Disclaimer: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are the property of Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended. The characters and events in the Seasons Series and the Murder Mystery Series are the creation of the author.
Although a mummy conference was held in Arica, the characters and events in this story are totally fictitious.
My thanks to Lisa, Inga and Susan, my beta readers and friends, who are always willing to offer assistance in editing and researching my stories. Thanks.
Note: The Seasons Series and the stories in the Murder Mystery Series all interrelate. It is best to start at the beginning.
Warning: This story is alternative fiction. Please do not read on if you are under age or if such material is illegal in your end of the swamp.
Special Warning: These stories deal with the practice of forensics in a fairly accurate manner; more sensitive readers might find some of the scenes upsetting. This particular story does describe in part the process of an autopsy.
Visit Anne Azel's World at < http://www.jes.com.au/~azel/ > or write Anne at <firstname.lastname@example.org> The Anne Azel Murder Mysteries Book 1 can be ordered through Amazon.com or Openbookltd.
NOTE: The story "Dead Right" that is referred to in this story will be posted 11.2002.
Robbie sat by her sister on the small, well-used chartered plane that was taking them from the capital city of Chile, Santiago, to the small town of Arica in the north. Arica sat close to the Peruvian border and according to Aliki it was one of the nerve centres of forensic anthropology.
Robbie had wisely done her own research. Arica was the ends of the earth. Sitting on a desert coast line with the dubious distinction of having had less than three inches of rain in the last forty years, Arica did command a wonderful view of the South Pacific Ocean across miles of pristine beaches. Unfortunately, the Humbolt current straight from the Antarctic depths made the sea so cold that wet suits were needed to survive a dip in the waters.
"Aliki needs you," Janet had explained to Robbie when she grumbled and so Robbie had come along. She watched out of the corner of her eye as Aliki reached into her pocket and pulled out a bottle of medication. Her hands were bony and almost translucent and they trembled as Aliki tried to shake out a pill. Robbie took the bottle from her sister's hand and dropped one of the small pills onto her sister's palm. "You okay?"
Aliki popped the pill in her mouth and took a slug from her water bottle. She nodded but said nothing as she wedged the bottle back into the seat pocket in front of her and took the pill bottle back from Robbie to put in her pocket once again. Robbie looked at her sister with worried eyes. Aliki had lost a lot of weight. She was skinny no more than that, Robbie decided, she was gaunt. Aliki's breakdown had taken its toll both physically and mentally and had put Aliki's relationship with her partner, Dawn, in jeopardy.
Robbie shuddered. She couldn't imagine life without her wife, Janet. Reaching over, she placed her hand over Aliki's and squeezed her sister's hand gently. To her surprise, Aliki's hand wrapped around her own and held on tightly. "It won't be long now," Robbie reassured.
Aliki swallowed and tears welled in her eyes only to be blinked back bravely. "I didn't think the flights would bother me," she croaked out in a hoarse whisper.
Robbie felt her own guts contract suddenly, understanding that Aliki had been suffering in silence through four flights and twenty hours of flight time reliving the horrific events of the jetliner crash she had worked last year. Robbie couldn't think of anything to say. She squeezed her sister's hand in understanding one more time and held on, glad that Janet had made her come. Aliki did need her.
The Arica Hotel was a pleasant surprise. Not the Ritz by any means but it was situated on the beach and as advertized afforded a lovely view of a frigid but beautiful ocean. Better still, the fish meal factory, second only to the deep harbour fishing fleet for employment, was down wind.
Robbie, her Tilley hat pulled low and sporting her 'I'm not a famous actress sunglasses' booked them into their room while Aliki stood silently beside her. Then, steering her sister by the elbow, Robbie headed across the small lobby to the rhythm of Indian pan-pipe music drifting in from the pool area.
They had almost made the elevators when a large, loud man loomed up in front of them and scooped Aliki into his arms. "Alberta! Damn it's good to see you!" his voice boomed out drowning out even the persistent pan-pipes. "Hell look at you! Have you been sick? You look half dead. Hey, you'd better be careful, Victor's here and you know how he loves to cut up cadavers!"
Robbie put the cases down with a decisive thud and was just about to wade in and pull her sister free from the insensitive, loud mouth when she was stopped by the sound of Aliki's laugh. She hadn't heard her sister laugh in a long time. "Put me down, Jed. I'm breakable. Jed, this is my sister, Robbie Williams. Robbie this is Doctor Jed Philby, head of the palaenotology department at Kings."
A big meaty hand shot forward and lifted Robbie's sunglasses up off her nose and Robbie found herself nose to nose with the massive doctor. "Damned if you are not right, Alberta! It is the actress Robbie Williams!" The glasses dropped down on Robbie's nose again and much to her surprise she found herself air borne in one of the doctor's hugs. "Nice to meet you, Robbie. I had no idea that you were interested in mummies. Not that I don't understand. It is hard not to get wrapped up in this work." Jed laughed, enjoying his joke as he set her down remarkably gently.
