The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Hour of the Jaguar
12:04am 16th September 1998
'Is everyone alright?' Jo's businesslike words are the first to break the tense silence.
'My word!' replies George, and he starts moving quietly amongst the group, checking their companions. Arabella is breathing very fast, and looks up at Major Hardy, mouth open. Jo heads towards the window.
'I think it's all clear,' she says, peering cautiously out. 'Nobody's moving on the street. Lots of houses have got lights on, though.'
'Everyone stay put,' warns Sean. 'That attack might just have been to draw the police away.'
George nods. 'I would suggest that some of the group take a look around the building, just in case anyone is taking unfair advantage of this fairly major distraction.'
'Are you guys kidding?' exclaims a surprised Rupert. 'Let's get out of here now. Those nasty looking fellows might come back. I don't fancy that as much as you seem to - remember they had guns?'
'Those people in the car were not cops, anyway, Sean' says Karyn sarcastically. 'Just because they wear black suits doesn't mean they're secret police.'
'Yeah, and the real police will be here any minute' worries Rupert.
'We'd better scarper before the cops arrive, then' adds Arabella self-consciously.
'Woah, woah, woah!' argues Jo. 'We can't just run away from the scene. We have to give the police all the information we have. This is important.'
'You stay if you want, I'm not going to be here when the police find his gun' Rupert points at Sean 'and...and I'm leaving. But first...well...' he wanders over towards the main display.
'They were rather worked up over these artefacts, weren't they? I think we should 'take care' of the artefacts for them.'
'Great idea' joins in Arabella. 'Almost a pity these display cases are still intact, but there's always the costumes...' The pair of them begin to unceremoniously undress one of the dummies of its feathered regalia. Unscrewing the head, Rupert quickly stuffs the high priest's costume inside the mannequin itself, medallion, belt and all. Arabella screws the head back on, both of them ignoring Jo's outraged complaints.
'What the hell do you think you are doing that for! Are we supposed to lie to the police and say it was stolen?' she says, jaw dropping at their antics.
'I don't intend to talk to the police at all' comes the reply.
'Steady on here' suggests George. 'We don't have much time. Rupert, Sean, Arabella, Travis and Karyn can go. Jo and I will stay here. If the men in the car were secret police, then hopefully they will assume we are connected with the museum, putting finishing touches to the exhibit? At least, they seemed to be expecting others to arrive.'
Karyn shakes her head in disagreement, George shrugs.
'I want a close look at this exhibit, anyhow. But if the rest of you are going to leave, you best do it as soon as possible so you're not caught by the police searching the area.'
'Good luck' offers Arabella.
'Rather you than me' mutters Rupert, striding towards the door.
Rupert emerges at about ten to find his partners sat around a table by the pool, finishing off the last of their breakfast. After a few days of Mexican cuisine, refried beans are starting to lose their appeal.
'Sorry I'm a bit late up, my fellows. I'll just go and grab a bite for myself. You look a little pale, Arabella. Want me to get you a drink or something?'
'No. Thank you. I just found it rather difficult to sleep last night.' She casts a wide-eyed glance around the group. 'I'm not really used to, um..., gunplay.'
'No. And nor should you be either' replies Jo sympathetically.
Sean leans casually back in his seat, lighting up his third cigarette of the day. George has the paper laid out before him and is beginning to scribble in the crossword. Around it are sprinkled a few back page stories -
Simon Comos is 13 today - Street Party Preparations Continue
Mayapan to Join Cancun In New Traffic Scheme
Uxmal Campsite Hit by Mosquito Invasion
'Looks like our contretemps last night has yet to hit the papers' points out Travis.
'Wouldn't have done,' says Karyn casually. 'I bet this was printed yesterday night. We'll read all about it soon enough.' She turns back to staring out of the window.
'I won't need the reminder' moans Jo. 'The police insisted on talking to Lazla, who then of course told them about us working in the museum overnight. Then they had to talk to us again. Kept us up for hours.'
'They didn't like our story about the men in the car with guns, either, did they?' adds George. 'The junior officer talking to me was quite incredulous. And I'll bet they come round here wanting to talk to us again.'
