Contemporary Funny Mystery

Pender’s face crumpled almost as the cocoa hit his palate. A heavy “WTF?” almost escaped his lips – along with a slug of thick, acrid sludge – but he caught the self-satisfied grin pushing through Valindez’ dense beard and swallowed defiantly.

“Is this some kind of childish prank?” he demanded quietly, depositing the insulated tumbler on the camp table between them with as much dignity as he could muster.

Valindez arched his brows in mock innocence. “Indeed not. You had mentioned two weeks ago that a cup of hot chocolate was what you desired above all else. I brought you this as a concessionary gesture.”

“So to the winner goes the spoils, literally? Is that it?”

 “The Aztecs required conquered peoples to provide them with chocolate,” the scientist explained. “You know, cacao was a prized commodity across Mesoamerica, even as currency, once the indigenous cultures discovered it’s true potential while burning the berry’s ‘pits.’”

Pender inhaled for composure. “I do know, which you very well do know.”

Valindez dipped his head in “contrition,” and took a long, steaming swig from his own brushed steel tumbler. “Of course, xocōlātl was said to be an acquired taste. Sugar had not yet come to the Americas, and the Mayan and Aztec baristas – if you will -- used vanilla, magnolia, honey, and other easily sourced ingredients to flavor that first ‘cocoa.’ Honey was used less as a sweetener than to help ferment the mix for enhanced flavor and pleasure.

“In point of fact, I’ve brought you the original Mayan recipe -- a paste of hand-ground cocoa seeds mixed it with water, cornmeal, chili peppers, and vanilla. I’ve changed only one key element. As I said, it is an acquired taste – one my undergrads and colleagues have come to savor. Though had I known, I might instead have brought you a Thermos full of Swiss Miss.”

Divide by bruising the professional ego; conquer by ding-ing the personal. Pender quite deliberately tipped the cup, holding his facial muscles in check as his Adam’s apple bobbed. “You surprised me, is all. Very complex, very. . .nuanced.”

Valindez lifted his armored tumbler. “A tribute, then, to your refined sensibilities and your superior scholarship. Drink, my friend.”


It wasn’t until nearly an hour after Valindez’s helicopter departed for the airport in Kathmandu that Pender realized the professor had left one of his Rambler tumblers behind. It pleased him – he scrubbed the putrid Mayan potion from the stainless steel cup and placed it on his work table as a trophy. Even as the top-of-the-line travel mug, it retailed under $50. But like Pender’s under-the-table appropriation of the dig site from Valindez and his university, the 30-ounce vessel represented a middle finger to the academicians who’d written him off as a tacky media-thirsty opportunist. And a quite appropriate souvenir of his Nepalese adventure, he chuckled as he glimpsed the logo near the base of the tumbler.

It wasn’t until two days later that he discovered the inscription on the bottom of the tumbler. One of the local guides had knocked the Rambler from Pender’s worktable wrestling his gear into a corner. After Pender retrieved it from the Quonset floor with a glare, the neatly engraved quote caught his eye.  

En boca cerrada no entran moscas,” he muttered. It was a bit disappointing – the old asshole had left it as a gift, as a magnanimous gesture. Pender liked his vanquished foes bitter in defeat. Oh well, at least the scientist had conceded the better man.

“Hey, Serita,” he grunted. The compact but muscular assistant looked warily up from the podcast station. “What’s this mean?”

Swallowing a sigh, Serita accepted the Rambler and then suppressed a snort.


“The old man gave you this?”

“What’s it say?”

Serita shrugged and mumbled the translation, placing the tumbler just out of her employer’s reach, and returned to check the satellite connection for tonight’s cast. A smiled spread over her chapped lips as she heard the ping of hollow stainless steel connecting with the space heater.


You’re listening to The Compenderium on Nightcast and Channel 1492 on Sirius XM. I’m Whit Pender, coming to you straight from Nepal’s Lower Himalayas – the sun is shining, it’s a balmy 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 0 Centrigrade for everybody else in the world. If you listened to our last cast, you know yours truly has the skinny on a Paleolithic encampment north of the Sivalik Hills that could just blow away everything we ever thought we knew about ancient hunting, gathering, and chillin’ on the slopes. I talked to Gunnar Frydenlund of Stockholm University’s Department of Archaeology about a find that suggests pit baking was around well before 29,000 BC, and Jamie Oliver’s calling in on the satellite feed to offer us some paleo vegan recipes the Nepalese mountain dwellers might have shared over the earthen oven. Hey, speaking of gourmet mountaineering, our sponsor, REI Co-op, has a deal on the Jetboil HalfGen Base Camp Cooking System for loyal Compenderium listeners. Just go to their website and plug in the code ‘PENDERPRICE’ to get 20 percent off this awesome on-the-fly, cutting-edge modular camp stove…

Valindez scooped a handful of chopped Hatch chilis into his coalescing eggs before pausing to sprinkle in just a tad more cumin. A smile crimped his lush, immaculately-kept beard as he answered the chime of the battered toaster, Rambler in hand.

