The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Hour of the Jaguar
9.00am 15th September 1998
Maria bounces off to fetch some bottled water from the bar, leaving her charges to discuss just who will dare accompany her to Progresso.
Rupert turns to enthuse at his companions. "Come on chaps, let your hair down for a bit. The Major not included of course."
"You lot can try it if you like, but I came on holiday to relax, not throw myself off some stupid cliff" retorts Arabella.
"Ohh!" sighs Sean. "And I was so hoping to capture your lovely form on film!" He turns to leer at Karyn and Jo. "I do hope the two of you won't be disappointing me as well?" Jo rolls her eyes; Karyn raises an eyebrow and glances across at Rupert.
"If I might make a constructive suggestion," forwards George, "Arabella, Travis and I could try and contact Dr. Hernandez instead? We should see him at some time, and now is as good a time as any, whilst the others are happily playing the tourist for Maria, and anyone else who happens to be watching."
"Great. But we should call first to make sure he's free?" points out Arabella. "Lets just set down what we feel we ought to do. Since the bloody Spanish destroyed most of the written records, word of mouth is our best bet. And we have to find out what we're dealing with. Perhaps someone could look into the Mayan survivors that Lazla mentioned?"
"I was thinking of heading to the library later, and also going to see what I can find at the local newspaper offices" suggests Jo. "Maybe that'll throw up some information. Anyone interested?"
"Sure thing, old girl" replies Rupert. "Your sort of thing really, but I'm sure I can help you come up with a story."
"My sort of thing too" says Karyn. "I do a little writing to pay the bills. Maybe we can find some details of something properly unusual in back issues."
"That's good" says Arabella. "If we're looking at a ritual in preparation, then it's most likely that there may have been some preliminary sacrifices. So missing persons would be something to look for. The Calendar Wheel is important, the Mayans had a very weird calendar and cycles of events. The museum library would be a good place to get more information on that. I'll try and convince the professor to let us have access to it."
"We need information on Cukulcan" she continues, "what specific rites were involved in his worship, if they're anything like the Tezcatlipoca rites we're in for a blood fest. We desperately need more info on who's who in the area. Journalists, police officers we can trust, who is best to approach about what. We're strangers in a strange land, we need to make contacts, quickly."
"What does everybody else think?"
"Accurate appraisal" responds Travis.
"Fine by me" says Rupert. "We'll look out for that Cukulcan stuff. Right now, chaps, we're going to be late for our little dip." He turns to beam at Arabella and Travis. "You guys sure you want to miss out? Come on, a little experience of height could change your life."
Sean waggles his eyebrows. "Best go and get dressed then girls. I'm just going to fetch my camera and then we'll be all set, eh?"
He rushes upstairs.
"Lets see if we can't lose him in the ocean" suggests Jo. Karyn whispers something in Rupert's ear, and they both start grinning.
Five minutes have passed since Maria started driving towards Progresso when a group of figures stand in the middle of the main road, waving her to stop.
"Nothing to worry about, don't worry" she reassures everyone. "It's just a routine checkpoint."
A man in a dark green uniform approaches the minibus, swaggering with a pistol on his hip. Behind him are four more similarly dressed individuals, one of whom is clasping a submachine gun. All of them look relaxed, if not bored.
"You mean these are the police?" asks Rupert, surprised.
Maria exchanges a few words in Spanish with the man, who proceeds to stare through dark sunglasses at everyone in the vehicle. Then he slaps the side of the car and motions her to drive away.
"Yes, that's the police" she explains. "They wouldn't really bother us, seeing as we're all tourists. Bad for business" she laughs.
"Are the Zapatistas really the only extreme group in the area?" asks Rupert. "There do seem to be an awful lot of police."
"Yes, well, they do take these things very seriously, what with Governor Comos being a hardliner and all."
"Tell me" continues Rupert, "I've heard a lot of people in bars muttering something about some ...now what was it? I know... Cuervo... er... Cojente. What is it? A place, an organisation or what? You see I don't speak Spanish."
