The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness

The Three Faces Of God
Chapter 3

Merida Tuesday 13th July, 4.30pm

It is a long time before Martin Keyes moves. Gently, he returns the telephone to its receiver, picks up his laptop and stares at the screen.

It took his almost an hour to download all the information. He smiles sardonically. Information that most of his comrades must already have read, because they were part of the Oxford operation. No doubt the rest of them will see it all sooner or later.

"Official fuckin' information from fuckin' SITU that Marty Keyes is little better than a fuckin' orangutan," he whispers to the empty room. "He is such a cock-up that his parents were fuckin' killed rather than risk 'em breedin' again."

SITU's words burn into his mind. <<Martin Keyes - we surmise that he represents an early, or a failed, branch of the breeding programme. Contact is being maintained with him by Operative Numenor. Our current surmise is that his parents were in some way involved in Operative Goodchild's parents' perceived treachery to the Club, and so they were killed by it as well.>>

And to think that the bitch Goodchild has read this, he says to himself. She probably had a right laugh over that. "I ought to wring her bloody neck…" he says out loud. He stops suddenly and glances around the room, half afraid that the American woman might be listening even now. He closes his eyes a moment and pictures her beautiful face, dominated by those stainless-steel eyes, ice-cold as she gazed back at him.

To top it all off, Keyes thinks bitterly, the T-club isn't answering the phone number it gave him.

The door opens and he jerks upright, slamming the computer shut.

"Everyone's back," Steve says. "We're meeting in Eric's room."

"Not interested." Keyes shakes his head. "Sorry, I need a drink."

Steve looks as if he's going to argue for a moment then catches the look on his colleague's face and steps aside.

"We're arranging the fake ID cards tonight," he says as Keyes passes. "Do you have any preference for what name you want?"

"No." He pauses a moment. "Don't bother about one for me. Cons were never my game, mate, and I suspect I've already been spotted with our Sean. It's much too late for me to pretend I'm something I'm not."

What exactly does that mean, Steve wonders. He watches him go then shrugs and goes to join the others.

Eric Alnes' room is bigger than the others, slightly more luxurious - which means that the curtains are clean.

"I paid extra," he explains, looking a little embarrassed. "At least we've all got room to sit down in here. Where's Keyes?"

"Gone out," Steve tells him. "I'll brief him later."

"Well done." T.R. grins. "Think fast." He tosses something round and white to Sean who reacts just in time to catch it.

"Just a souvenir I picked up at one of the local shops" T.R. tells the him, indicating the skull. "The shopkeeper said there might be some talking ones in the museum." He pauses and turns to look at Kellsal. "You mentioned that the place where they held you prisoner was a basement in a house about 5 minutes walk from the museum. I assume you mean the Museum of Anthropology. According to the guidebook, the museum is open until 6:00 on Tuesdays - that should leave us just enough time to check it out today. I think I may catch a cab up there and take a look around. Unfortunately, I wouldn't know a talking skull if I fell over it. How does one tell a talking skull from a standard archaeological artifact?"

"You say hello to it and see if it answers," Sean mutters. He passes the skull to Belle-Marie. "Here, darling. Maybe it's more your type."

"The talking skulls," Kellsal cuts in placatingly, "the ones that SITU have investigated, are all made of some sort of crystalline substance. Most of them had a metallic sheen to them. They are all very heavy and feel either slightly warm or very cold when you pick them up. Never the temperature you'd expect." He smiles, flushing slightly. "Of course, that's not much use to you if they're in a glass case. The crystal skulls are very famous, though. If the museum has any on display there'll be enough information there that you won't miss them."

"Thanks." T.R. casts a quick glance around. "Does anyone want to come? Personally, I think it's safer to work in pairs."

Sean nods and stretches. "Might as well give it a look. There was an old Mayan guy here last time who had one. Maybe it's still around somewhere."

Eric gets up to. "I'd be delighted to accompany you. Shall we call a taxi?"