'One good thing, though' mentions Jo. 'Lazla and I managed to persuade the police to put an officer on permanent guard duty at the museum, twenty four hours a day. They put up a bit of a fuss about clothes thieves' she gives Arabella a hard stare 'but I got the sense they'd leap at any chance to catch the Zapas in the act. That's who they were saying did this, by the way. They said our descriptions of men with bats sounded just like a bunch of Zapatista thugs.'
'And I managed to get a good look at the display as well' remembers George. 'There's a few things they might want in the cabinets - maces, weapons, that kind of thing. According to its card, the costume you hid was quite ornate. That belt was gold trim, you know. The medallion was a Quiche Maya Sun talisman. Beyond that, though, I'm no expert in rituals.' He gives a little laugh. 'I couldn't find a sacrificial dagger.'
As Rupert is sitting down, Arabella reaches into her satchel and takes out her book, the Popoh Vuh.
'Now we're all here, I was up quite late reading last night, and I got a bit further into this.' she waves the tatty red cover in front of her. 'It was copied into Latin by a certain Father Francisco Ximenez from stories his newly converted parishioners told him in Guatemala. As well as the stories, he tried to piece the histories together himself, and made lots of notes. Look at this on page 67'
She passes the book around so that everyone can see the passage in question, marked out by Arabella's pencilled exclamation marks:
In Katun 8 Ahau of the Maya Short Count, a group of Maya-speaking people began moving slowly north-eastward across the peninsula. Part of these at least were Itza, although others, under a leader named Cuculcan, certainly were of central Mexican origin (from the highlands), but they had been living in what is now south-western Campeche for some two to two and a half centuries. After forty years of wandering, they finally reached Chichen Itza, where they established their capital in Katun 4 Ahau. With these invaders, or rather before or after them, a great lord arrived, who, according to Maya traditions, was called Cuculcan, who founded the rich city, taught people the arts and the sciences, and, after a time, disappeared, announcing that he was returning to Mexico. This person was none other than the king of the Tolteca, Quetzalcoatl.
'What's Katun 8 Ahau of the Maya Short Count?' inquires George, after reading intently for a minute. 'Some kind of date?'
'Yes' replies Arabella 'but it's difficult to know just how accurate a seventeenth century Friar is going to have been. Anyhow, I think it means about 950AD, and that ties up with Katun 4 Ahau, which is about 990AD. By modern reckoning' she adds.
'I've found some stuff out about the seasonal calendar too. It follows the stars quite accurately, because the Mayans were very diligent astronomers. The next annual ritual is called the Sweeping, performed sometime between the 2nd and the 21st of September, and devoted to Teteo Innan, Toci, Cinteotl and Chicomecoatl. It's the time when the corn is harvested, and marks the start of the Season of War.'
'Season of War?' says Jo, a frown on her face. 'That doesn't sound very pleasant'.
'I expect that they had to wait until men were no longer needed to till the fields.' suggests Travis. 'It's rather like the Viking seasons of raiding, I expect, when the North Sea was calm enough to cross safely.'
'Then what's the astronomical significance of the 21st of September?' asks Rupert. His question is answered by silence. Jo stands up, rubbing her leg.
'Back in a few minutes. Why don't you guys try and find Maria?'
She wanders over to the bar, and asks for some chocolate.
Outside, Mahmood is slumped in the shade toying a small coin around his fingers.
'Hello lady. I mean Jo' he smiles. 'How are you today?'
'I'm well, thank you Mahmood. I was wondering if you could help me out with my work.'
'What is it you want?' He talks with his mouth full as he starts to eat.
'Well, back home I'm a reporter, Mahmood. If I can write about the poor people here it might help them, yes? It might help you.'
'You wanna write about me, lady?' he looks surprised.
'Maybe' Jo nods, 'but I'd also like to write about the Zapas. Do you know any of the Zapas? I'd like to meet them, you see. I'd pay you, of course.'
'You wanna meet Zapas? We'll meet the Zapas, lady, if you wanna pay me.' He looks hopeful, and Jo hands over a couple of notes. 'You know, this is funny, because yesterday, the Zapas they came looking at the Hotel for you.'
Jo stares at her friend intently. 'They what?'