Maria looks surprised. "Where did you here about them? The Cuervo Cojente are the local, well, the local gangsters really, although that's a strong word for it. They don't get up to much, I don't think. I expect it's all reputation really. But they fancy themselves as a bit of a Mafia, I shouldn't wonder."
"What does the word itself mean?" asks Sean.
"Limping Crow," replies Maria. "I don't know why they're called that, they just always have been. You probably don't want to be meeting up with that sort of people whilst you're here..." She frowns, but continues to concentrate on the road.
Progresso huddles up against its church, of ornate Spanish design, on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. To the east, stretching towards the very extremes of this peninsula, rise a sequence of impressive granite cliffs. A smoke-filled minibus pulls up in a car park beside the cliff, and Karyn steps out, coughing.
"Could you really not have waited, Sean?"
"Sorry, darling, but my lungs need a bit of smoke to keep them going."
"Everybody listen up please" Maria begins to explain what's going to happen. "As you can see, there are only a few places where the water is deep enough for our safety. If you watch the divers for a bit, you'll get the general idea, and then I'll give you a few pointers and we can start down there on that little promontory."
She extends an arm and points towards a much lower overhang further down the coast. Nearby, three well tanned men are shouting each other encouragement as they leap from an impossible height. A group of tourists in Bermuda shorts clap them as they impact on the water.
Karyn looks a little pale. "Well if you think I'm doing that, you've got another thought coming. I think I'll just watch. From here, thanks" she adds as Maria beckons her closer to the edge.
"Shame" says Sean, "do a little twirl for my vid-cam, won't you." Karyn responds by wandering off a distance and sitting down, looking out to sea. Rupert, meanwhile, has already put on his baggy and worn shorts, complete with yellow and blue stripes. Sean eyes him up and down, then jerks a thumb in Karyn's direction.
"You haven't got a hope" he says, lighting yet another cigarette. "The hippie look is out this year!"
"In that case, I don't think she'll go for the bit-of-rough look either" Rupert neutrally replies.
"Nah, regular ice-queen if ever I saw one" mutters Sean.
"Maybe you're using the wrong approach?" Rupert suggests.
"Yeah right, and you could do better!" says Sean, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
"Maybe?" Rupert counters. He smiles and shakes his head as a grin forms on his face.
"Serious?" asks Sean. Rupert has his attention.
"May as well"
"Bet you twenty you don't get to first base."
Rupert stares back. "Okay" he says.
Easy money Sean thinks as Rupert trots over to her. Sean watches as Rupert speaks to her and is surprised to see Karyn crack a smile at something Rupert has said. Rupert trots back over to Sean. "We're off for a bit of a wander for a bit" he explains, "so hold the fort, there's a good chap." A hand is extended expectantly, and Sean curses a 200 peso note into Rupert's possession.
"Shit!" he says.
"I guess some of us have it and some of us don't" winks Rupert, laughing as he walks away and links arms with Karyn. When they are both out of sight, they unlink arms. Rupert offers Karyn a 100 peso note, and almost doubles up on the spot.
"We really stung him, didn't we?"
"Absolutely" laughs Karyn...
Meanwhile, Jo starts chatting to Maria as they watch the performance of the local athletes.
"How long have you been acting as a tour guide, Maria?"
"Oh, I've been doing it for quite some time now. Maybe two years. I enjoy it a great deal, you know, meeting new people all the time, showing them our lovely country..." Her smile is broad and white.
"So has that whole two years been with Artifex Tours?" questions Jo.
"Goodness no. The local tourist board are a kind of agent for me, finding tour groups, individuals, whatever...you know. Artifex Tours must have applied to them, and they got me. But I guess my last lot from there must have enthused about me a bit, seeing as this time round they asked for me by name." She pats Jo on the back lightly. "Hey, if you put in a good word, maybe they'll always employ me, eh?"
"Oh, I don't really know them that well, just booked with them, you know how it is" hurries Jo. "But we'll certainly mention how nice you've been. You said something about the last lot?"
