several times, turned the handle, and opened the door. He took out a cylindrical box, shaped like a hatbox, and brought it over to his desk. “Here it is. I think you’ll find this intriguing.”

Loften removed the top and carefully lifted out a trans­parent skull. He laid it on the desk. “Our prize piece. A hand-carved crystal skull.”

Pierce pulled a pair of drug store reading glasses from his jacket pocket, put them on, and leaned forward. The skull looked luminescent. Diamond-shaped eyes stared impassively at him from deep within their sockets. Two rows of perfect, crystal teeth seemed to grin and grimace at the same time.

“Its history is a bit murky,” Loften continued. “Sup­posedly, it was discovered at a Mayan site in Honduras in 1927.”

“I’m sure it’ll be a big hit.” Pierce sat back in his chair, threaded his fingers together, and gazed past the skull at Loften. “So, what can I do for you?”

“I want you to find something for me. A lost artifact.”

“I’m not exactly a lost-and-found service. Was the thing stolen?”

“Not exactly. It was hidden some time ago. Probably in South Florida.”

“What is it?”

“You’re looking at it. It’s a twin to this crystal skull.” He looked at the skull again.  “Why was it hidden? Who hid it?”

“All I can tell you right now is that I have reason to believe that a man named William Redington is also searching for it. He lives in Coral Gables.”

Loften opened his desk drawer and pulled out a thick envelope. “I’d like you to watch him. I want to know where he goes, and who he sees.”

He dropped the envelope onto the edge of the desk in front of Pierce. “There’s enough to cover you for a week at three hundred fifty dollars a day—the fee you mentioned.”

“Are you hiring me, or is the museum?”

“Good question. Actually, I’m acting at the request of one of the museum’s major contributors.”

Pierce rifled through the bills, then stuffed it into his coat pocket. “What else can you tell me about Redington?”

“He’s a pro—”

Loften stopped in midsentence as the door opened. He looked up, and his eyes widened. Pierce turned, glimpsed a man in dark clothes rushing toward him, a hand raised like a club, lips drawn away from his teeth. A jagged scar sliced across the man’s jaw.

Pierce started to raise his arm to block the attack, but it was too late. The hand slammed down and something hard crashed against the side of his head. He slumped in his chair; the light in the room darkened. As he spiraled into the blackness, the crack of gunfire followed him down.

 

 

 

 

 

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