The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Three Faces Of God
12.15pm 14th July
Sean, Martin Keyes - the Cafe de Nostrodamus with Lalina.
Martyn Aberg - the caves.
Eric, Steve, Belle-Marie, T.R. - Approaching Chichen Itza.
"Call me T.R, please," T.R. asks Hernandez as the group walk through the old ruins. Under the midday sun it is blindingly hot. Belle-Marie is wiping sweat from her eyes; even Eric's usually immaculate suit is starting to look crumpled and grey at the cuffs. Steven, too is sweating heavily, walking along in his black suit and shirt done up to the collar. Beads of moisture roll down the side of his face, but he ignores them, keeping an expression of practised indifference.
Chichen Itza is huge, that is the first impression. Some of the ruins have been fully excavated and the jungle is cut well back from them, but the group can still catch site of unexcavated structures at the edges of the site, blending into the heavy cover of trees so that it seems they are looking at a city that extends, hidden, forever. It is unnaturally quiet, the trees hanging still in the heavy air, no one else within sight.
"Remember that those men at the Santa Molara told the taxi driver to take them here after they had agreed that they needed to talk to "Mr. Jaime," Eric advises in a low voice. "They could very well have some sort of hidden headquarters out here, so watch for the unexpected, any place where they might be hidden."
T.R. nods and sighs. "It's been ten years since I was here last, so things may have changed, but as I recall there is a gift shop and visitor's centre at the entrance to the site," he looks to Hernandez for confirmation, "and the building with the skulls around the base is just a short distance inside. The last time I was here, we took a trail that leads out to one of the cenotes - the natural wells where human sacrifices were occasionally performed. There is also a tunnel inside the main pyramid, the Castillo, which contains a narrow staircase leading up. Tourists are allowed to climb to the top of the stairs to see the statue of a jaguar with jade eyes. You can also climb the outside of the pyramid if you have no fear of heights. The stairs are very steep and narrow. I think - and Dr. Hernandez can correct me if I am wrong - that the Castillo was sacred to Culkulcan."
Hernandez nods and smiles. "That's right. There have been other excavations in the past ten years, but nothing as interesting as what was already there. The central area has been cleared now, and that's where the religious ceremonies all took place. Along the edges, we've uncovered the usual collection of small buildings and odd pieces of pottery and metalwork." He stops walking. "Here we are, then. Where do you want to go first?"
"My guess is that we will find our friend Jaime in the gift shop area or out in the jungle around the site," T.R. says. "The well-known areas of the site such as the Castillo, the ball court and the observatory are too accessible to tourists to be of much use to a cult." He shrugs and looks to Hernandez, "But I could very well be wrong - I originally thought Chichen Itza was too touristy to be of interest to our friend at all. Obviously I was wrong there." He looks at the others, then back to Hernandez. "If you flash your archaeological credentials you may be able to get us in places where tourists are not allowed. That may be of use."
"Certainly." The archaeologist takes his wallet out of his pocket and removes a pass card. "I'll tell them you are American scientists here to study the site. That will do nicely."
He sets a quick pace, T.R. walking along beside him, Belle-Marie and Steven behind, and Eric trailing along at the back, eating a half-melted Snickers bar. "To keep my energy up," he explains to Steven. "This sort of activity isn't exactly what my doctor would have prescribed for me."
They pass the gift shop - the usual collection of fake artifacts for sale - and carry on to the building T.R. mentioned. All that is left of it is the base, but that is impressive enough. Standing several metres high, it covers a large, rectangular area and skulls are carved in double rows right around the perimeter. T.R. takes several photographs before switching to a telephoto lens and scanning the green line of the jungle.
"I can't see anything," he reports, "but that doesn't mean there's nothing there."
"What did the building use to be?" Belle-Marie asks, stooping to examine one of the skull carvings more closely.
Hernandez answers. "We can't be entirely sure, of course. But the skull motif is common here, and is almost certainly linked to the crystal skulls. It may be that this building housed some of the skulls originally, or it was used to stage ceremonies."
"Fascinating." Eric sits down and fans himself with his handkerchief. "You don't mind if I take a rest, do you? Do carry on, I'll catch you up when I'm ready."
What are their chances of finding the secret entrance to Reconvaco's base, he wonders. Assuming the base is here, of course. He mops his brow and breathes a sigh. He hopes that Martyn is having more luck in the caves.
The caves, Martyn Aberg has decided, have proved cold, tiring and uninformative. He turns around, the light of his torch skimming over uneven, black rock.
"I think we can call it a day for today," he says to the instructor. "Do you want to lead the way out?"
It seems to be a far quicker job getting out of the caves than it was on the way in. Before many minutes have passed they are blinking in the bright sunlight. The boat is waiting. Martyn hauls himself aboard and begins stripping of his diving gear. The instructor flops down beside him, grinning broadly.
"So, what do you think of our caves?"
"Interesting." Martyn hides his real reaction quickly. "Very interesting. I've never known a system go on so far."