'This lady, who is like this' he crosses his fingers 'with the Zapas, she came round late in the evening. I do not know her name. You and your friends, you were out someplace. She asks Arscenio if she can speak to Mr. Sean, but when she hears that nobody is there she goes away.'
'What did she look like?'
'Oh, I don' know. She had long black hair, like tied back. She don' look very poor. But I know she hangs out with Zapas, because I see her talking to people about, you know, politics and votes and money all the time. And that is what the Zapas do.' He leans back, smugly satisfied with his detective work.
'I make sure you meet her, and you pay me more money, yes?' he looks expectant.
'Certainly, Mahmood. As soon as possible, too. Here's an advance.' Jo hands him another couple of notes, which he tucks carefully under his shoes, and then watches him scurry off with a wave.
Back by the pool, Maria has been located at the deep end. Rupert jogs over to her.
'Maria, old girl. Been hearing a lot about some Mayan village place around here. I think we'd like to take a look around. It'll give us a new point of view on all this old stuff. You know, bring this stuffy, dusty business up to date.'
'Hang on a minute. You mean the Chichen community?' objects Maria. 'They really don't want people running...'
'No, no, don't worry about it, it'll be perfectly alright. We won't act at all touristy. Travis and Arabella, being boring academic types, are totally fascinated about comparing old Mayan culture to the modern stuff. Either that or they just want to shag some natives' he winks.
The old Mayan community lies to the east of Merida, half an hour away by car. The minibus has already become dusty about the wheels as Maria speeds along the highway.
'I ought to explain a little about this place before we arrive' suggests the tour guide. 'The Mexican government have an arrangement for all the indigenous tribes, whereby they are allowed to live in their own little areas if they like. It's a bit like a reservation, only not nearly as grand as in the USA. The place where we're going is called Solula, and it's more isolated than most such places. Whereas many tribes actively encourage the tourist trade as a means of supporting themselves, the Chichen Maya actually demanded that the Government should not promote them as an attraction. They had to fight for that, too, because Mexico needs all the foreign money it can lay its hands on.'
'In that case, how is this excursion possible?' asks George.
'Well, whilst it's not advertised, it's essentially just a normal Mexican village. Anyone has the right to go there if they want. It's not private land, you see, it's owned by the government, although the Solulans would want it that way.'
'No red carpet for us, then' says Karyn.
'No indeed' answers Maria. 'And no cameras either, if you want to be polite.'
A few moments later, the minibus slows to take a right turn onto a smaller road. Rupert and Karyn are chatting idly away to Maria whilst everyone else's gaze drifts to, and becomes glued to, the car parked by this junction. The dark blue car, hidden in the shade of the trees just off the main road. Unaware of her passengers concern, Maria swings round and drives up past the unobtrusive sign saying 'Solula - 1km'.
'Was there anyone in that car?' whispers George under his breath, as it recedes into the distance.
'Two' nods Sean.
Soon the jungle falls away to be replaced by a patchwork of small, golden fields. In the distance, people wearing white move between the maize plants, collecting the harvest into wicker baskets on their hips. Up ahead, a number of small wooden structures lie clustered around sun-washed stone huts.
'Solula' announces Maria, as she pulls over to the side of the road.
There are probably fewer than two hundred huts in the complex, arranged in a bewilderingly haphazard manner. A messy group of children dash between the streets with a ball, throwing and kicking it every which way. They, like the adults who are resting more sedately in the sun, are mostly dressed in white cotton shirts or dresses - simplicity seems to govern their wardrobes.
Rupert smiles at the scene before him.
'Do you get the feeling that these people are culturally or monetarily, or amicably challenged?' he beams.
As the potholed road leads in amongst the dwellings, it passes by a larger house built up from planks of wood and stone brick pillars. The open doorway and signs propped outside indicate it is some kind of general store.
'We might best begin by inquiring in there' intimates Travis.
Conversations quickly fall to a hush as westerners stroll into the tiny shop. At the only table sit two men, who stop sipping their drinks to watch the newcomers suspiciously. Behind the counter, a short middle aged woman built like a barrel tilts her head back expectantly. There is a pause to which the floating sound of children playing is the only disturbance. Then Rupert strides confidently over.