"Yes, there was a group from Artifex that came out here about nine months back. Around the end of last year. But you're the only two groups of people I've ever had from them." She pauses. "Do you think you could find Rupert somewhere, only the sea will have warmed up a bit now..."
In spite of the taller walls of rock about him, Rupert still feels slightly feint as he looks over the edge at the waves below.
"My, aren't we all very high here!" he says nervously, laughing.
"Just dive off as you might normally" encourages Maria. "Pretend it's a swimming pool or something, but a lot more fun. And remember to swim round to the beach on the left."
Rupert takes a deep breath, and launches himself into the air. Jo and Sean lean over to watch him descend. He starts to roll a little in mid air, and flails his arms instinctively, but manages to tighten up in time for a considerable splash. It's not much higher than thirty feet, but the surroundings make it feel much more impressive.
Jo is preparing to have a go herself when Rupert struggles up from the beach.
"Ouch, that stung a little" he chuckles "watch out for the water, it's wetter than you'd think."
She shakes her head, flexes her legs, and is in mid air. Curling neatly, she strikes the water like a dart. From atop the cliff, Maria applauds with surprise. "She's a natural" she points out to Rupert, whilst Karyn mutters something about lemmings.
Dust flies up from the wheels of the hire car as George, Travis and Arabella turn away from the main road. It has been an hour's drive, and the small sign was difficult to spot.
TULUM ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE
George winds his way towards some sturdy looking wooden buildings. "Right then. If I can just find somewhere to park out of the sun, we'll see about finding our good doctor."
"My guess would place him just over there." suggests Travis, pointing out towards a earthen rise. Several figures can be seen clustered in the distance, pacing around some makeshift tables. Beyond them lies the sea, and as the grassy ground slopes towards some small cliffs, it becomes littered with small, exposed stone structures. Some are square, some round, and nearly all are badly eroded.
"My goodness. You can really get a sense for the intricacy of their architecture, can't you?" gasps Arabella as she wanders slowly towards the rise. "Just look at that carving on the archway."
"Mmmm" responds Travis, "I wonder just how much of this place has yet to be uncovered?"
"Shall we ask the experts?" forwards George, hurrying his companions along. "Perhaps then we can get a guided tour of our very own."
Dr. Hernandez puts down a small fragment of pottery and shakes everyone firmly by the hand. He is in his early forties, and fit with it. His greying hair is whipped up by a firm sea breeze, providing welcome relief from the heat.
"Hello. Hello. Hello. You'll be the people I spoke to on the phone earlier on, won't you? Follow me, I'll show you what we're doing here. Any questions at all, just ask right away." Like most of the educated population of the area, his English is impeccable.
"Perhaps we could start with Cukulcan, doctor" asks Arabella. "What kind of divinity was he, what kind of rituals are associated with him and so on."
Dr. Hernandez raises his eyebrows. "Cukulcan, you say. Well, alright then. I'll tell you what I know, but frankly there's very little archaeological record to deal with. He's quite an odd figure, you see, because his worship seems to have arisen very quickly, rather than developed over time. He rises to pre-eminence with the Chichen Maya..."
"Sorry to interrupt, but what do you mean by the 'Chichen' Maya?" interjects Major Hardy, who has written down the phrase in his notebook.
"Ah. Mayan civilisation wasn't entirely unified, and there were several power blocks who became dominant at different times. The Quiche, for example, or the Tikal. The Chichen Maya had their capital at Chichen Itza, and they became the dominant military and economic force around about 1150AD. Anyway, around this time, the Mayans started worshipping a god of Order and Lawmaking, and War, and Light, and all the things they saw as being the pillars of a strong society. And that God was Cukulcan."
George asks a question. "Did Professor Lazla mention our particular interest in the thefts that have occurred recently? He mentioned that you had a theory about one of the statuette's being 'the wrong style'?"
"I'm sorry if it sounds like we're cross examining you, Doctor, but I have a strong feeling someone is about to start a chain of events that is likely to turn very messy" apologises Arabella.
A look of concern flashes across Dr. Hernandez's brow.
