The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Hour of the Jaguar
3pm, 17th September 1998
"Arabella will be alright" sighs Sean as he sips a beer by the pool. "The silly cow's probably going to head off to the museum when she does come back, without thinking about telling anyone."
"I'm not nearly so certain" complains George. "At the risk of sounding alarmist, I think we should consider Arabella's absence as suspicious. I don't think it was wise of her to go off on her own, no matter who she was going to see."
"Possibly not," interrupts Jo, "but there's not a great deal we can do right now. "It's an hour's drive to Tulum, and an hour's drive back. She had to hire a car first, see if she could find Dr. Hernandez, and then talk to him for goodness knows how long. I suggest we wait just a little longer before we get worried."
Sean puts down his bottle and stands. "Lets leave this paranoia for a moment and concentrate on what we can be doing. We should get some information on the festival thing from the tourist info centre. Maybe Maria knows something about it."
"I'll go and play the tourist" offers Jo. "And I'll get us some tickets whilst I'm there. I guess we ought to be ready for there to be some trouble."
"I think you can say that again!" exclaims Major Hardy. "That's a few days away though. More urgently, some of us must return to Senor de Reconvaco, to find out what he knows, in return for a share of our information. We must have a plausible, non-Situ reason for being here, so I suggest we contact Professor Lazla and set up a group identity as Archaeological Investigators working for him. De Reconvaco may, however, surmise that we are connected with the last group, at which time we would have to admit SITU involvement, but distance ourselves from the previous investigation. The only way we will gain their trust is for them to believe we are telling the truth."
"We do need to have a sensible conversation with the man, free from idiotic distractions." Jo shakes her head. "What can we do about Rupert saying 'Black Madonna' though?"
"We could claim that he was hallucinating, and saw the Virgin Mary dressed in black?" suggests George.
Jo looks sceptical. "I'd rather play ignorance. If we say we came across the name but don't know who the Black Madonna's are, we could claim that Rupert's been dropping it into every conversation since in the hope of provoking a reaction?"
"Might work" shrugs Sean. "I think I'll skip this particular awkward meeting though. I have some other stuff to check out..."
At this moment an agitated Rupert half runs across the room. It's been only a few minutes since Sean and Karyn sat him on his bed and hoped he'd fall asleep. Uncharacteristically, a frown is furrowed across his brow.
"Where are my..." he shouts, then pauses to lower his voice, "herbs? I must have them!"
Sean looks blank and shrugs, whilst Karyn looks genuinely concerned. Major Hardy is less sympathetic.
"Now look here! You cannot, you simply cannot, go around behaving this way..."
"What are you talking about?" butts in Rupert. "I've been robbed. I'm talking about robbery. It's absolutely intolerable!"
"There hasn't been a robbery" states Jo as calmly as she can, leaning back in her seat. "I flushed your drugs down the loo, and if you know what's good for you, you won't try to get any more while we're here."
Rupert stares blankly at Jo, not knowing how to respond to such a direct confession. Eventually he splutters out..."Intolerable!" and starts muttering to himself. "I cannot be without my medication. There's nothing for it; I'll have to get some more. Next stop, the Cuervo Cojaente." He turns to Karyn. "If you'd like to join me, dear girl,..."
"Rupert!" shouts Jo, thrusting bolt upright from her chair. His head snaps round involuntarily in response. Her years in the army simmer behind her intimidating stare. "What the hell do you think you were doing? You realise you were putting this whole mission at risk - and all of us too! You were bloody lucky it didn't turn into a fight back there!"
Rupert's eyes are wide with surprise. "What's all the fuss about?" he says quietly. "It's not as if someone died or anything. No, I was just rather distraught about the impending world recession. Nothing more. Don't make a mountain out of a molehill! These Madonna people have no sense of humour."
"That's a load of complete rubbish!" replies Jo. "You put us in harms way, ruined our relations with an important and dangerous man, and you're spouting some idiotic story about recessions!"
"I have important things on my mind now anyway," Rupert says defensively. "I'm just popping off for some business elsewhere. I'm just...I've got a migraine coming on..." he strides away mumbling and holding his head. Jo glares at him in disgust as he slips away towards the lobby.
Inside Senor Vizcaya's office neat pot plants sit on a desk. Behind, there is a picture of the manager himself shaking hands with a rather bored looking George Bush. Rupert's casual dress and unshaved chin seem out of place as he addresses his host.