'Hello, my dear woman. I'm looking for someone to help me in my enquiries to do with the Mayan religion. Do you know of anyone who could help?'
The woman frowns, and looks confused. 'Que?' she growls. One of the local men leaves, whilst the other hunches up his shoulders over his glass. Maria wanders over, looking slightly perturbed, and produces some polite Spanish. The Mayan sighs, gestures irritation with her hands, and gives Maria a tired, resigned reply.
'She says that there is a man who might help you if he chooses to. He is the head of the village. His name is Hacavitz.'
'Where do we find Senor Hacavitz?' wonders George, just as that very figure blocks the doorway. Impressively tall, especially for one of Mayan descent, the man has grey hair smoothed back over his hard, square skull. Over his white trousers is belted a dark red tunic with black cotton edging. Wrinkles form around his narrow eyes as he confidently surveys the group before him.
'What do you want here in this village?' He has a deep, charismatic tone to his voice, though his English is strangely accented.
'Ah, old fellow. How are you?'
Rupert extends a hand, which isn't taken.
'Very well,' continues Rupert, unfazed, 'down to business. My colleague and I here are looking into some recent mysteries. It seems that someone is stealing your Ancient Mayan artefacts. This can only weaken the link of your people to their past. We wondered if anyone knew who they were or why they were doing it.'
Hacavitz gives an impassive look. 'How does it weaken my nation's link to the past for...relics...' he mouths the word with obvious distaste 'to be lost by the Mexicans?'
'Lost to, I expect, some other foreigners' he adds, after a second's thought.
'Now hang on a minute!' blurts Travis. 'In a museum environment Mayan culture can be respected, studied and..'
'Rubbish!' Hacavitz interrupts with a low shout. 'Unlike many, we are a people with pride, and with dignity. These cannot be kept in your glass cases.'
'I see where you're coming from.' nods Rupert, taking out a roll of notes from his back pocket 'Perhaps we can make it worth your while. I mean...'
'I would not stoop to even consider prostituting my people, my knowledge to you in that way.' He glances around the shop, meeting everyone's stares with hard, black eyes.
'You are not welcome here. All of my people are weary with the prurient interest of outsiders. All of my people think as I do. All of my people do not want you in this town.' Hacavitz turns imperiously on his heels, head thrown high, and marches away down the street.
'Goodness, we touched a nerve there all right, didn't we?' breaths George. 'The pompousness of the man!'
'All of my people think as I do!' mimics Rupert. 'He really needs to relax and get out more. Amicably challenged and a half, at least.'
Maria begins to fuss and apologise to her charges; that she's sorry, but she did warn them, but she's sorry anyhow, and maybe it is time to leave.
'Already?' protests Rupert. 'Not at all, not at all, dear girl. I haven't seen all the town yet. Can't leave without a little stroll, eh?'
'Quite so.' joins in Jo. 'Look, if you want to, you can go back and wait in the minibus. It's alright, really it is. We just want to do a quick tour and then we'll come and join you.'
'Umm...Okay then, but you know where I am if you need me.' The tour guide wanders awkwardly back to her vehicle.
'Maybe we'll stand a better chance if we take my line' suggests Jo. 'I'll just find someone a bit more friendly, and play my journalist card. Pretend I want to write about their lifestyle for the newspapers.'
'I'm not sure they'd appreciate that either' points out George.
'They can't all be like that, though, can they?' Arabella's voice is hopeful. 'It stands to reason.'
Behind the group, the storeowner has placed a small sign on her counter. After a couple of days' exposure to the language, everyone recognises the Spanish for 'Closed'. Karyn glances at Rupert, rolls her eyes, and walks out into the sun. Sean stubs out a cigarette slowly and pointedly in an ashtray on the table, and turns to follow.
Midday may have passed, but the air is still achingly hot. On closer inspection, the buildings are frequently guarded by small, crude statues standing by the doorways. Small grey men and women in head-dresses, snakes with wings, jaguars, faces with distorted features abound. There are also occasional murals - scenes from the jungle, mostly, intermingled with the odd pastiche of ancient and modern images. Outside their huts, some residents are busying themselves making trinkets and pipes, necklaces and mementoes - presumably they will be selling them elsewhere.