When the three men have left, the others sit and look at each other for a while. Finally, Martyn Aberg breathes out a long sigh. "I've backed up all our notes so far. I'll keep one copy on me and hide the other in my room somewhere."

"Best leave it in the communications room," Steve advises. "I've paid the manager to make sure no one goes up there. Do you all know how to use the equipment I've brought?"

Everyone says they do.

"So what's the plan?" Martyn asks. "I must admit it seems to me we don't have any clear ideas of how to proceed."

Belle-Marie sweeps her hair back with one hand. "I was going to try and contact Hernandez. I want to know about the Hour of the Jaguar investigation. And he might know something as to Reconvaco's whereabouts."

"Which leaves me to act as co-ordinator," Steve adds. He looks at Aberg expectantly. Martyn shrugs.

"The caves will probably be worth a look. I'll check them out."

The Anthropology Museum is a large building, well lit and air-conditioned. Exhibits are laid out according to date in huge glass display cases. In the centre of the main room stand two models dressed in what is said to be authentic Mayan costume. T.R. looks them over carefully. They are reproductions but accurate enough. Other cases are full of jewellery and weapons and the usual oddments of coins and pottery.

And then, going through into another room, they see the skulls.

"Exhibition of skulls used in Mayan ritual,' the notice says. An information card underneath adds, "These skulls were thought to have magical powers. They were used for communication over a distance, for fortune-telling, for summoning of the gods. Each skull had a different name and a different use. Also a different, distinct personality. It was believed that the owner of the skull would eventually take on some of the personality of the skull.

"Two of these skulls are replicas. The third is genuine, donated on short-term loan by the Yucatan Archeological Institute."

T.R. gets his camera out. Eric watches as he takes photographs then wanders away to read the rest of the information. Sean bends over the case, studying the skull intently.

"'Brought together, the skulls are said to have great occult power,'" Eric reads aloud. "'This was tested most recently in an experiment here in Merida in November 1997 when several private collectors all agreed to bring their skulls together. The experiment, headed by Mr Jaime de Reconvaco was unfortunately disrupted before any clear results could be obtained, but witnesses reported a blinding golden light and unearthly noises.' Sounds interesting."

"Before my time," Sean comments. He stares at the skull a few moments more than gives up in disgust. "I've got no idea whether this was the skull the old Mayan had or not. The things all look the same to me."

T.R. takes a final photograph and puts his camera away. "Is there anyone following us yet?" he asks.

"No one at all." There are several leaflets about the museum on a table by the door. Eric helps himself to a selection on his way out.

Martyn Aberg is sitting in the bar of the Esplendido, going through a book about the local cave system.

The caves are mostly underwater, the book says. The easiest way to get into the system is from the sea. It also says that some areas have been closed off in recent years due to reasons of safety. A number of people have died in the caves, some because they got lost and their oxygen ran out, others suffered attacks of the bends when they came out. A map in the back of the book shows the areas that are rated safe. There is also the number of a local diving school that will take people on tours through the caves. The safe areas, at least.

Martin hesitates a moment then picks up the phone.

"Yes, tomorrow morning, if possible," he confirms. "Eleven thirty? That'll be great."

The "cafe" that Martin Keyes has found has a bar attached with a few small tables, most of which are empty, and a very long counter with bar stools, most of which are full. Three bartenders - two men and a woman - scurry between customers. After a while, Keyes attracts the woman's attention and she comes over. She is dark-haired, very attractive. Early forties, Keyes judges her.

"Good evening Senor Gringo!" she smiles. "You look like you want a drink; scotch or tequila?"

Keyes brightens up a little. "Herradura with a beer chaser please, and, does that opening line amuse the Yanks?"

The woman's smile broadens. "Oh yes, they have a sense of humour about everything." She leans forward. "But most of them compliment me on my eyes," she adds in a whisper.