"Excuse me Mr. Vizcaya old chap, but I have to tell you something. My colleagues and I are in the same organisation as the group that were here a year ago. You just remember them, Mr Kellsall, Ms Hook, don't you?"
Arscenio Vizcaya is somewhat taken aback, and manages only a friendly "Why, yes, I do!" Rupert continues.
"We too need to speak to the people in the Cuervo Cojaente who matter. Can you please put me in contact? It is very important you know, so if we can make contact today we would be very grateful."
Arscenio's eyes narrow, then open to cautiously accept the hundred-dollar bill which Rupert offers with the words...
"This is a token of our respect for your establishment."
"I understand, Senor, I understand. You have done me a favour, and now it is time for me to do you a favour in return. Again." The manager's shoulders have dropped, resigned. "I am a respectable businessman now, I do not know anything about the people you speak of, not one thing, but I will make a few calls and see what I can discover for you. This will be all I can do. Come back in one hour."
An uncomfortable thirty minutes pass in the Esplendido. Rupert has disappeared, perhaps to his room, and Jo is trying and failing to conceal her foul mood. Just as the barman is wandering over to offer a further round of drinks, Arabella strolls over to her friends.
"Where the hell have you been?" asks George briskly, his concern betraying itself through his severity.
"I just went to see Dr. Hernandez. Didn't you get my note?" replies Arabella timidly. "I just thought that if we could avoid mobbing him with accusations..."
"It wasn't sensible, going off on your own like that!"
"Sorry" she says, "but I'm fine, really. And I found out quite a bit, too. I'm almost certain Hernandez is involved in this mess." Arabella composes herself, gets a drink, and starts explaining professionally what she thinks. "He's too smooth and evasive on many subjects to be considered impartial. I also suspect that he's possibly of direct lineage to the priests who lived in Chichen Itza, which would explain why he is hosting the ceremony of Cukulcan.
"I intend to take a long and serious look into his background, especially birth records and family, though I have a suspicion it's going to be a complicated trail to follow. I also suspect that he intends to renew contact with me at some point, though I'm not sure why yet.
"He struck me as a very intelligent, very composed man, and he was always ready with an opinion on any subject. His interest in genuine archaeology was honest enough, and he seemed quite keen to communicate the things he had discovered to me. Once he got going."
There is silence as her companions take in the new information.
Arabella adds "I also think it's time some of us, if not all, went on a purely tourist trip. Cave diving I think."
"I've been thinking of looking into cave diving myself," nods Sean in agreement, flicking cigarette ash onto the floor.
"Umm. Cave diving?" inquires Travis, "Could you explain the connection?"
"One" says Arabella, "we need to re-establish our cover. We're 'tourists' remember! Also there's that 'accident'. I don't like the sound of that and I want to find out more about it. Especially as things seem to be gaining a bit of momentum. I'd be most interested to find out if a body was recovered."
"I'll have a chat with the people at the newspaper office" suggests Sean, "if you'll see what Maria knows about it?"
The bearded lackey regards George and Jo with deep suspicion when they reappear on his doorstep that afternoon. He growls at them that they had better stay put whilst he goes and asks Jamie what to do. Senor de Reconvaco seems in a more forgiving mood, however, since he allows them into his house once again. The bodyguard directs the investigators to a sofa placed in the middle of the room and folds his arms, standing directly behind them.
"George and Joanna, yes? The ball is in your court." He smiles, hands pressed together.
"Let me begin by apologising profusely for my friends terrible behaviour" starts George. "It was unacceptable, I believe he was drunk or something, and he should never have come here to talk to you in such a state.
"We have been retained by Professor Ramon Lazla of the Yucatan Institute of Archaeology to investigate the thefts of several important pieces of Mayan origin. Some of us are archaeologists ourselves, and we know Ramon via the profession. To begin with, we thought that the thieves would try to sell the pieces on the black market, perhaps to art dealers, but our researches have led us elsewhere."
Jamie frowns, taking everything in. "In such a state, your friend said a certain few words. Why was that?"
Jo cuts in.
"We came across the name a couple of days back, but we've no idea what it is or who it refers to. Rupert's been dropping it into every conversation in the hope of provoking a reaction somewhere. You seem to have reacted to it, Mr Reconvaco. Do you know anything about it?"