As the seven circle around the hamlet, a young girl with braids in her hair skips up to George.
'Senor.' she continues with stuttered words of Spanish, but grabs at his hand, and motions him to follow. 'Senor' she points at Travis, beckoning him and then the others to follow her.
'Hello there?' says Arabella quizzically.
Furtively, almost theatrically, the girl looks from side to side, up and down the street. Then she runs off, turns left, turns right, and disappears inside a small stone hut on the outskirts towards the jungle.
'I suppose we might take the lady up on that invitation?' jokes Major Hardy, but Rupert is already bounding after her.
'Come inside, come inside, quickly, quickly' urges a voice from inside the stone walls as Arabella and George wait for the others to get through the small door. Inside, there is only one medium sized room with a mattress covered with coloured cloth lying in one corner. A table is covered with plaster from where the owner has been carving what might be destined to be a reproduction of an old relief. Woven mats cover the floor, and hang from the walls as well. The shutters over the glassless window are drawn, and additional light is provided by a number of candles standing around the floor.
In the centre of the room sits a small old man. He mutters some words to the girl, pats her on the head with a wrinkled, stained old hand, and sends her running off out to play.
'My, umm..' he coughs 'son tells me you were asking Hacavitz about religion?'
There is a spark in his voice.
'That's right. I'm looking to do an article on this way of life for the British press. You speak very good English, by the way' charms Jo.
'Thank you. Foreigners always insist on haggling when they buy things' he grins. 'And we weren't always so, em.. out by ourselves either. My name is Mahucutah.' His old, greying eyes assess what is presented before him. 'Mahu, really.'
There is a chorus of introductions, followed by a pause.
'You seem to have summoned us here, Mahu' sighs Sean 'Was that for any reason? I'm tired of the enigmatic act.'
Mahucutah looks confused, and then begins apologising.
'I wanted to say sorry to you all for the reception that you have received here in Solula. I'm afraid most of my brothers are quite prejudiced against people whose blood is not as pure as ours. Hacavitz is the worst of them all. When I was younger, I respected all my elders, but Hacavitz only has respect for those as arrogant as he is. I love my people, but I know that we are not the only people. And I know that our forefathers will eventually be forgotten if more people do not keep their memories.'
'Does this mean you'll help us to understand your religion?' asks Arabella with anticipation.
The old, white haired Mayan nods sagely, and Arabella launches into conversation with enthusiasm.
'To begin with, I'd, that is we'd, like to know more about the myths and legends of Cuculcan.'
Mahu begins to speak.
'When the Spanish came, they said everything we knew was wrong. Now, they say that everything we know is myth and legend. What is it that makes them think this, when we have always told them that it is our history as well as our religion? What I am telling you is not a myth, nor a legend, but a truth that really happened a thousand years ago.
'Many, many years back, the grandfathers of the Chichen lived in the city of Tulla, in the country of Tolteca. They had a great king, and a wise king, and they conquered the land from sea to sea, and everyone knew that the Tolteca were strong men.
'The sons of our grandfathers left the city of Tulla, and extended the empires of Tolteca to the South, and brought the people of the Yucatan under their king's dominion. For the king knew that no truly great nation ever stood still whilst its neighbours thrived.
'Then, there was a great disaster, and the god Tezcatlipoca sent a storm of men and blood down upon the city of Tulla, and the Tolteca were scattered. But the king remembered where his keenest and most proud warriors had travelled, and he travelled after them. When he reached them, he took their town, which was called Chichen Itza, and turned it into the greatest city in all Mexico. And he turned the Chichen nation into the greatest nation in all of Mexico. All this took just nine years.
'In the tenth year, the king knew that his work was done, and he knew that there was a destiny that awaited him elsewhere. And so he departed, leaving his Mayan nation to shower itself in glory.
'That king among men was known by many names. The Quiche, who feared him, called him Gucumatz. The Tolteca knew that he was named Quetzalcoatl. We who are the Chichen Maya, chosen people amongst his chosen people, know that his name was Cuculcan.'