Extracting herself from Jed's iron-band arms, Robbie muttered sarcastically, "Actually, I came for the surf."
Rather than discouraging the doctor this remark seemed to hit his funny bone. Another powerful laugh exploded into the lobby and Jed slapped Robbie on the back so hard she almost ended up in a side table arrangement of orchids. "Surf! That was a good one! You'd freeze your tits off out there, woman! We're all meeting at the Restaurant of the Dead at six, Alberta. See you there!" and with another laugh the mountain of a man moved off.
"Please tell me they are not all like him," Robbie stated, watching the large form disappearing out onto the terrace.
"No. Most of them are not that retiring," Aliki stated seriously and stepped into the elevator without another word. Robbie grabbed the remainder of the bags and followed, a smile on her face. Aliki had made a joke. Things were looking up.
They stood shoulder to shoulder in the elevator, staring at the floor indicator over the door. "Did he say we were meeting at six at the Restaurant of the Dead?" Robbie asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
"He did," Aliki responded, as the elevator came to a jerky halt and the doors slid open. Aliki stepped out and headed down the hall with her share of the bags.
Robbie followed. "Please let it just be a silly name," she muttered with a sigh.
Sometime later, after Aliki had slept for several hours, the two sisters had made their way down the street to the restaurant. Robbie looked at the large graveyard across the street and then back at the restaurant. "I'm not having an ice cubes in my drinks until I find out if they use well water," Robbie stated.
Aliki shrugged. "It will put hairs on your chest."
"Hey great! That will really help my career," Robbie responded dryly.
They walked into a loud and crowded room. At the back ,wedged around six tables that had been carelessly drawn together, sat some of the greatest names in archaeology and forensic anthropology. The mountain rose like Vesuvius erupting. "Alberta! Over here. Didn't I tell you she looked half dead? Honest to God I hardly recognized her. Victor stop drooling. Guys this is Robbie Williams the actress. She's into mummies too and she's going to read Tidwell Jennings' paper tomorrow so we can get the damn thing over with."
"I'm what?" Robbie asked, over a round of applause and Hear! Hears!
"Two pineapple margaritas over ice," Philby ordered to a passing waitress.
"Does this place get its water from a well?" Robbie asked, as she collapsed into the seat that had been rammed into the back of her knees by a man who looked old enough to be her great, great grandfather.
"Don't think so, cutie," he said. "I think it's run off."
"Oh shit," Robbie muttered and the table broke into gales of laughter.
The old man resumed his seat several places over. "Who was he?" Robbie asked, leaning over to whisper in her sister's ear.
"That's Doctor Gerald Flex. He's a pathologist. His area is the analysis of keratin. The stuff hair and nails are made of."
"You are scaring me, Aliki."
"Philby is a palaeontologist with an interest in mummification methods. And Doctor Hilda Katz", Aliki explained, pointing to a quiet woman with lean, well-toned features and heavy framed glasses, "is a palaeopathologist, the study of ancient deaths."
"Boy, I knew things were bad but do you police have unsolved murders that old?" Robbie asked in feigned wonder.
"The pineapple field is just down the hill from the graveyard," Aliki countered, and watched Robbie choke on the slurp of margarita she had just taken.
Aliki smiled and Robbie pulled a face at her. "Okay, so who is Tidwell Jennings, who volunteered me to read her paper, and why can't she read the damn thing herself?"
The tall, distinguished looking man to her right put down his beer neatly on its paper coaster and answered. "That would have been me. Doctor Archie Fenwick, Davenport University," he stated offering his hand. The handshake was brief and firm. Robbie returned it in kind, liking the man immediately.
"Tiddy was a fellow colleague. A doctor of internal medicine at Dormer University. I don't think I would be wrong in saying that she was a considerable authority on intestinal enzymes."
"Bloody authority on near everything," someone murmured sarcastically, in the sudden silence that had descended on the crowd around the tables.
Fenwick shot a look down the table and continued. " She was to present a rather interesting paper on the suppression of post-mortem actions of body enzymes in the mummification process. Awkwardly, she has disappeared. We thought, seeing you are here, you wouldn't mind reading her paper."
"Awkwardly? What does that mean? When did she disappear?" Robbie probed, feeling that she was not being told all the facts.
"During the last convention actually, three years ago. It was...er...awkward. Anyway, during all the...aah...awkwardness her paper was over looked and we felt it only fitting to come back this year to Arica and see that her paper is read."
"She disappeared from here?" Robbie tried to clarify, pointing to the table.
