Aaron Elkins: Twenty blue devils

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Aaron Elkins Twenty blue devils
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    Twenty blue devils
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Twenty blue devils

Aaron Elkins


Chapter 1

Dear Madame Pele,

Last year me and my husband visited Hawaii for our 20th anniversary and stayed overnight at Volcanoe House. Well, the next morning, we took one of the bus rides around the park and when we had a stop we picked up these pieces of lavarock even though the driver told us we better not because of the Curse. But we couldn't imagine that a little rock could bring us so much BAD LUCK!

BOY, WERE WE WRONG!!!!! The curse started coming true before we even got home! Our luggage got sent to Hong Kong (instead of Chicago) and it took a month to get our things back. Since then, things have went from bad to worst. We have had illness, death, and financial destruction one right after the other. Nobody can believe so many terrible things could happen to one family. Just in the last few months our cat got run over, our porch developed dry rot which cost $2,500 to repair, and my husbands 88 year old father fell off a roof which he should never have been standing on in the first place and died of a rupture.

Then the other day I was going through some things and ran across this lavarock from our trip and I suddenly realized that the legend must be true!

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE make sure it gets back to the volcanoe!!! We're sorry and we apologize for not believing. We hope now that Madame Pele and us and our family can find the peace we all so desperately need! I beg you to grant this request and send me a note in the enclosed envelope that it has been done.

Sincerely yours,

(Mrs.) Doris Root

408 Howard Avenue

Winnetka, Il 60093

With a shake of her head and a long-suffering expression on her broad, amiable face, park ranger Brenda Ho put the flowered note card down. Honestly, she thought, you didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. Every day the mailroom table was piled with these pathetic bundles of misery; sometimes only five or six, often as many as twenty. Patiently wrapped with yards of tape, or trussed up with knotted string, or bound with metal straps, all of them bulging with chunks, lumps, strands, and crumbs of lava.

And every one of them making amends to Pele, Goddess of Fire, daughter of Haumea the Earth Mother and Wakea the Sky Father, who lived deep beneath the uneasy floor of Halemaumau Crater in what was now Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Pele, so the legend said, was a selfish and vindictive goddess who inflicted Job-like calamity on anyone who took even a handful of lava from her domain. The only way to lift the curse was to return to its source that which had been stolen and hope for mercy. And so they came pouring back into park headquarters, these humble objects of atonement, as if what this ceaselessly erupting wasteland needed was more lava.

And what the park rangers needed was more work.

Brenda rooted briefly through Mrs. Root's box. There were some irregular stones about the size of tennis balls, a mass of windblown lava strands that had cooled into the curious formations called Pele's hair, a few cupfuls of black sand, and a shell lei apparently offered as further propitiation. Everything had been sealed in a heavy plastic sack, then embedded in a sea of foam peanuts and finally packaged in a sturdy carton that was wrapped in enough layers of duct tape to survive the next world war. It had taken Brenda several minutes’ work with a utility knife to get it all open. And it had cost Mrs. Root $23.20 in postage.

"Pathetic,” Brenda murmured.

Across the table, Ruby Laney, the park's part-time administrative assistant, looked up over her half-spectacles.

"Another tearjerker?” With Brenda, she was going through the accumulation of packages, something they saved for four o'clock in the afternoon on Wednesdays and Fridays.

"Aren't they all?” Brenda said. She handed across the letter and the stamped, neatly addressed envelope. “She wants an answer."

Mrs. Laney nodded and added them to the stack on a corner of the table. The responses would go out the next day. They would all say the same thing:

Dear Mr./Ms.:

Thank you for your letter and the enclosed materials. As you requested, the materials have been deposited within the park.

Sincerely,

Brenda Ho

Supervisory Park Ranger and Interpretive Specialist

"Deposited within the park” was, to put it mildly, a euphemism. As always, all the detritus on the table would be carted less than a hundred feet, out to the “rock graveyard” in back of the administrative carport, and left there. Brenda wondered sometimes what the scientists were going to make of that ample mound of globe-trotting volcanic junk a hundred years from now.

Dumping behind the carport wasn't what Mrs. Root had in mind, but what she didn't know wouldn't hurt her, and neither Brenda nor anyone else had the inclination to lug the stuff out to the rim of the crater and solemnly drop it over the edge. In the first place, that was the kind of thing the rangers were there to prevent, not to perpetrate. You didn't take anything from a national park, and you didn't leave anything either. In the second place, and this was what made all the extra work so aggravating, the curse wasn't even genuine; there was no basis for it in Hawaiian mythology. No, Pele wasn't the kind of deity you'd want to go out of your way to irritate, but she didn't spend her time wreaking catastrophe on souvenir hunters either.

All the same, about fifteen years earlier the packaged lava had started to trickle back, infrequently at first, and now a steady, ever-growing flood. No one knew what had started it. The most likely theory was that the tour bus drivers, tired of cleaning up the volcanic debris left behind in their buses, had invented the story and energetically spread it. Or maybe the rangers themselves had, hoping to keep the tourists from walking off with the park.

However it had begun, it was now a sizable pain in the neck, time-consuming and depressing to boot. And as always, the incredible way people were able to delude themselves got Brenda down. Anything, it seemed, was better than accepting responsibility for a string of misfortunes, or even chalking them up to a simple run of bad luck. No, there had to be some grand celestial plan behind it. But who was it who had let the cat out on the road in the first place? Who had failed to check the porch for dry rot all these years? What was Grandpa Root doing out on the damn roof anyway?

Well, the faster she worked, the sooner she'd be done. She reached for another packet, one of the slimmer ones this time, and opened it. Two gleaming pellets, black and tapering, fell onto the table; “Pele's tears,” droplets of lava that had solidified while still airborne. The letter with it was on textured, cream-colored stationery, thick and expensive, and written with a fountain pen, not a ballpoint. The handwriting was feminine, as regular and unaffected as a child's penmanship exercise.

Dear Mother Pele,

I am writing this letter to ask your forgiveness. Recently my father's farm has suffered many disasters. Now I wonder if I am to blame. My husband and 1 went to your beautiful island on our honeymoon several years ago. While we were there we took the enclosed small stones. Please believe me, we didn't mean to offend you. We just didn't know any better. Now I understand that it was the cause of all the awful things that have happened.

There it was, that pitiful longing to find a reason for their troubles. They happen to glance into a drawer one day and see a few shining black pebbles. “Alia,” they say, “so that explains it,” and somehow it relieves them. There's a meaning to it all: Pele is angry, Pele is wrathful.

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