"..this Black Madonna woman of yours..." Jamie runs over the words aloud. "Whoever you heard it from is living in the past. It is of no concern whatsoever. For the record, I know nothing about a 'Black Madonna'." The stress he places on the words 'for the record' is clearly sardonic. "Let us move onto the matter in hand. You work for Professor Lazla. This ties in with you being seen around the Museum the day before the break in. Where have your researches led you?"
George picks up his story from where he left off. "We now suspect that the thefts are part of the preparation of some group for conducting a ritual. The ceremony in question is, we think, to be a sacrifice to the god Cukulcan." Both Europeans look closely for a reaction, and see Jamie's eyes widen, and his head nod slightly. He opens his mouth and draws in a deep breath to speak.
"I believe you are right. I must tell you now that you may be becoming involved in matters far more serious than mere theft and archaeology. The ceremony that will be performed is evil, and I am going to stop it taking place. I have strong hopes that you are going to help me, for there is little I can do. Follow me."
Senor de Reconvaco leads Jo and Major Hardy through to the back of the building, down to the kitchens, and then down even further into the cellar. He fishes a heavy key out of his pocket to unlock the dark wooden door, then a bare lightbulb is pulled on by a piece of string to reveal a square table. Something sits on the table, and it is glowing underneath some crude sacking. Jamie pulls aside the cloth and reveals a crystal skull. Unlike Hunahpu, however, this 'skull' is shaped like a living human head, with crystal eyes, and crystal moulded hair. Bone structure is almost visible through the translucent, solid skin, lending the whole a warped and disturbing appearance.
"I will not tell you how I obtained this item" says Jaime. "I still do not know you very well, and it isn't at all important. I expect you do not know much about such artefacts, but suffice to say that this is an unnatural shape for one to...adopt. It glows brighter every day. I would destroy it, but I do not understand it, and it is the only lead I have."
He walks over to the corner of the room, and picks a newspaper off a crate. It is the edition with a picture of the statue stolen from Mayapan museum. 'Mayapan's Mayan Man is Missing' reads the tacky headline. The features shown on the statue are eerily close to those of the skull.
"What's his name?" asks Jo.
"I do not want to give it a name."
"It's Cukulcan, isn't it?" asks George. "After all, the statue is known to be of Cukulcan."
"Perhaps" says Jamie "but I've done some research on that statue. It was an idol, a representation of Cukulcan perhaps, discovered at Chichen Itza during the preliminary excavations of the central pyramid. It was discovered amongst debris dating from the very late period, long after the city's decline. But its style is much earlier. Its style is Toltec." His eyes flash daggers as he spits out the word.
"Cukulcan isn't a Toltec god.
"Cukulcan isn't an important god to anyone except the Chichen Maya. Save the people around here, whoever heard of Cukulcan?
"I expect this skull would want a name with a sight more infamy than that.
The skull impassively sits on the table, glowing dull white from its core.
"The Toltecs. The Aztecs. He's been a leading figure for over half the war-crazed races that tore this continent apart. Whatever whoever is trying to do, we had better stop them.
"I've had people watching Solula. I've had people watch the museums. Whoever tried to break into the Merida museum, they were Mexicans. Ricardo says he got a good look at one of their faces, and they weren't Mayan or foreign. But Solula's been getting regular visits ever since we started paying attention about a week ago. Every two or so days, a large man comes and talks to them. Usually he takes a few people with him.
"That and this" he points an accusing finger at the table, "is all I have to go on.
"What can you add?"
In a seedy, dirty bar in the disreputable part of town, Rupert is buying drinks. His companion is a short and stocky Mexican, whose moustache is starting to whiten along with his hair. Havana cigar smoke settles over the table in a blue-grey cloud.
"First things first" says Rupert, his unusually businesslike English voice out of place in his surroundings. "I want to buy some marijuana from you, for my personal use of course. About 7 ounces please."
"Marijuana?" replies a gravelled Latin accent through a yellow toothed smile. "Now, I do not have. Tomorrow I have. You give me money here and now, you get marijuana here and tomorrow. Ten thousand pesos."
"Certainly". Rupert hands over a very fat wad of notes. "Now to other business. We, that is my friends and I, are here looking into the disappearance of some Mayan artefacts. We do not know yet who is stealing them, and we were wondering if you knew the details."
A puzzled expression forms and fixes on the Mexican's face.
"Furthermore, we are also being followed and burgled by someone who seems to want to stop us from finding out the truth. We may need some armed assistance from yourselves, perhaps we could hire a couple of armed man to help protect us. Either that or we will need you to help do some investigating for us."