It was Philby who answered. "Excused herself to have a pee and never came back. Just like her to disappear when it was her turn to buy a round."
Fenwick frowned. "Yes, well, that hardly matters now. The important thing is we really need to see what she had to say about the suppression of the enzyme activity in mummification."
"Isn't anyone the least bit interested in what happened to her?"Robbie asked. There was an awkward silence filled in by polite coughs and the embarrassed shuffling of feet.
"Did anyone read Samir's paper on ancient Egyptian pollen samples found in Queen Weret's wrappings ?" Katz asked politely, and people quickly jumped in to use the opportunity to change the subject.
Robbie's jaw worked in frustration and she was just about to demand more information when Aliki kicked her under the table. "Let it drop. We'll talk about it later," she whispered.
Robbie sighed and kept her mouth shut as conversations about the art of mummification, the causes of death, and the latest development techniques in autopsies bubbled around her like some witch's chant from Macbeth.
Fortunately, Aliki was not drinking because of her medication, sticking to soda water instead. Robbie, who hardly ever drank, finished both Margaritas and bought another and so managed to convince herself that sitting with a bunch of ghouls discussing the dissection of human bodies in the Restaurant of the Dead at the ends of the earth was all perfectly normal.
She had, in fact, mellowed to the extent that she felt quite comfortable about the discussion on the various preferred tools for the removal of finger nails when Aliki leaned over and whispered into her ear. "I need to get out of here." The strain in Aliki's voice was enough to convince Robbie that it was time to leave.
"Well, nice meeting you folks but we gotta get some sleep," Robbie announced, standing up a little too quickly and feeling her head spin. She held on to the back of her wooden chair until the floor stopped heaving. "We'll see you tomorrow at breakfast."
Negotiating her way to the door and dealing with the darkness outside after the lights of the restaurant had taken Robbie's full concentration so it was only as they stood waiting for the elevator back at the hotel that Robbie noticed that Aliki as sweating and that she was rubbing her hands together as if she was washing them. Robbie felt her gut tightening and she wrapped her arm around her sister and steered her into the lift. Once the doors closed, she held Aliki close in her arms and felt the tears staining her shoulder. When the elevator stopped, Aliki pulled away and headed down to the room without a word. Robbie followed and used her room card to open the door for her sister.
Still Aliki didn't talk. She disappeared into the bathroom and Robbie heard the sound of a pill bottle being opened. Aliki reappeared and kicking off her shoes and falling face down on the bed, she buried her face in the pillow to hide her tears. Robbie stood at the door not knowing what to do. She licked her lips and resisted the urge to make a run for it. Instead, she sat gingerly on the edge of Aliki's bed and placed a hesitant hand on her sister's back. Only when she was sure that Aliki was asleep did Robbie head out onto the balcony to use her cell phone.
"Hi Robbie. I miss you." Robbie heard the sound of a kiss coming her way across the miles between them and her insides relaxed a bit.
"I miss you too, love of my life. How are our girls?"
"Your sister Elizabeth has Ryan listening to Holst's The Planets and the two of them have been lying on the dock staring at the stars all night. Reb has decided she wants to play the drums and there is a good chance I'll have to put her up for adoption to maintain my sanity. How is it going there?"
"Aliki is acting really freaky. She seems okay for a while and then she just sort of cracks and falls apart. She was rubbing her hands together this afternoon and then she got all teary."
"Oh, oh, this is not good. What brought it on?" Janet asked, her voice betraying her worry.
"She said the flights really bothered her. Mind you, we did have drinks at the Restaurant of the Dead with a bunch of Aliki's ghoul friends and talked about dead people we know and love from the inside out."
"Aliki hangs with some very strange people. I suspect Victor Van Vogt is a vampire disguised as a parasitologist. He's got buck teeth and has a knife sheaf on his belt."
"I can see this trip is going to be a source of stories all winter long," Janet laughed. "Robbie, Dawn and Mac should be arriving any minute to spend a few weeks here. Ryan really wants some time with her cousin and Dawn, well she needs some support. She gets left literally at the altar by Aliki and yet she is still there to nurse Aliki through her breakdown, and then as soon as your sister is on her feet she decides to take off to South America alone."
Robbie sighed. "Yeah. I can't see why Dawn and Aliki just can't seem to get it together. I don't know what is the matter with them. They are clearly very much in love."
Janet snorted angrily. "Your sister is what is the matter!"
"Hey, Aliki went through hell! She's just really mixed up and confused at the moment," Robbie said hotly, defending her half sister automatically.
"Yeah, I know," Janet was quick to agree with a sigh. "It must have been horrible for Aliki to believe that she had been responsible for all those people being killed. She is such a moral, upright person."
"She doesn't talk about it but I can tell the rift between her and Dawn is really eating at her. I think she is lonely. Well...you know," Robbie finished awkwardly.