"Messy? Look, this is all a bit, umm, inventive, isn't it? If you've got any real concerns, though, you should go straight to the police."
"Yes, yes, of course. The statuette, though?" says Travis.
The man casts a frown around his visitors, before being drawn back into his favourite subject. "Yes. Wrong style indeed. Ramon clearly hasn't been listening to a thing I've been saying. We're talking about the Chichen Itza piece, yes? The one from Mayapan Museum. That was recovered during excavations of the main pyramid many years ago. The problem is this - it's not carved in a Mayan style, it's carved in a Toltec style. And yet it was discovered around lots of CMIIIa pottery, which allows us to date it as being in Chichen Itza at around about 1400, long, long after the Toltecs disappeared. The Toltecs were based further north, you understand, up towards Mexico City, and they only controlled this region in their heyday around 1050AD. "
"The question then is why this piece was found in the Yucatan three hundred years after the Toltecs left" states Arabella. "Religious imagery would have changed significantly in that time..."
"Yes, Professor. We can't date it, unfortunately, seeing as it's made from stone - a kind that's common all over Central America. Perhaps it was an heirloom passed down the generations, or perhaps it was made in 1400. Mayan society was in total collapse by that point, so they might have undergone some kind of artistic regression." Doctor Hernandez shrugs his shoulders.
"What about a connection between that statuette and the other thefts?" asks George. "You haven't been approached by anyone else interested in buying finds, or some such?"
"I should hope not! I'm a respectable archaeologist, working for the Institute. Come to think of it, a couple of men did come around asking a few questions, after the thefts hit the papers. They were Mexican, though, and not professionals like yourselves, if you see what I mean. Perfectly friendly chaps, but they did make me a bit suspicious at the time. Haven't thought much of it since..."
"And the connection between the thefts...?"
"This is a regular little detective operation you've got going here isn't it? I really must insist on you speaking to the police if you've got any information for them. Connections, indeed. Thank you very much for enlivening my morning, all of you, but now I am afraid that I'm a very busy man, and I have some serious research to occupy me."
"But, just one more thing, Doctor Hernandez" chips in Arabella, alarmed at his irritation. "The rituals that..."
"Good Morning to you Professor Robyns" comes the pointed reply, and the archaeologist turns purposefully back towards his dig. Arabella sighs with exasperation.
"We could have been a little more subtle there, don't you think?"
"Rather difficult to be subtle about the information we needed to acquire." suggests Travis, taking a leisurely route back towards the car, studying the foundations of a long dead port.
As the minibus pulls up back outside the Hotel Esplendido, Sean wanders off.
"Just going to see where I can buy some cigarettes."
Jo glances around, and catches sight of Mahmood, the street urchin, playing football with a pebble in the street. His gaze meets hers at much the same time, and he wanders quickly over.
"Hello again lady, how are you today? Nice day today, no?"
"Yes, Mahmood, it's lovely. I was wondering, if I gave you some pesos to go and but us some chocolate, could we have a little chat about the Zapas?"
"We can have talk about anything you want, lady. I like talking."
"It's Jo. There you go." Mahmood scurries off with a note, and returns in five minutes with a small chocolate bar, which he breaks in half.
"Here you go, lady. Jo. How are you?"
"I'm fine Mahmood. Now, tell me about the Zapas round here."
"OK, well, the Zapas all think that the poor people are the people who should be running this country. At the moment it is the rich people who run this country. The Zapas are poor, though, so they can't really afford to fight anyone much. They just do stuff like telling everyone to stand up for their rights. The Governor and the police say they kill lots of people, but he doesn't like them at all. I guess people say that down in Chiapas, which is South of here lady, they do lots of stuff. But here the Zapas haven't been around for long. They kind of got more busy recently.
"Why is that, Mahmood?" asks Jo. Mahmood munches on a bite of chocolate, and proceeds to talk with his mouth full.
"Well, I don't know, but they say there are votes coming up, and it always gets trouble around votes. The Governor gets very worried that he won't always be Governor. And if he's worried, the police are worried. So there gets to be trouble." Mahmood wipes his dark stained lips. "Anything else you wanna know, lady?"