Martin avoids her gaze. "Yes, one each side of your nose." The woman laughs and he finds himself smiling in return. He takes one of her hands in mock prayer. "Sorry love. I'm in a bit of a mood. Besides, your smile is the first I've seen all day, and I was afraid if I looked in your eyes that I would find your smile was meant for someone else. I need that smile."

She frowns, slightly puzzled, then shakes her head and laughs again. "I see, Senor Gringo. My name is Astrid Bonilla. You are…?"

"Marty. Marty 'Gringo' Keyes from Cambridge, UK."

She straightens up. "Well, Mr. Keyes, I am still a bartender so I should ask you if you need some matches for that cigarette you are playing with. I can fetch some with your drinks."

"Do you like men who smoke?" Keyes asks. Astrid looks Keyes in the eyes and pauses before responding.

"No. And I don't like men who drink too much."

He shrugs. "Ah, well I don't want any matches then. And perhaps I shall have a cup of coffee after my drinks."

"I've got a plan," T.R. announces. "But I'm going to need help with it."

Belle-Marie stifles a yawn. "Fire away."

"Right." He pauses for a moment more then continues. "While Martin and I were walking past a bar called the Santa Molara a little while ago, I overheard a couple of local guys talking. One of them mentioned something about the black lady. I realize that isn't much of a lead, but I'd like to check it out." He shrugs. "I can go by myself, but I thought it might be more effective if we work in a team. I thought maybe Eric and I could go in first - Eric speaks Spanish and I can be there to give him back-up. Eric and I can order drinks and go sit at a corner table. We won't be able to blend in, but we will try not to draw too much attention. Then someone else in our party who doesn't mind taking a risk can go in, order a drink at the bar and ask the bartender about crystal skulls or black madonnas. After he leaves, Eric and I can watch and listen to the conversation around the bar. We may pick up some further clues."

One by one, the others agree.

Belle-Marie watches Sean walk away with a look of disgust in her eyes. She turns to Steven. "I'm really starting to dislike him," she admits. "'Sorry Darling. This isn't some pretty little game.' What a prat - didn't he listen to what I said? You know as well as I do about how these people died, I know better than him it isn't a game." She sighs. "Why do we have to have a neanderthal like that with us - I'm telling you, if he lays a finger on me I'm going to knock him flat on his back. I suppose that's one bonus of having worked on the docks for all those years, I did learn to look after myself.'

Steven rests a hand on her shoulder. "Forget about him," he says. "You have to work with him until this is over but that doesn't mean you've got to get on with him. If it's any help, I'll make sure you're never teamed up with him."

"It is. Thanks." She smiles tiredly. Taking the earpiece and microphone out of her pocket she turns them over thoughtfully. "I supposed I'd better get some practice using these things. I can always say it's a hearing aid."

Keyes drinks the last of his coffee and accepts a top up from Astrid.

"Are you here on business or vacation, Marty?" she asks.

He grimaces. "Business I'm afraid. I work for an English company that collects very rare things. There may be something here they want. Some of our people are conducting straightforward enquiries, and I'm sort of the backup if they fail."

"I see. What is it this time, the talking skulls?" She asks so matter-of-factly that Keyes' mouth falls open.

"Uh, oh… I mean. Um, are there a lot of 'em about?"

"Well, there's one real one and two replicas in the museum. There are hundreds in the shops and a lot of those have built in telephones, so I guess they do have voices," she says with an innocent smile. "Is that what you have come all the way here to find?"

Keyes stares at her, still flustered by her sense of intuition - or her incredible good luck - at guessing what he wanted to know. "Do you believe such skulls exist?" he asks. "I mean, the ones that talk without benefit of Telefonos de Mexico."

Astrid pauses at first, but then leans toward him and answers in a whisper. "The stories about them are common. I usually hear them from people at the bar whose tongues have been loosened by tequila. They believe in the Holy Catholic Church, and yet they believe that spirits inhabit some skulls. And they believe these skulls have power. I call such people heretics and pagans, but those words have no meaning today."