"Yes. Here, we have best caves in the world, I think." The instructor flings his arms out to the sun. "Very important to us, lots of people explore. And very "
"Dangerous. I know. Thanks. By the way," he adds, "do you know of anywhere I can get a complete map of the caves? Just so I can see how big they are?"
"Yes, of course. In shop by the cliffs. I will take you. And, any time you want to see more caves, you will ask me, yes?"
In the Cafe de Nostrodamus Sean sits back and blows a stream of smoke into the air. "Very nicely put," he says coldly, "but you forget who you are talking to. This is Seany, I have been doing this since before you were born, shit but I have had lovers your age, since before you were born. Do you expect to pull the wool over my eyes so easily?" Martin makes a movement as if he's about to intervene, and Sean shoots him a warning glance. " I saw your reaction to name of Reconvaco," he tells the girl. "And now you tell me you and your people want to ally yourselves to what ever insane plan he is concocting. Why does what you say remind me so much of the situation between Jose and Hacavitz?
Anger flashes into her eyes. "Hacavitz was a bloody fool. And Jose to, for having anything to do with him. This time we know what we are doing."
"Do you?" Sean leans across the table to her. "I have too much respect for you and your people to believe that you would fall in to the same trap twice," he says. A quick grin crosses his face. "So, young lady, are you going to tell me the truth or do I have to put you across my lap and give you the spanking that you desire?"
She flushes hotly. Martin steps in quickly. "Lalina," he says leaning forward, smiling slightly and looking directly into her eyes, "I think you are doing the wrong thing by allying yourself with such a group."
She turns her attention to him, dismissing Sean with a quick toss of her head. "Pah! I believe it was your Mr. Churchill who said he would make a deal with the devil if it helped him win the war against Hitler. If you were us, you would do as we do now."
Keyes smiles and shakes his head. "Churchill was a bit before my time, but a great man. But, the devil he was referring to was Stalin. A monster who ultimately destroyed more lives than even Hitler. We were lucky they were on opposite sides, but it goes to show you to be careful what you wish for luv."
She glares at him. "We have a saying. Kiss the rich man's boot until you have a chance to steal it. For now, Jaime de Reconvaco is the rich man. But one day we will have our chance.
"Your chance may come sooner than you think," Sean cuts in. "Believe me, darling, in the end I will be your only ally, I am ready to do what needs to be done, and this time it will be done right."
"It will be done right?" The look on her face turns incredulous. "After last time, you expect me to believe that you "
"Fuck it," he shouts, "but I know you blame me for everything that happened last time. But I am sorry to tell you that I do not have that sort of power, it was Jose and Hacavitz. They chose the path."
"Sean, keep your voice down," Martin says warningly. But Sean is not listening. He hits the table top hard.
"It was not my fault, but if I could do it all again I would not have involved those thugs. Don't you think that the lad's death does not haunts me as much as it haunts you?"
People are starting to stare. Martin kicks Sean under the table and leans forward again, deliberately putting himself between the Irishman and Lalina.
"I have a friend," he says, "who has a need to go to a service of the Black Madonna, accompanied by me, and discreetly. You must arrange that for me."
"Arrange it? Why?" Her eyes go wide. "What are you planning?"
Martin ignores the question. "Reconvaco is reputed to have at least two of the much fabled skulls," he says, speaking slowly and deliberately. "I have within, shall we say – my reach, a real skull that you may offer to him. In exchange, he must bring his two skulls to a place where our friend Sean and some others can examine them. Afterwards, I don't care what happens to the bloody things."
Lalina's hands make a quick movement at the mention of the skulls. She shakes her head firmly. "You're lying. Anyway, I told you Reconvaco is not making himself available."
Sean is watching Lalina closely. "She wants the skulls," he murmurs. "Don't you, girlie? That's why you want to find Reconvaco."
Her nod is almost imperceptible. "They have power," she agrees. "We do not want to be like Hacavitz, but they have power and if we could learn how to use them " She breaks off. "First we must find Reconvaco." Her gaze strays to Martin again, a look that is almost speculative. "You do not have the skull."
"After tomorrow night, you will believe me," Keyes says. "And I think your luck is going to change for the better, it usually does for people around me." He winks, drawing an involuntary blush from Lalina. "But you get nothing unless you can get my friend and I into one of the cult's services, and discreetly. We have to get in AND out."
Lalina frowns, looking down at the table. The conversation has not gone how she had planned, Sean guesses. It is several minutes before she looks up. Her smile is strained but she meets Martin's gaze directly. "Very well. I do not know where Reconvaco is, but I know who his friends are. And I have two friends who belong to the cult. Meet me here at midnight tonight with your friend." She stands up. "Now, I must go. I have been here too long already."
The two men sit in silence and watch her until she's out of sight. Sean lights another cigarette. "So you're going to break into the museum and steal the skull. Bloody stupid thing to do if you ask me."