"I'm sure there is, Mahmood. Will I see you tomorrow?"
"You will now, lady. Have a good afternoon. Jo."
By the time everyone gathers again for dinner, dusk is drawing in and the stars are coming out. The Esplendido provides both European and local cuisine, and there is something for everyone on the menu.
"Alright then" says George, laying down his notebook on the table. "Let's go through what we found out this afternoon."
"Good old Senor Vizcaya has finally got my phone sorted out for my modem," says Sean, "so I've been looking up Chichen Itza, Cukulcan, Mayans and the like. There too much writing to wade through, and most of it is touristy stuff, but I've got some good pictures of the site, if anyone wants a look."
Rupert pipes up. "Maria was kind enough to take Jo, Karyn and myself to the local paper. Not that impressive a place, really - few old computers that sort of thing. Managed to spin a story about Karyn and Jo being journalists though..."
"Yeah, he told a right tale, and Maria help with translating the best part of it" sighs Jo. "We did get them to tell us a bit though. Seems no-one much has gone missing recently, no more than usual at any rate. I don't think records are quite as accurate over here."
"They were a bit stumped when we asked about religious and political groups" joins in Karyn. "Save for the Zapatistas of course, and this bunch of crooks they seem to call the Cuervo Cojente. They did mention this Mayan community, though, when we mentioned it. Apparently they live in seclusion miles out of town on a sort of reserve. There were a few stories that had been run, mainly on what life is like there."
"Boring" contributes Rupert. "No cameras, no televisions, no nothing. Grow food, trade in town for more, and they try to minimise outside contact. Young ones go to school in Merida, though, and it's not like a prison or anything - the people just like living that way."
"Apparently, all the locals think they're funny in the head" adds Karyn. "We ought to go there. They said tourists aren't welcome, unfortunately, but Maria might be able to fix something. I mean, we've got money..."
"It doesn't sound like money is what they would want" suggests George. "Anyway, tell me about the library."
Jo starts. "Well, there's very little there, it being a public library and all. Most of the books are in Spanish, most of the books are fiction. We did manage to find a book on history though. We made some notes..." she rummages in her pockets, and pulls out a scrap of paper.
750-900AD Zapotec civilisation arises in the area, and becomes dominant.
900AD Toltecs invade from the north, conquer and enslave the Zapotec population which remains (most flees elsewhere).
900-1000AD Toltecs continue to control area from North, but from South, Mayans begin filtering into peninsula, setting up new cities.
1010AD Toltecs attacked by other civilisation from the far North, and retreat back out of the Yucatan to defend themselves. Mayans become dominant force in area.
c1250-1400AD Mayan civilisation collapses in Yucatan, for reasons no agreed upon by academics. Overpopulation and overfarming probable.
"Hmmm." Arabella stares at the timeline. "I found something interesting in the museum files. It's a scrap about the legend of Cukulcan. Listen to this...
"'Once upon a time, Cukulcan came from the west with nineteen companions, two of whom were gods of fish, two others gods of agriculture, and a god of thunder... They stayed ten years in Yucatan. Cukulcan made wise laws, and then set sail and disappeared in the direction of the rising sun...'
"Curious, no? The number of legends we know about nowadays involving Cukulcan is very small. He was worshipped as a winged serpent, though, most of the time."
"A winged serpent was also one of the forms of Quetzalcoatl, wasn't it?" asks Travis. "But he's not a Mayan god."
"No, he's Aztec, isn't he? Even I've heard of him." says Sean.
Arabella explains "The Aztecs did worship Quetzalcoatl, but I think he was originally a Toltec god. There's a lot of religion swapping goes on." She smiles and takes a sip of water.
"Anyhow" Sean says laying his knife and fork down for a minute. "We ought to sort things out about tonight. Did you get Lazla's permission for the stakeout?"