A flush of colour stains her cheeks. Keyes puts his hand over hers. "Now, now luv. It sounds like someone you know believes in these things, and it has hurt you. I'm no one's disciple, and I'm not lookin' for promote or validate anyone's point of view. But, maybe I can find a way to let your mind rest a little easier while I make some enquiries."

The bar of the Santa Molara. It is not particularly welcoming. Eric and T.R. settle themselves at a table by the bar and order drinks. The table rocks slightly as the barmaid sets them down.

"Thank you," Eric says in English. She turns on her heel without and word and walks away.

The others come in in two groups. Sean buys two drinks and sits down by himself. After a while he gets up and wanders over to a group of men gathered in one corner.

Martyn Aberg watches him then stands up. "Here goes," he mutters. He walks to the bar. Ordering drinks, he leans on the grimy surface of the counter with one hand. "I don't suppose anyone speaks English," he asks. "I'm here on business, researching a book on the famous skulls. Does anyone happen to know anything?" His heart is hammering loud. No one speaks for a moment. The barmaid shakes her head. "You want help, you should go to the museum. Not here. Take your drinks."

The conversation around the bar is slow to start up again. Eric and T.R. listen whilst pretending enormous interest in their drinks.

"Not the skulls again," someone grumbles. "Those things bring nothing but trouble."

"It's not the skulls that cause trouble," he companion answers. "It's the people who come looking for them."

There is a pause then two men stand up. "I think Mr Jaime should know," one of them says quietly. "Come on."

"Excuse me a moment," T.R. murmurs. He gets up and follows the two out cautiously. Standing in the shadows of the doorway he watches them as they hail the nearest taxi.

"Chichen Itza," one of them snaps. The taxi roars off into the night.

"What are you doing here?" the man at the table demands.

Sean smiles. "Hello Marcos. I'm looking for skulls this time. What can you people tell me?" He puts a roll of notes down on the table.

Marcos snatches it quickly. "We can tell you nothing. You want to get the police on us again?" He starts to stand up then checks himself. "Sean, friend, piss off. This time we will not help you. Not if you go on your knees and beg."

Sean grins at him and walks away. A pity about the money, but it was worth a try. The only problem now is the town's gangster group know he's back. Well, hopefully they'll decide it's not worth their while getting in his way.

High-pitched laughter sounds in his right ear. He turns his head sharply but there is no one there.

"You still with me, little friend?" he whispers to the leprechaun only he can see. "Bring me luck, won't you?"

It is well past midnight. Keyes is the only one left in the bar. Astrid takes off her apron, washes her hands and eyes Keyes cautiously, obviously wondering whether she wants to continue the conversation or not. Finally she sighs, pours two glasses of Herradura and points Keyes to one of the tables. She sits down and looks at Keyes in silence

Finally he looks up at her. "Put yourself in my shoes, Astrid," he says quietly. "Who should I talk to about finding one of these skulls? If you don't have a name, then I bet you know where I can find him or her or them."

Her eyes narrow. "Why do you think I know this?"

"Because you're angry, and I think a woman like you, who works the late shift at a bar must not be the kind of person who gets angry too easily, know what I mean. Now I'm no knight in armour, but maybe I am your Robin Hood. Tell me where to start and with who?

She smiles slightly. "Robin Hood? Very well. Do you know the name Jaime de Reconvaco?"

For the second time Keyes is stunned into silence.

"He has two skulls," Astrid says. "Everyone knows: he makes no secret of it. But he will not sell. So…" she shrugs. "I'm sorry. The only other skull I know of in Merida is at the museum. I have seen it. The museum will not sell either."

"Do you know how I can contact this Reconvaco?" Keyes asks. "I don't want to piss him off or anything. How can I find out who's involved altogether. If I'm going to warn my company off of this, they're going to want more than the word of a beautiful woman I've met."