“Alexa,” he called. “Play ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ by Led Zeppelin. Please.” 


Pender cradled his cans and sipped some good old-fashioned milk chocolate MRE cocoa from Valindez’ tumbler as Seger’s “Katmandu” played out the podcast. The ding it had taken from the heater three weeks earlier merely added character, and it remained a viable trophy. And Serita had quickly repaired the gas line before anybody’d asphyxiated.

“Up your xocōlātl,” Pender toasted as he detected the first rustling under the howling Himalayan winds outside…


“Yeah, the folks at L.L. Bean got you covered, whether you’re braving the elements or trapped in a drafty basement writing code. And that’s a great segue into today’s chat with Serita Flores, who just returned from the Himalayans after, what, three months working with the Indiana Jones of the Podverse Whit Pender.”

“Thanks, Zack. And it was two months that felt like five. It’s great to be back in San Diego.”

“Yeah, I heard things got a little flaky out there in the mountains, huh? With props to the prof, he kinda went off-script.”

“He burned the script, Zack. I jumped at the opportunity to be in on the Dang District Dig, but when Mr. Pender – he was an associate professor like eons ago at some private college in Buttfuck, Michigan... Can I say that?”

“We’ll edit it out. Shitting you – we absolutely won’t.”

“Cool. So, like I was saying – when Pender abandoned the dig and took a U-turn into pseudoscience, I was out.”

“A lot of our listeners might say the abominable snowman, is as real as the coelacanth.”

“Well, no disrespect, but my masters from UC-Davis is in archaeology, and I prefer shit that died thousands of years ago to shit that never even existed.”

Valindez chuckled as he took the university ramp, his Rambler rattling in the driver's caddy.   


To Valindez’ delight, Ruschmann from the Smithsonian’s Indigenous Acquisitions Department showed up harried, winded, chilled, and utterly unexpected at Reagan National. Albeit at the next gate, destined for Chicago vs. Valindez’ Albuquerque, but in a shared maelstrom of cascading weather delays that left little option but to futilely haunt the hapless check-in crew or accept a precious hour or three of bonus time without obligation or expectation.

Valindez settled the elderly anthropologist into a quiet(er) corner of the gate and fetched two hot cups from the Starbucks between the Hudson News and the Golden Arches. They’d parted a mere 12 hours earlier at the Global Conference on Pan-Hemispheric Studies, and the friends moved quickly from dissecting each other’s presentations and Valindez’ planned return to Nepal to “industry” dish. And that led inevitably to the mutually despised Whitley Pender.

“You visited him shortly before…?” Ruschmann ventured, gaining welcome color as he sipped.

“Yes,” Valindez acknowledged readily. “I fear that in some small way, I may have precipitated this tragedy.”

Ruschmann peered up from his sleeved mermaid cup with the slightest of smirks. Everyone within the discipline knew full well about the low-key feud between the Nobel-shortlisted Valindez and the pop anthropologist/archaeologist who’d used celebrity influence and government payoffs to usurp more than one potentially critical site before Valindez and his crews could break topsoil. Pender’s traveling exhibits rivaled the mobile Titanic circuses and Mel Fisher’s shipwreck showcases, but in his case, he left behind ravaged excavations, gaping voids in the historical and cultural records, and dumbed-down, poorly vetted facts and speculation for the masses.

And, of course, his Nepal journal, discovered by his scant crew along with his boots and balaclava and gloves and outerwear recommended for the stylish Himalayan explorer. The rifle, they found several days after Pender disappeared into the drifts, next to the cyanotic, fully rigor-ed scientist understated in shirtsleeves and khakis. Because Whitley was indeed the tabloid Tyson, the Netflix Nye, Michael Pollan for Dummies, TMZ snagged this precious testament to Napoleonic narcissism, catastrophic executive management, mental and emotional degradation, and a Melvillean obsession with the product of his ultimately abandoned imagination and the sounds and shadows common to the icy, howling middle of nowhere.