"Are you lonely?" Janet asked softly.
"I miss you like hell," Robbie admitted sheepishly. "I don't sleep well when your not naked and cuddling into my side after we have made love."
"Robbie, are you on your cell phone telling the world about our sex life?" Janet laughed.
"Nah, I haven't got to that yet but give me time!"
"You are so bad and I love you for it. I miss snuggling with you as well."
"You don't miss the sex!" Robbie wailed dramatically.
"That too," Janet laughed.
"That's a relief! Okay, I'd better go. I just wanted to report in again so I could hear your voice. I love you, Janet. I am so proud and happy that you are my partner," Robbie admitted with a blush.
"If you were here I'd be hugging the daylights out of you, my olive. No one could be more lucky than me to have you and the family we have become."
"I miss you all. Give the girls a hug, and say hi to Elizabeth and David. Tell Dawn to forgive my stupid sister, and make sure Ryan doesn't corrupt Mac."
Janet laughed. "I'll do my best. Bye lover."
"Bye darling." Robbie clicked the cell phone shut with a sigh. Talking to Janet always helped but now it was just her and Aliki again.
Aliki was lying on her back staring at the ceiling when Robbie walked in. "Have you been talking to Janet?"
"Yeah. It doesn't matter how many times I go away I miss her like hell every time," Robbie admitted, with a blush.
Silence. "D..did she mention how Dawn and Mac are?"
"Cut up about everything. Janet invited them to the lodge for a few weeks. They should be arriving there anytime now," Robbie stated, coming to sit on the edge of Aliki's bed. "Sis, you gotta build some bridges. That's what Janet always says to me when I don't want to talk about something that has upset me. Why don't you phone Dawn?"
Aliki swallowed and blinked back tears from eyes already red from crying. "I'm no good at these things. I'd just make it worse."
"Yeah, I understand, the sensitive stuff is tough." For a minute, the two sisters were quiet, each recalling times when their inability to talk about emotional issues had led to real tensions with the people they loved. Then Robbie got a smile of pure devilment. "I got it!"
"I'm no good at conversations in real life but I sure as hell can write dialogue. I'll write some phrases down on the hotel stationery and then prompt you so you don't get tongue tied."
"Boy, that's romantic." Aliki snorted.
"Hey it's a start. Even Kennedy had his speeches written for him and he did alright with the opposite sex." Robbie argued, heading over to the desk to find pen and paper.
"In case you hadn't noticed, I am not interested in a member of the opposite sex," grumbled Aliki. Robbie ignored her as she wrote furiously on pieces of stationery. "Are you listening to me? I think this is a really bad idea and I'm not going to do it."
Robbie turned around and looked at her. "Look at you. You are a mess. Jed is right. All through lunch Victor was sizing your bones up as he fingered his knife. Death warmed over looks healthier than you."
"I had a fucking breakdown, God damn it!" Aliki snapped, getting up off the bed in one clean movement and pacing about the room.
"Yeah, that was then. This is now. You need to build some bridges before you lose Dawn and Mac out of your life altogether. Do you want that?"
Aliki leaned against the balcony door frame staring at the horizon. "No, I don't want that."
"Then phone. Hey, this couldn't get much worse; what have you got to lose?" Aliki turned and looked at Robbie. "Trust me," Robbie encouraged.
Aliki smiled shakily. "As if!"
Robbie grinned with relief. "I'll phone Janet and then she can put Dawn on, okay?"
Aliki looked like she was going to pass out but she did come over and sit on the end of her bed, rubbing her suddenly sweaty palms on her jeans. Robbie had the cell phone out in a second and was punching in the code before Aliki could back out.
"Hey, it's me, Lover!"
"Oh hi Sally. Come on over Robbie is away," Janet laughed.
"Funny! And why did the name Sally come to your mind?" Robbie asked suspiciously, only half in fun.
"Because she is here in my arms. Her name is Sally-slurp. It's a tabby kitten that Mac found and adopted."
Robbie smiled. "Sally-slurp, huh? Sounds like a porno movie. Hey Aliki. Your kid has a cat. Look Janet, the reason I called back other than to tell you I love you is Aliki wants to talk to Dawn. Could you put her on?
"This is good news. I'll get her," Janet said and Robbie could feel her smile cross the miles. It made her feel puffed up with pride. Making Janet happy was the most important thing in Robbie's life. She handed the phone to Aliki, who was as white as a ghost and could barely hold the phone for shaking.
"Aliki?" a nervous voice asked.
"Aaah, hi. I was just...I mean..." Aliki looked at Robbie in panic. Robbie held up a sign. "I just needed to talk to you. I miss you," she read.