She smiles at the compliment. "How to contact Reconvaco? He hasn't been in Merida for months now." Her face darkens a fraction. "Senor, can I tell you something? I have a son, fifteen years old. He began working for Reconvaco a year ago, came home most nights talking about the Black Madonna Cult. Three months ago he went out and never came back. I think he might be with Reconvaco now, but where that is, I do not know."

She finishes her drink angrily then gets out a match book and scribbles down a telephone number. "I live above the cafe here, Senor Marty Gringo, so you already have escorted me home. Will I see you again?"

"The day after tomorrow," Keyes says, then checks his watch and corrects himself. "Make that tomorrow. Perhaps by then I will have something useful to tell you."

First stop for Martyn Aberg is the biggest camera shop in Merida where he asks for a digital video camera. Despite T.R.'s assertion that nothing of the kind exists in Merida, the assistant brings him one out almost immediately and stands by smiling as he tries it out.

"Works fine," Martyn says. "I'll take it."

At least they'll have something to record the attack on the Ylids with now, he reasons. Assuming they do attack the Ylids, it's likely to be a pretty brief event. He glances at his watch. It's time he was getting ready for cave-diving.

The mid-morning sky is a pale, clear blue. Belle-Marie waits while Steve pays the taxi-driver then runs up the steps to the house. Eric and T.R. follow along behind.

Hernandez's name is engraved on a plaque beside a wooden door knocker that is carved to look like a dagger. Gingerly, she reached out and knocks.

The door opens at once. "Come in, come in!"

Dr Hernandez is a small man in his early forties. He looks fit, tanned, his eyes bright. "You're the people Kellsal sent, aren't you? And you're Theodore Warren. I've read about some of your work, you know. Most interesting, most interesting."

T.R. bows his head in acknowledgement.

"But now you must come in. This way please."

"What can you tell us about the Hour of the Jaguar?" Belle-Marie asks when they are all settled.

Hernandez runs a hand over his greying hair. "A nasty business. A Mayan leader was trying to recreate a ritual that would bring one of their gods back - Quetzalcoatl. Cukulcan, you know. God of wind and of law and order. There was an old ceremony in which the Mayan leader sacrificed his eldest son to the god. The god then came in person and what happened after that is anyone's guess. Anyway, a Mayan leader, Hacavitz - he's dead now - was going to stage the ceremony for real and he talked the Zapastistas into helping. They kidnapped the mayor's son and if it wasn't for SITU stepping in, the boy would have been killed."

"And Cukulcan let loose," Eric muses. "Where does Reconvaco fit into this?"

"He had a skull that he claimed could kill Cukulcan, only the god had to be allowed to manifest itself first, which meant killing the boy." He shudders visibly. "Thankfully, it never came to that."

"Could the skull be the same one Kellsal reported on?" Steven asks.

Hernandez turns to him. "It's very possible. From what I've learned from SITU and my studies, if the three gods are the creatures they call Ylids, the skull would be linked to Cukulcan in some way."

"So all we have to do is find the skull," Belle-Marie concludes. "Dr Hernandez, what we really need to do, besides getting the skull, is to have a good look around the place - everywhere of interest. Can you help?"

"Certainly." He beams at them all in turn. "To be honest, I think a bit of excitement will be good for me."

The shock of the cold water makes Martyn gasp. He has just enough time to wish he'd taken a course in diving lessons before he'd left Nottingham and then the water closes over his head. He breathes in deeply through his mouth and watches the bubbles boil up to the surface.

The man with him touches his arm and swims away. Martyn follows. A current catches him and thrusts him sideways and he has to strain to keep going. Definitely, he should have mentioned that he'd not done this before, he thinks. But there's no time now. The mouth of the first cave looms up in front of him - a huge, black hole in the clear water.

Cave follows cave, all of them looking the same. All of them looking very uninhabited. Martyn tries to keep track of where they're going but with only the dim light of a pair of torches to guide him, he's not entirely sure that he's managing it. He pushes on grimly, trying to ignore the aching in his legs.