“I’ve found men like Pender to be highly suggestible, if nothing else but for their own venal and vindictive instincts,” Valindez said. “I came to the enemy’s camp bearing a gift in a situation where either I should have tucked my tail in defeat or began plotting my next strategic or retaliatory move. Pender had to believe there was a trick up my parka. A Trojan horse, most likely in the form of a mug of hot chocolate.

“Xocōlātl in its original formulation is a bitter beverage – simple in chemistry but complex and contradictory in flavor. I was forthright with Pender about adjusting one major element of his drink. As that superfluously specific yet ambiguous note set in, he might have begun to reflect. Had I perhaps poisoned him? Easy enough to slide some subtle toxin into this unusual flavor profile. Drugged him? Pender doubtlessly has read my work on psychoactive plants and Mesoamerican religious and social rites. By appealing to his academic and personal insecurities, I could be assured he would drain his cup to the dregs. Then, virtually alone in this isolated, inhospitable, one might say eerie environment, he would begin to brew in his own doubts and perceptions and projected paranoia. And I wonder if what I left behind might have served as a subliminal signpost for Pender’s anxious and obsessed mind. I’m sure you’ve seen the famous photo of his abandoned Quonset – the journal, his forsaken gear, the insulated tumbler I, ah, forgot when I departed. The Yeti.”

Ruschmann rolled his eyes, whether in response to his rich, sweetened chocolate or his colleague. “Cursed objects.”

“Beg pardon?”

Cursed Objects. Your magnum opus, as well as your keynote address yesterday, need I remind you. How did you put? ‘The mind so often imbues the exotic physical with self-fulfilling potential.’ You think I’m not wise to your inscrutable ‘innocence.’ You knew full well what you were doing.”

Valindez shrugged. “Perhaps, perhaps. Though the inscription on his mug no doubt helped foster the delusion of malevolent intent. En boca cerrada no entran moscas. As my abuela frequently counseled me. No flies enter a closed mouth. It was pure cosmic comedy that I confused my Yeti with my parting gift to Pender and that my daily reminder became what he perceived as a cryptic theat.

“No, the sole adjustment I made in Pender’s xocōlātl was physical. The Mayans served their chocolate cold, but when you’ve been laboring in near-arctic conditions, you do not expect a bottle of Yoohoo back at the base camp, am I right?”

Dr. Valindez sank back into his seat. “Beyond that,” he smiled, weathered fingers wrapped about his own beverage, “I do not subscribe to the view that all things are best served cold. Come, drink up, my friend.”

December 09, 2023 02:09

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Hope Linter
02:48 Dec 17, 2023

Many wonderful elements in this mystery. Wonderful character and situation development. Enjoyed the academic references, but can't say I understood them all. A bit confused as to who to sympathize with. Initially was for Pender since the story started out from his viewpoint, but then since it ended with Valindez, it seemed to be his story. Also unsure why they were drinking Mayan hot chocolate in Nepal, but that sort of got explained later.


Martin Ross
03:24 Dec 17, 2023

Thanks so much for reading! I did want Valindez to seem sinister at the beginning, to feed Pender’s notion that he’d been threatened or cursed. The Mayan hot chocolate was part of Valindez’ Latino heritage — cacao was really important to Central American cultures — and part of his possible psych-out game. I appreciate the notes — I’m going to see if I might tighten things up a bit.


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Priscilla 🌹
01:29 Dec 14, 2023

Such a great story. You introduce the dynamic between the characters effectively and efficiently and your work to blossom the relationship as the story goes on really hits all the right chords. Well done! I also appreciate your consistency of voice when you're writing as Pender vs Valindez. You can tell they're two fleshed out characters. Also, as a UCD alum, I appreciated the reference ;)


Martin Ross
01:38 Dec 14, 2023

Thanks so much! I once had a professor much like Valindez. :) I appreciate you reading!


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David Sweet
03:36 Dec 11, 2023

I enjoyed the intrigue in this story whether or not Valindez is truly guilty. I like to think Pender's paranoia and hubris did him in. Thanks for sharing.


Martin Ross
03:41 Dec 11, 2023

Thanks for reading, David!


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Mary Bendickson
03:28 Dec 11, 2023

Another delectable mystery.


Martin Ross
03:37 Dec 11, 2023

Thanks, Mary!


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