Rupert waves another large wad across the table, and the gangster pockets it swiftly, his dark eyes never leaving Rupert's.
"There is more where this comes from if we can rely on your co-operation."
"I'll tell you what I know. Someone wants to summon the Mayan god Cukulcan on the equinox in the old Mayan city of Chichen Itza. To do this they require old Mayan religious artefacts to recreate an ancient ceremony. They then intend to sacrifice a boy. Personally I believe it will be the son of the Mayor, Simon Comos. What if anything can you tell me to help out?"
There is a pause whilst Rupert's question goes unanswered, then The man from the Cuervo Cojaente speaks.
"Let me think. You say someone wants to summon a god by killing Simon Comos. You say you will pay us lots of money to help you find out about this. You say you have lots of money with which to pay us for this thing. And you say you want to buy a large quantity of marijuana." He is trying not to smile.
"That's right" says Rupert, frowning in mild frustration. "Look. First of all can you use your own channels to look into this, and who is doing this. Second of all, can we hire a couple of men to help protect us? I'll volunteer to take charge of them since obviously I'm the most stable in the group. This of course is all temporary. We may need greater help in the future like last time, but we will pay for it all."
The Mexican nods firmly, slaps his hands on the table, and announces that he will indeed help.
"I will get everything arranged. I will look into everything. Nothing happens in this town that I do not know about. You just come back here tomorrow at this time, and bring enough money to pay for everything to start with, and everything will be OK. You just bring enough money, yes?"
"Money is not a problem" insists Rupert. "I'm serious, you know."
"I know" nods the crook, who blows a ring of dirty smoke. "We're all serious here."
In a small restaurant not far from the Esplendido, Arabella is talking quietly about Dr. Hernandez. Rupert listens in silence across the table, sipping a glass of water and thinking about his aching head. The meal just cleared away, Sean lights up and grabs an ashtray from a nearby table.
"Dr. Raimbaud gave me three papers that Hernandez has published in the last two years" explains Arabella. "I followed them up in the library. The most recent one was entitled 'The Mayan Adoption of Toltec Styles - An Analysis' and was arguing that rather than a uniform cultural exchange from one people to the other, certain groups of Mayans were greatly affected by Toltec thought whilst most were indifferent. He uses Chichen Itza as an example. It's the only site south of Mexico city where the architecture involves columns. In Chichen Itza they're ceremonial - there are about one thousand in all, all part of the temple of the warriors. But columns are by and large an exclusively Toltec invention. He also mentions the stone statue, which is the only one of its kind to be found in this peninsula.
"The second paper was 'Tulum as a Centre for Coastal Cultural Migration', all about Mayans trading up and down the coast with Guatemalan and Costa Rican tribes. I couldn't see any of it that was relevant. His last work - about a year and a half ago - was a sociology paper he wrote when he was at the University of Chiapas. It's called 'The Chiapas Economy and its Effect on Underprivileged Cultures'."
"Sounds great" mutters Sean.
"Actually, it seems to have gotten him into a fair bit of trouble with the University authorities. In fact it got him thrown out. It argues that since the rural poor have nothing but taxes to offer the Government, and the government pays them no attention in return, they are effectively a separate nation paying tribute to their conquerors. The tone of the piece was really quite left wing. Listen to this - these are the sentences it ends on...
'With a sophisticated network of trading systems, and communications independent of the central government, the poorest sections of the Chiapas population are frustrated in their attempts to advance their interests solely by the high rates of land and sales tax imposed by Mexico City. Only two factors are missing from the equation which would make rural Chiapas a prosperous state in its own right, unfrustrated by the industrial politics of the occupying nation - community of purpose and community of resolve."
"They fired him from his lectureship for that?" wonders George. "That's a bit much..."
"I guess every government hates being described as an occupying nation inside its own borders." says Sean. "I can think of at least one other place where it's a very touchy subject..."
"Right." George puts down his glass. "I think we're in a position to hypothesise about our situation now. Jump in if you feel you have something to add. First of all. Dr. Hernandez in the man we are here to stop."
"Woah!" says Arabella. "Maybe. I mean, it's certain that he's hiding something from us, but maybe he's just afraid of something. I mean, it's rather remote, given his attitude but..."