Finally, after what seems like hours, the instructor pauses in the water, pushes to the surface and takes off his mask.

"What do you think?" he asks.

Martyn looks around. "Fascinating. It's a pity there's not more of it to see."

Surprisingly, the instructor laughs. "You're like all the other foreigners. "Always wanting to go where it's most dangerous. You see that?" He points to one wall. Parallel, luminous white lines have been painting above a small opening. "That's there to show danger," the instructor says. "There was a rockfall through that passageway only a month ago. You want to be on the wrong side of one of them, you carry on."

Martyn looks at the lines. "Are there any other ways into the caves?" he asks. "You know, safe passages to get to the parts we haven't seen yet?"

"Some passages open at ground level, yes." The instructor flashes him a look. "All dangerous. Shall we go?"

Martyn pulls his mask down determinedly and follows.

Sean and Martin Keyes leave the hotel together. Keyes' hair is still damp from the shower. Sean's is carefully brushed and his fresh shirt is done up (almost) to the collar.

"I still can't believe she's back here," Sean says for what must be the tenth time. He's also having trouble believing how she went for him yesterday. All right, so there was a little bit of trouble last time, but there's no need to bite his head off over it now. What she could do with, he thinks, is a damn good spanking. A pleasant image drifts across his mind and he smiles. He pauses to toss the street kid, Mahmoud, a coin. "Keep your eyes open for me," he says and walks on quickly.

They find Lalina waiting for them at a table by the door. She stands up when she sees them.

"You'd better order something. I doubt there are people watching, but you never know with you, Sean." She spares a smile for Martin and sits back down.

There is a moment's silence. "So," Sean says at last, "have the gangsters been giving you any trouble?"

She shakes her head. "I think they got too scared. Anyway, I've not been back here long."

"So what are you doing here?" Keyes prompts.

She replies without hesitating. "Looking for the Black Madonna Cult. We heard Reconvaco was seen in the area again, which means he's got to be planning something. We want to know what it is."

"Who's we?" Sean asks.

"The Zapas, of course." She flashes him a look of disgust. "I trust you'll keep out of it this time. For your information we were wondering about an alliance with the Black Madonnas. We were all hit pretty hard by that business last time. We thought if we joined forces we could start rebuilding what we lost. The problem is getting hold of Reconvaco when he doesn't want to be found. He's not been in any of the usual places." She pauses and looks at them suspiciously. "Why do you want him?"

"He's got something we want," Martin tells her.

Sean holds up a hand. "Hold on. Why exactly are you wanting to ally with someone like Reconvaco?"

"Because the Black Madonna religion has a lot in common with the old Mayan beliefs." She tosses her head impatiently. "I thought you knew that. If the Black Madonnas can get people interested in the old beliefs again, we might stand a chance of getting things back to the way they should be." She pauses and looks at Martin speculatively. "Listen, maybe we can do a deal here. What do you think? Help each other so we all get what we want."

"Chichen Itza's a waste of time," T.R. says, smiling. "I've been there. It's a fascinating archaeological park, but I don't remember seeing any crystal skulls. The skull motif is common enough - there's a building at Chichen whose base is carved with skulls. But," he adds with a touch of sarcasm, "none of them spoke to me when I was here last."

"Then why did those men from the Santa Molara say they were coming here?" asks Eric. "That is what you heard them say, isn't it?"

"It is." T.R. is silent for a moment. "Come on then, we'd might as well take a look."

"What does the Santa Molara mean, anyway?" Steve asks as they walk.

Hernandez turns his head. "Molara is a variation of Mary. Why?"

"No reason."

Hernandez leads the way along a dusty path towards some buildings. A low rumbling comes from beneath their feet and Belle-Marie stops.

"Noises from the caves," Hernandez tells her without slowing. "Some of them come up in this area and you hear all sorts of strange things. Shall we take a look at Theodore's skull building first?"

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