"I miss you too, Aliki. Mac and I have been worried. Aliki, thanks for phoning," came a voice soft with love and concern.
Robbie held up a new sign. "I need you to know that I need you in my life. I haven't shown you that very well but I ..." Aliki hesitated as Robbie flipped the sheet of paper over. "...really do. Look, maybe when I get back we could talk."
"Okay. I need that. There just seems to be so much misunderstanding and hurt that we need to work through. When you were so sick nothing else mattered but being there for you, but after, I guess I needed some healing too. Do you understand what I am trying to say, Aliki?"
Aliki looked at Robbie. The sign read: I don't care about anything but our love. Aliki shook her head frantically. Robbie grabbed another sign and held it up. It read: Dawn, I just phoned to tell you I love you and for no other reason. Aliki's eyes got big with panic and she shook her head again. Robbie frowned and dug about once more.
"Aliki? Are you still there?"
"Aaah yeah, just...err" Robbie grabbed a sign out of the pile and held it up. " I err, Dawn. I just want to say that I know I caused you and Mac a lot of stress by my actions. I thought I was protecting you. But I should have..." Robbie flipped the card. "I should have known that you would need to be at my side."
There was silence at the other end and Aliki frantically signaled to Robbie to give her another line. Robbie scribbled madly and held up the last piece of stationery. "I love you. I need you. I miss you, Dawn."
"Aliki, I saw the movie," came a voice very near to laughter.
"Your dialogue is from one of Robbie's movies. Is she there?"
Aliki went bright red and sent draggers at her sister. Robbie shrugged and with a sigh of disappointment threw the last card over her shoulder.
"Yeah, she is here. She was trying to help me get through this, you know."
"Yeah, I know," Dawn reassured.
"Look, I don't want you to leave me. I hate this!" Aliki snapped in frustration. Robbie rolled her eyes and hit her forehead in disbelief.
"That's more like my pragmatic lover. I miss you too and I want to try and sort out the problem of trust between us," Dawn choked out, her laughter quickly replaced by the tears of pent up emotion.
"I trust you!" growled Aliki, impatiently. Robbie buried her face in her hands in mock horror.
"Not enough to stand by you in a crisis. But it is a start. I don't want to argue about it. What I want is to be with you. I still love you very much," Dawn admitted.
"Would you take some money out of our savings account and fly down here?" Aliki heard herself asking.
There was a moment of surprised silence. "Yes."
Aliki grinned like a child. "Hey that's great. You know I love you, don't you?"
"I know, Aliki. I never doubted that or my love for you."
Tears were rolling down Aliki's face now. "Well, aah...okay then. I'll see you soon. Bye...I love you."
"Bye, I love you," Dawn responded as they hung up.
"That was pathetic!" Robbie snorted.
"No, pathetic is feeding me lines from one of your movies, damn it!" Aliki laughed throwing a pillow at her sister.
Robbie ducked. "Hey, for original lines, you have to talk to my agent first. Is she coming?"
Aliki nodded a big stupid grin softening her tired features. "Hey, that's great! Is Janet?" Robbie asked.
"I don't know. I only invited Dawn."
"Idiot! Give me that phone!"
Janet came up behind Dawn and took her by the shoulders. Her friend was leaning on the phone table silent, dry sobs racking her body. "Hey, you want to talk?"
Dawn turned and hugged Janet close. "She asked me to come down there. She was so hopeless, Janet. Robbie must have put her up to saying some of the lines from her last movie so she wouldn't be tongue tied. You know how hopeless she is at that sort of thing." Dawn was now laughing through her tears. "When I told her I recognized the lines she went back to being the blunt, short-tempered woman that I love."
"You have to go, Dawn. I can arrange it through..." The phone rang. Janet smiled and picked it up. "Hi Robbie."
"How did you know it wasn't Sally?" Robbie laughed.
"She is curled up on my bed waiting for me."
"I hate that cat! You're coming too, right?" Robbie asked with a voice laden with pathetic tones.
"Suck! What about the kids?" Janet asked, winking at Dawn.
"Oh yeah, them. I thought you were considering putting them up for adoption anyway," Robbie joked. "Would Elizabeth and David babysit for a week or so?"
"I'll have to ask but I am pretty sure they would. They are both very fond of the children and David is simply in his element caring and cooking for a big family."
"Great. I already called Brian and he is making all the arrangements through the company. I told him to hire a Lear jet and to have it ready to leave tomorrow morning out of Toronto. Does that give you enough time?"
"You've hired a jet for tomorrow! Robbie, Dawn has just driven up here. You can't expect her to turn around and go back to the city tonight to catch a plane tomorrow morning!"
"Yes, I can." Robbie stated selfishly.
"Let's do it, Janet. If Elizabeth and David don't mind. We can sleep on the plane," Dawn interjected.