"We certainly did" replies George, "though he was very uncertain about it. I had to give him all kinds of assurances about our conduct, and he was on the phone to London to talk to Dr. Raimbaud. If the thieves' intention is to perform some ritual, sacrificial or otherwise, then they shall require suitable attire, and I don't remember seeing any feather cloaks for sale in any local shops. I wonder if there are any sacrificial daggers included in the weaponry to be displayed."
"I hope it doesn't turn out to be for nothing, staying up all night" murmurs Karyn.
"Look at it this way, if nothing happens, that is something positive" suggests Travis.
Karyn shakes her head wryly. "We need something more concrete to go on, and fast, in my opinion" she says.
"Alright then" says Rupert, glancing at his watch. "If you folks have finished eating, shall we take this discussion to the museum itself? I think it's due to shut in half an hour."
With the lights turned off, the inside of the museum is a disturbing place. Moonlight filters in through a large window in the new display room, throwing shadows about the room. Two disturbing silhouettes flank the central display case, dummies of a priest in full, feathered regalia and a warrior prepared for battle. On an open plan, the walls dividing these rooms are mostly cut away, but there is enough darkness for all seven to cluster hidden in the room one along. The occasional mug of coffee is passed round. Sean and Rupert light up cigarettes, and improvise themselves an ashtray. The smoke smells rather unusual, and Sean gives Rupert a hard stare. Rupert ignores it.
"Good job we were able to spend the night inside, only the wind would blow my fags out," whispers Rupert. "Why don't we stay awake in rota? Maybe two at a time perhaps, at three hours per pair. We don't want to get all lonely do we old fellows?"
"Listen" cuts in Sean. "When we arrived, there was a car parked across the main road. Dark blue, with two people sitting in it doing nothing. I'm just going to slip out upstairs and see if I can see it out of a window. Try not to make too much noise."
"Be careful" advises George "we can't afford to get into some kind of altercation. It would bring all sorts of unwanted attention upon us."
As Sean slinks off, Major Hardy continues to whisper.
"Sean and I had a little chat with Senor Vizcaya, our host, earlier on. He seems a very respectable man to talk to, he's got a wife, and kids. Apparently, according to the barman at the Esplendido, he used to have real money difficulties, and he's only been his relaxed self since the start of this year. Apart from that though, there doesn't seem to be much hidden beneath the surface."
"Hey, people, listen up!" says Sean, weaving his way through the display cases. "The car is still there, headlights off, and there's still two people in it. I couldn't make much else out, but we're not the only ones interested in the museum tonight. I'm going to keep a watch on it from that window over there."
Nervous silence descends, punctuated by whispered "What shall we do?"s. The consensus is to sit tight and wait.
Midnight chimes on the clock in the entrance hallway.
No-one has managed to get to sleep.
And with an enormous crash, the front window of the museum explodes inwards, showering the new display with glass. Shock snaps everyone's attention to the three moving silhouettes that, start sweeping broken fragments of glass from the frame with what look like baseball bats, sweeping out a quick entrance for themselves.
Sean is startled, certain that the men in the car haven't moved. As if on cue, the headlights are thrown on, and the occupants emerge shouting at the top of their lungs.
Everything happens in an instant. Rupert shouts "Shit!" as he starts to stand. George instinctively reaches for something to wield. Jo dives for the fire extinguisher on the far wall. One of the three silhouettes drops his bat, reaches into his pocket, and pulls something out. He points it at the men by the car. Sean's eyes open wide, and he moves his hand to his heart. There is a shattering bang, and the men running from the car dive for cover, and then start returning fire. Bullets crack into the brickwork. The men by the window cry out in alarm and sprint off down the road. They turn a corner. Everyone finds themselves on the floor. The two men from the car sprint up to the window, then give up the pursuit. People's ears are ringing painfully. The two men start talking animatedly in Spanish, then one of them runs to fetch the car. The other can be seen clearly in the moonlight - sharp, angular features and pitch black hair. He's wearing a dark suit, without a tie, and casts his gaze into the museum, looking around the display. His gun is still in his right hand. Nobody moves. Hidden in the shadows of the room next door, nobody even breaths.
Then, he turns, swiftly pulls himself into the dark blue car, and roars away down the street.