"I'll carry on" says George, unimpressed. "Point number two. He intends to conduct the sacrifice of a Mayan boy, whose identity is at the moment unknown to us, under the cover of a 'show' ritual for the benefit of tourists at the Autumnal Equinox Festival."
"No, you've got it wrong." Rupert participates for the first time this evening. "You're thinking along the wrong lines. It's got to be the son of the 'king', right?"
"Right" agrees George sceptically.
"The 'king' who has taken the city by right of arms, yes?" chips in Sean. "That's what the man said."
Rupert nods enthusiastically. "Yeah. It's going to be Simon Comos, son of our local Governor, isn't it? He's going to have one hell of a nasty birthday celebration!"
There's an unpleasant pause as everyone considers the horror of the idea.
Jo finally breaks the silence. "I've gotten us some tickets for the festival, anyway" she says, laying down some printed stubs and some leaflets on the table. "It says they kick off at dawn, tourists to assemble outside the site and be allowed through the gates twenty minutes before sunrise."
George takes the cue to continue with his theorising. "You know, I'm seriously considering the possibility that the Zapatistas are involved with Dr. Hernandez. I certainly don't trust their 'envoy', and cannot think of a local faction more likely to believe that they will benefit from the arrival of one of their gods. I suggest we steer clear of these people."
Major Hardy has one more point to make. "Finally, there's the local museum. Hernandez undoubtedly has all the items that have been stolen, and he will undoubtedly make another attempt to gain possession of the other items in the museum, specifically the priest's robes. We ought to safeguard them."
The waiters start putting chairs up on tables, and the group wend their way back to the hotel.
Everyone is having coffee in Jo's room before they go to bed, having not yet exhausted the day's discoveries. Jo asks Arabella and Sean what they uncovered about going cave diving.
"We got a rather funny story out of the newspaper people" says Sean. "Apparently, there's a whole labyrinth of underground rivers and lakes here - we're stood on a Swiss cheese - and the only places they hit the surface are either at cenotes or by the sea. This local man, right, runs a company who takes experienced divers to cenotes, then they climb down into them and have an explore. Hardly any of it is mapped, so everyone uses a rope line connected all the way back to the surface and suchlike, but it's still quite dangerous.
"Anyway, this bloke takes two Germans, both of them with their own diving gear, off to a cenote that a way east of Itzamal. They climb down into it, using rope ladders 'cause the sides are steep, and then find a river heading off into the darkness. They explore along it with their torches and suchlike for a long while, looking for something interesting I guess, and then they see a light in the distance.
"Now, this bloke, he reckons it's bound to be another cenote, and the Germans probably think this too, 'cause he taps them on the shoulder and they give him a thumbs up and they all head for it.
"As they get closer, this bloke starts to realise that it looks a bit strange, but it has to be sunlight because there's nothing but blackness down here unless its sunlight from the surface. Nevertheless he feels a bit uneasy and he slows down a bit. The two Germans get ahead of him. They get closer and closer, and he's trying to make out what it is he can see up ahead, and it looks like a long sliver of sunshine rather than the kind of circle he'd expect. The Germans are getting really close now.
"Suddenly, the water around him starts to rush and seethe and churn like nothing else, and the light looks like it starts pulsing and twisting and thrashing, and there's a roaring in his ears. He shouts out instinctively, but no one can hear him of course, and the water starts getting hotter and hotter. Usually it's cold, but it's getting hotter every second. He looks, hands frozen to his rope, and he can see two silhouettes of the Germans against the light, and the light's twisting around them and thrashing around them. And then something snaps inside is head, and he says he hears his father telling him to run, and he turns and faces away as the water churns harder and harder. And then he pulls himself away back down his safety line, hand over hand over hand over hand as fast as he can bloody well pull himself and then some. And he never looks back. And after god knows how long he breaks surface back where he started and gets pulled out by his partner who's waiting with everyone's gear at the surface.
"He's in hospital with the bends. He must have gone down to a lower depth than he thought without realising it. Been transferred to some special unit in Cancun. Doctors say he was probably hallucinating, with nitrogen bubbles in his brain or something. But that's the story he told the reporter about what happened. And the two Germans, they're still missing. They pulled the safety rope out all the way, expecting to get a couple of bodies, but all they got was a loose frayed end, like it had been cut with a knife."
Sean leans back in his chair, and takes a deep, satisfied drag on his cigarette as he observes the horrified looks on his companions' faces.
"Time for us to get some sleep" he says.