Janet sighed. Robbie had a way of just steam rolling through life and sometimes she needed to be stood up to, but this was not one of those times. Janet had to admit that she was missing Robbie too. Her partner had been away a lot the last few months, promoting her new movie. "If Elizabeth and David agree, we will be on our way in an hour," Janet answered.
"Yes!! Do you want me to lean on Lizzy for you?"
"No I do not! I'll phone you later. Love you, Robbie."
"I love you too, Janet. You're going to love this place. Beautiful beaches and a spectacular view of the ocean. They call it the "City of Eternal Spring."
"I thought you told me it was a dusty place sandwiched between the ends of the earth and the hottest, driest god-damn desert in the world," Janet laughed. "Not to mention the line about it having more dead life than night life."
"Hey, I might have over- emphasized the negatives. The customs office and cathedral were designed by none other than the French engineer Gustave Eiffel. You know the guy that did the tower. And they make very full bodied ice cubes here," said Robbie, doing her sales pitch. Aliki sat on the bed shaking her head and trying not to laugh at Robbie's antics.
"I don't even want to know what that is about," laughed Janet. "We'll see you ladies in a day or so. Love you. Bye."
"Love you, Sweetheart. Bye."
Robbie snapped the phone shut and gave Aliki a cocky grin. "I hope you were taking lessons, kid sister. You just saw the master at work."
Aliki raised an eyebrow. "What I saw at work was three Margaritas!"
The next morning, Robbie found that a thickish brown envelope had been wedged under their door. It turned out to be Doctor Tidwell Jennings' paper. Over breakfast, Robbie gave Aliki the third degree.
"Actually, I hated her," Aliki admitted. "We all did. You can't imagine what a relief it was when she disappeared."
"Aliki! I am shocked. You of all people speaking ill of the dead," Robbie teased.
"Not dead, missing and may she stay so," Aliki stated.
Robbie looked at Aliki with sharp, penetrating blue eyes. "You think someone at the conference three years ago bumped her off, don't you?"
"Probably," Aliki said calmly, and took another mouthful of her coffee.
"And you don't want to find out because it would have to be one of your ghoulish friends."
Aliki shrugged. "There was no body. We looked, and yes, it was a detailed search. I wouldn't cover up evidence. There was none to be found. Tiddy just disappeared on the way to the bathroom. And good riddance to her."
Robbie sat back after finishing her slice of melon and looked at her sister thoughtfully. "This is a side of you that I have never seen."
"You didn't know Tiddy," Aliki snorted.
"So who had a reason to help her disappear?" Robbie asked, signing the bill.
"Just about everyone of us. And there must have been a hundred and fifty, maybe two hundred people there."
"Oh well, then, solving this mystery should be easy. Come on. Thanks to you I have to give a free performance. If my agent finds out he'll have a coronary."
An hour later, Dr. Fenwick politely manoeuvered his way into the crowd of admirers that was seeking Robbie's autograph and led her up to the stage. Robbie looked out over the crowd that was hastily finding their seats in the hotel's conference room. Aliki sat beside Victor Van Vogt, who was talking to her with great animation and a good show of teeth. Aliki looked worried and kept looking over to where Robbie stood patiently behind Fenwick as he battled to quiet the rowdy group down and do his opening address.
Robbie's chin tightened in determination. These people might be off the wall in their interests and life styles but they were Aliki's friends and this conference was important to them. All thoughts of making witty asides while reading Jennings' paper vanished from Robbie's mind. She would play her role as a dedicated academic and make Aliki proud.
"Now I would like to call on Dr. Alberta Pateas's sister, the actress and producer, Roberta Williams, who has kindly consented to deliver Dr. Tidwell Jennings' paper in her absence. Ms. Williams."
"Thank you Doctor Fenwick. It is a pleasure to be here. Dr. Tidwell Jennings paper is entitled
"The Post Mortem Suppression of Enzyme Action and The Relative Effectiveness In Various Mummification Processes.
"A brief explanation about the function of enzymes in the human body is probably necessary for those of you who do not have a medical background. Enzymes are mostly found in the nuclei of our cells. They play an important role in our bodies defense system by devouring foreign bacteria that enter our systems. However, on death these enzymes eat their way out from the cell and begin to feed off the host body. For example, enzymes located in the intestines will eat away the intestinal walls fairly rapidly after death and travel through the blood system to feed on organs, muscle, and other body tissues. We are all sadly familiar with the stench of decay which is the waste gas that these active enzymes release. This is the putrefaction process that will cause the deceased's epidermis to turn green and eventually to a purple-black, and cause the body to swell until the skin bursts and the orifices leak with a watery blood." Robbie swallowed hard, gritted her teeth, and forced herself to continue.