'My word, thank you very much' says George. 'Are there any other aspects to Cuculcan? The winged serpent, for instance.'
'That is correct' replies Mahu. 'He has the power to take many forms. When he left Chichen Itza, he flew directly to the east, a serpent of light flying over the sea to the sun.'
'What about festivals, rituals, that sort of thing?' inquires Karyn.
'Any coming up?' adds Rupert, with an interested smile.
Mahucutah puts his fingers to his lips to hush the questions.
'It is not good for me to talk about our important matters with you here. The tales and histories I tell you are truths which everyone may know. There are some kinds of knowledge which are wronged if they are heard and not believed.'
'We believe all right' tries Karyn. Mahu's eyes are sceptical.
'I can see that you do not.' Mahu rests back on his hands. A frown plays across his brow, as he considers some private trouble.
'How can we believe in the truth of something you won't even tell us?' points out Sean sensibly.
Mahu's eyes twinkle, and he leans back and collects an ornately carved stone box from beneath his desk. Removing the lid, the inside of the box is well lined with dark cottons and silks. The old man gives everyone an excited, almost mischievous look and gently lifts out a life-size skull, made from pure transparent crystal. Light plays through from the candles about the room, making it seem almost luminescent. Despite it's smooth cut beauty, there is something disturbingly accurate about the precise dimensions of the object. Mahu rests it gently in his lap.
'Amazing!' breaths Karyn, leaning forward for a closer look. 'Where did you get that...'
'It belonged to my great uncle, and to his father before him. It is very old, and it was made in the great city of Chichen Itza. I am afraid that you must leave very soon, as I do not wish it well know in Solula that I am talking with you. I am asking you a favour. Perhaps it is a deal.'
'What is it?' asks Jo. 'What do you want us to do?'
'Chichen Itza is now an archaeological tourist site, protected by the government, guarded by police. We, the Chichen Maya, are not often allowed into our city. We are merely allowed to sell our wares in front of the gates. If you can find some way of getting an old man to give you a 'tour' of the place, an old man might find some way of telling you what you want to know.' He smiles with nervous hope.
Jo glances at her colleagues. 'I'm sure we can arrange something.'
'We will need to be sure that we will not be disturbed' mentions Mahucutah anxiously. 'There are always tourists between when it opens at 8 and shuts at 6. The tourists wander everywhere. We wish to go as soon as we can.' His withered hands stroke the skull fondly.
'Just quickly, about the stolen Mayan artefacts...' begins Rupert.
The Mayan puts his finger to his lips once more.
'You do not know me and I do not know you. We have talked enough on this day.' He glances at the shuttered window once more.
'Thank you very much for your time, Senor Mahucutah' bows Arabella.
'Thank you very much for your interest' comes the reply. 'Thank you very much indeed.'
'Back to the Hotel then?' asks Maria cheerfully as she slips the Minibus into first gear.
'Yes. It's time for us all to get some lunch, I should think.' answers Major Hardy.
The fields are slipping past once more, and it seems that the harvesters have surrendered to the afternoon sun. All except three figures, that is, who are pacing through the stalks far away from the houses. The minibus speeds past as its occupants catch a glimpse of a familiar, tall, red chested figure deep in conversation with another man. The other is dressed mostly in brown and is wearing some kind of cap. Trailing behind them is the figure of a young woman, who, standing fifty yards from the road, idly watches the minibus as it drives away from Solula.
'That's her!' exclaims Sean, then drops his voice to a whisper in the back. He points his cigarette back towards where her silhouette recedes against the horizon.
'That was the woman in the bar. You know..' he looks expectantly at Jo.
'I've been trying to get in touch with her. A hunch. I'm not often wrong.'
Left indicator flashing, Maria pulls out onto the main road. Five minutes later, George taps Sean subtly on the shoulder.
'I'm going to feel a bit odd saying this. Err...' George shrugs, and decides he might as well. 'Don't look now, but we're being followed.'
Maria drives on, absorbed in some music on the radio. A few seconds later, Sean pretends to look for his lighter, and peers behind out of the corner of his eye. A short way back down the highway, rolling along at the same speed as the tour bus, is a dark blue car.