Death by Smartphone - Chapter nine: The Mayan ball game


Recap: Marlene Martinez, a former Cuban detective who now lives in Miami, takes a Caribbean cruise with her niece Sarita. With them travel Carloalberto, an aspiring actor who behaves suspiciously, his wife Emma, and Helen, a screenwriter who is Carloalberto's partner in a TV contest. In the second chapter, Marlene discovers Carloalberto kissing Helen in his cabin balcony while Emma is in the casino.

A day later, while visiting a shamana during a shore excursion in Belize, the woman, who claims to read the future, tells Marlene that she will soon follow a blood trail again. Afterward, Carloalberto and Helen are voted out of the contest. Sarita tells her aunt that, according to online gossip, he has gambling debts and some unsavory types may be after him.

As the ship approaches Costa Maya, Helen's Smartphone falls into the ocean during a selfie session with Emma and Carloalberto. A few hours later, Sarita finds out that Carloalberto is being considered for the lead role in a new movie. That night, while Sarita attends a party, Marlene hears a splash as if something, or someone, had been thrown overboard. When she goes back to the party, Sarita has disappeared.

Marlene finally finds Sarita and scolds her. The next morning, they go together to a "swimming with dolphins" excursion. Carloalberto is supposed to be there too, but he doesn't show up. That evening, the ship's departure is delayed because of a missing passenger.

That night, the captain acknowledges Carloalberto's disappearance. The next morning, as Marlene and Sarita get ready to go to Chichen Itza, Emma says in an interview that she believes her husband is fine and will probably be found soon.

The flight was quick, smooth and uneventful in a Cessna Caravan that took them over the Caribbean Sea and landed in the Chichen Itza airport. Only ten passengers made the trip, and Marlene was relieved to discover that neither Helen nor Emma were among them.

"They aren't talking to each other anymore," Sarita whispered to her aunt as the plane flew over the Yucatán peninsula. "I saw when Helen tried to say something to Emma after the interview and she ignored her. How rude!"

"I wish you would stop snooping in these people's business," Marlene said. "Curiosity killed the cat, you know?"

"Which cat?" Sarita demanded. "Did anybody bring a cat onboard?"

Marlene rolled her eyes.

Their tour guide, a fifty-something Mayan archeologist nicknamed Turtle, was waiting for them at the entrance of the ruins. He led them through the crowd, so they could make the most of their two-hour visit.

He took them first to the Great Ball Court where the Maya used to hold a ceremonial ball game called Pok-a-Tok. The field was rectangular, around 500 feet long and 200 feet wide. Turtle showed them the sculpted panels at the base of the walls that depicted two teams of players.

"Their goal was tossing the ball through a loop," he said, gesturing toward a stone hoop placed more than 20 feet off the ground on one side of the wall. "It was a solid rubber ball that weighed around 10 pounds. Players would hit it with their head, shoulders, hips or elbows, but they weren't allowed to use their hands or feet. Many were severely injured and even died after hitting the ball too hard with their head."

"I guess they didn't wear helmets back them," someone chuckled.

"Actually, they did," he said. Turtle pointed to a player on the wall panel who wore an elaborate headdress. "But we don't know how effective they were."

The games, Turtle went on as they walked around the grassy field, weren't just for entertainment but considered religious events.

"Like football in Texas?" another tourist quipped.

"Maybe," Turtle answered with a sly smile. "But the outcome was quite different. Instead of being paid in shiny gold coins, the players got a different kind of reward. The game was an offering to their gods, and when it was over, an entire team was offered to them as a sacrifice. And which one do you think they chose?"

"Duh, the losing team," Sarita volunteered.

"No, miss, they chose the winners," Turtle replied. "The Maya believed in giving their gods only their best, most perfect offerings. Losers didn't qualify for it."

"Then I imagine both teams would try hard not to win," the girl shrugged. "What was the point?"

"They all fought hard to win," Turtle said. "The point was that, for the Maya, being sacrificed was the greatest honor a human could achieve. They believed that, if they were offered up to the gods, they would live forever, and their names would be remembered for centuries."

"I bet Carloalberto and Helen would have liked to be booted out of that game," the girl muttered.

They walked to the Kukulkan pyramid, also known as "El Castillo," where most tourists posed for the obligatory picture.

Turtle stood near the base of the pyramid and clapped his hands. The echo was a chirping, eerie sound that took everybody by surprise.

"It's identical to the cry of the quetzal," he explained. "The interesting thing is that quetzals live in the forests of Central America. How did the Maya know about them? And yet, they considered these birds messengers of the gods."

"Is it true that Chichen Itza was built with extraterrestrial help?" asked a tourist who had watched too many "Ancient Aliens" episodes.

"Some say so," Turtle answered cautiously. "Skeletons with elongated skulls that don't look totally human have been found in this area." He produced the picture of a cone-headed skull and showed it to the group. "There is a theory that Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god, was an alien that taught the Maya astronomy and mathematics. After all, he is portrayed descending from the skies in a cloud of fire that could very well be a rocket."

Right at that moment Sarita, who was looking at her Smartphone, let out a loud shrill cry as if Quetzalcoatl himself had landed in front of her.

"What it is, niña?" Marlene asked, annoyed.

"Carloalberto," the girl managed to say. "He is…dead."

In a shaking voice, Sarita read a tweet from Univision News:

"Body of missing North Star passenger recovered from the ocean off the Costa Maya waters this morning."

Other people opened their phones and began to look at the news. Sarita was sobbing and Marlene hugged her.

"I'm so sorry, ladies," Turtle approached them. "I've been following the news since yesterday. Were you related to that gentleman?"

"No," Marlene answered.

"Yes," Sarita said. Then she turned red and added, "I mean, no."

When Turtle led the group to the exit, everyone was in a subdued mood.

"The gods did take the best," Sarita mumbled, tears running down her face. "The most handsome and perfect one."

The Spanish version of this story can be found here.