Aliki found Robbie in the bar when the group had broken for a morning coffee break. "Starting a bit early aren't you?"she said, as she slid onto a stool beside her visibly shaken sister.
"Now I understand why no one is particularly upset that Tidwell Jennings disappeared. I thought I was going to throw up before I got to the end of her paper."
Aliki shrugged. "Better reading about it than working on it," she observed practically. "It was an excellent paper. I think we all go a lot out of it. I had no idea that nicotine suppressed enzyme action. Not to mention...
"Then let's not," cut in Robbie, holding up her hand.
Aliki smiled. "So what do you want to talk about?"
"Something pleasant like who and why someone would want to kill Tidwell".
Again Aliki shrugged. "It is a small field of research. Although mummies fascinate the general public, there is no grant money to be had to work in this area. The people here work in other fields of research and the study of mummies is just a hobby that they do on their own time and at their own expense. We are a closely knit group that share a common passion, so you hear a lot of gossip. It is hard to know how much is truth and how much is just jealousy and spite between competitive fractions."
"You guys are competitive?"
"Ruthless at times. You gotta eat, and that means you have to get grant money or a position in a good university facility, and that means you have to publish first. It can get pretty ugly."
"Hmmm, I take it that Tiddy was inclined to play dirty," stated Robbie, waving away the bar tender's offer for a refill and joining her sister in a morning coffee.
"She worked with Victor Van Vogt for a few years on the tanned Iron Age bodies found in the Dutch bogs. Then published six months ahead of him, not only reporting her own findings on decay but also his research on parasites found in the intestines. It cost him a chance at the department headship at his university."
"Nasty. Anyone else got a grudge?" Robbie asked, stirring sugar into her coffee.
"Just about everyone. She ran away with Philby's wife then dumped her. Squashed Samir Tagore's chances of a job in the same department by insisting that they needed to hire an American even though he is the best in the field. She wrote a vicious review of Hilda Katz's work on the Tollund Man of Danmark, she was openly lobbying for Archie Fenwick's job, and she charged old Gerald Flex with sexual harassment."
"That was probably true,"snorted Robbie.
"He couldn't get it up if his life depended on it. He's just the original dirty old man who also happens to be brilliant in his field. It was very embarrassing for him."
"Shit, the woman sure knew how to make enemies. Anything else?"
Aliki fiddled with her coffee cup for a few seconds looking uncomfortable. "Well, there is me."
Robbie rolled her eyes. "You have a motive too?"
Aliki blushed. "She came on to me pretty aggressively and when I told her I wasn't interested she was pretty pissed. After that she used to put me down and ride me every chance she got. We had words a few times at conferences. It is pretty well know that I hated her guts."
"Enough to kill her?" Robbie asked uncertainly, well aware that Aliki was a master of the art of Shinto and had killed before.
"Sure," Aliki answered honestly. "But I didn't. Come on, Flex is going to deliver his paper on drug use amongst ancient Egyptians and then we are all going to walk down the street and check out the mummy museum."
"Gee, I can hardly wait," Robbie responded sarcastically, as she saw to the bill and followed her sister out.
The mummies of Arica, Robbie learned, were kept at the University of Tarapaca, a cluster of worn looking buildings not far down the road from the Restaurant of the Dead. They were housed in cardboard boxes in the back room of a storage shed tucked back in an olive tree grove. It was here, watching the delegates to the conference relevantly studying each of the small bodies lying on their protective mattresses of sand that Robbie started to understand her sister's ghoulish profession. Some of the scientists cried, their tears rolling unashamedly down their faces. The boisterousness and wise cracking were gone as they quietly observed the dead with gentle care and compassion.
These people lived in a shadowy world that few wanted to know about. They dealt with the sorrow and horror of society and were committed to learn from history to make a safer, healthy world for the living, or to find justice for the dead and peace for those that must go on. They were not ghouls after all but scientists totally committed to life. Death to them was the consequence of having been born, and they wished to understand that passage.
Some amongst them used that interest to be guardians of life, searching within the grizzly remains for clues to the origins and development of disease that still inflict pain on society. Some sought to extend our understanding of the past and enrich our lives with the awareness of our cultural roots. Others, such as Aliki, struggled to understand the animal within and the violence that one person can unleash on others. They helped the dead speak of injustices and gave them and their families peace.
After the group had observed the mummies, Robbie and Aliki walked slowly back to the hotel. Off in the distance, the sand dunes of the Atacama Desert threatened the edges of the city. Aliki seemed distant and brooding. "Those mummies, they were children," Robbie muttered sadly, trying to get Aliki to talk.
Aliki nodded. " The Chinchorro Culture, we believe, saw death as an extension of life, just in a different form. Parasites, bacteria and diseases often claim the young in marginal societies. Between conception and the age of five half of the children born die in third world countries. To the people who lived here that grief was too painful. They started to preserve the dead children. The bodies were carefully skinned and the meat removed from the bones. Then sticks and a mixture of substances to make a mold were used to rebuild the body form. The skin was then replaced and sewn closed. The face was covered with a mask and the body and mask were painted with a blue-gray ochre made with a magnesium base. The bodies weren't buried, they were decorated with feathers and placed lovingly on the hillsides," said Aliki, pointing to the sand dunes in the distance. "The families would come year after year and repaint the bodies and decorate them once again. Their children were not dead but part of their lives. As time went by, the mummification process was extended to include all members of the family. About three thousand years ago the Chinchorro fishing villages disappear and their dead were slowly buried in the shifting sand."
"For all our civilization, life is very tenuous," Robbie sighed.
Aliki shrugged. " Culture never really dies. It is part of us, it simply morphs and reappears in different ways. The Inca who moved into this area absorbed that reverence for the dead. They too mummified their dead and saw them as living links to another world. They honoured them with food and beer and even provided them with washroom breaks. They would come to their dead and seek answers to problems or to help them make decisions. The dead to the Inca, just as they were to the Chinchorro, were still members of the society."
For a minute, they walked on through the streets of Arica in silence then suddenly Aliki sighed. "If anything were to happen to Dawn or Mac, I don't think I could handle it. I wanted to protect them. I didn't want them to have to deal with the horror of the violent death that a lunatic had said she had committed in my name. I just wanted to track down the killer and bring her to justice so my family, everyone's family, could be safe. I...well...you understand," Aliki finished in a strained voice.
"Yeah, I understand,"Robbie whispered sympathetically and they walked on again in silence. Before entering by the terrace doors, they stood for a while looking over the ocean. Finally Robbie managed to put in words what she had been struggling to explain to her sister. "I have done what you did, kept Janet and my daughters in the dark while I dealt with issues in my past in order to protect them. That was wrong of me and it almost destroyed my marriage. What I have learned from Janet is that one of the greatest gifts you can give the one you love is the right to stand at your side in times of danger and crisis. It is not a gift that is easy to give when you love and want to protect someone but is an important gift because it doesn't just show love, it shows respect and trust."
Aliki nodded. "I'll get it right this time," she said with quiet determination. Robbie smiled. Maybe things between her sister and partner would work out after all. "There is something else," Aliki sighed.
Robbie frowned. She thought she had just sorted her kid sister out. "What?"
"I think I know where Tiddy is."
"The one place that the police would not look for a body, in a storage room full of them."
"Holy shit, one of the ghouls made Tiddy a mommy!"
Aliki snorted. "Never would have happened, but I think someone might have mummified her."
"Isn't that a slow process? How would they have time?"
"They wouldn't. But you could slap a coat of blue clay on her and bury her in a sand dune and hope no one found her until nature did its thing. Then you could wrap her in some sheeting like the Inca did and stick her in a storage room where chances are her existence would never be questioned."
"Wouldn't you run the risk of someone unwrapping her and getting a hell of a surprise."
Aliki shrugged. "Probably not. Particularly here where the reverence for the dead goes so deep culturally. It is a big issue amongst archaeologists. During the Victorian age mummy unwrappings were box office events and the remains were often ground up and used as medicines and even in artists' paints. Even when that fad faded, early archaeologists were pretty cavalier about digging up and carting away to study other people's dead."
"Creepy." Robbie shuddered.
Aliki smiled. "The research from those bones became the discipline of forensic anthropology so I am not pointing any fingers. That attitude all changed, however, when the US government passed the National American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to protect and see to the returning of literally thousands of First Nation bodies. Many countries have followed suit. Now no one wants to deal with the dead. It's just too political."
"Ha! What about Victor-the-Vampire- Van Vogt? I thought mummy slicing is what he lives for?"
Aliki raised an eye brow. "You are talking about a true professional. Van Vogt, like others in such fields, are trying to trace the causes and sources of diseases that have plagued the world for centuries. They are looking for patterns and trends that might help us control these outbreaks in the future. It is really hard for them now because they have to beg for samples to study."
"Yeah, well, I'm not turning my back on him," Robbie retorted stubbornly. Aliki smiled wickedly. "What?" Robbie asked suspiciously.
"You know the old saying, pick your enemies well, least you become like them? Well, you and I are going to unwrap some mummies."
Robbie's eyes got big in shock and then she visibly relaxed again. "You had me going there for a second. The university will never give you permission to tamper with their dead."
"Yeah, I know. That's why we are going to break in tonight," Aliki explained nonchalantly as she turned and walked into the hotel.
For a second, Robbie stood there blinking in total disbelief. Then she turned and hurried after her sister. "Hey wait! What did you say?"
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