Keyes frowns. "I think it's highly likely Reconvaco is planning to the same thing. I'll go tonight. But I could use a little help, some diversions. If you could set off every alarm you can find in the city, say around nine or ten in the evening? I owe someone a visit to the Black Madonna, and it might help if one of us sees Reconvaco. If Reconvaco agrees to the meeting, I believe you may get your shot at the mysterious female goddess."
"Good enough," Sean nods. "Still a bloody stupid idea, but I suppose someone's got to help you out and make sure you don't get arrested."
An hour of trekking over Chichen Itza has turned up no sign of a secret hideaway. Eric waves the rest of the group on ahead and sits down in a patch of shade with his back to a tree. The problem is, he reflects, the place is too large. Reconvaco could be anywhere.
A low whistling startles him into turning his head. Another of the cave noises, presumably. He takes out a tin of peppermints and pops one into his mouth. Pulling the brim of his hat over his eyes cuts out most of the glare from the sun and he can see the others coming out of a building close by. Belle-Marie waves. Eric waves back and stands up.
"Not bored, are you?" T.R. asks.
He shakes his head. "Not at all. I've been listening to the caves. They're singing to me now. Listen."
The whistling comes again: a sound that doesn't sound quite natural.
"Any idea what's causing it?" Eric asks. "Wind going through the caves I suppose, or " He stops. "T.R.? What's wrong?"
T.R. shakes his head. The colour has fallen from his face, leaving him white. "La sena del diablo," he whispers. He pushes Eric aside and hurries into the trees.
"La sena del diablo?" Steven queries.
Hernandez looks worried. "It means, the sign of the devil. We'd better go after him."
They find him stopped before a pair of trees that have grown up twisted together. One of them looks to be rotted now and the wind, when it blows, whistles up through the gaps between the two trunks. Steven steps forward, stumbles, puts his hands out to catch himself and stops.
"I can feel cold air coming up here," he says.
Belle-Marie stretches one hand out and frowns. "He's right. I can feel it too."
Everything hangs still a moment, then there is a flurry of movement as branches and undergrowth are pulled back.
"There, look," Belle-Marie says. T.R. utters a low cry and sinks to his knees, brushing away dead leaves and dirt with both hands.
In the hollow of the trees, a hole leads down into blackness. The sides of it have been worn smooth, and set into one side is a small stone bearing a twisted-looking symbol.
Hernandez crosses himself hurriedly. "They call that the sign of the devil," he says. "It's supposed to be bad luck even to look at it. There was some business in Guatemala " his voice trails off. He looks at T.R. enquiringly.
T.R. nods. "I was there at the time," he says. "A friend of mine died, and I never found out what really happened." He looks into the hole. "I wonder how deep it is."
Martyn Aberg is poring over maps of the cave systems when Sean and Keyes get back to the hotel. They swap news quickly, with Keyes managing to omit the part about his plans to burgle the museum.
"It's obvious that the place is big and has lots of hiding places," Martyn tells the other two. "The reputation of the place would be an extra safeguard too. But, of course, there's still no proof that anyone is using it, I'd have to go back." He traces a line across the map with his fingers. "Here, you see. There seems to be a structure that extends all the way from the sea and inland as far as Chichen Itza. But some of the caves in the line are marked as blocked and from what my instructor said rockfalls are common." He goes back to studying the page in front of him. "It looks as if there are several points where you could, in theory, get into the caves from the land, but again I've got no idea how easy it would be." He gets up. "Do you know when the others are coming back? I need to talk to Steven."
Sean shrugs. "How long does it take to look over a ruin? They could be all day. I'm going to get a drink if anyone's interested."
"I still think we should have gone down there," T.R. protests.
Eric shakes his head. "My friend, we are unequipped, unprepared. You said yourself a friend of yours died in similar circumstances. It would be foolish to expose ourselves to the same risk." There is a gentle reprimand in his voice.
T.R. scowls at the ground. "I can't believe how close we were. Finding the place, and then we had to walk away."
"We found a place," Belle-Marie corrects him. "And we can go back."
He gives her a rueful grin. "I know. Still, you can't blame a man for being impatient, can you? I want to know what's down there." He sounds so plaintive that Belle-Marie laughs.
On the way out, Hernandez stops to speak to two of the people on duty. He comes out of the small office, smiling broadly.
"I told them you need to study the structures by moonlight," he says. "They're quite willing for you to come back tonight."
At the Anthropology museum, Martin Keyes paces slowly, pausing by every piece of security equipment. The doors to the room with the skulls are on modified time locks. Once closed they won't open without a special key until the clocks say they can. On the plus side, this means there won't be a security guard in the room itself. From what Keyes can see, there are two guards in the lobby and that is all. He stops next to one of the doors. It is slid back into the wall so he can't see the lock. "Probably can't pick it any way," he whispers to himself.
The window alarms will be easier to deal with, he reckons, and as far as he can see, the floor isn't alarmed. The biggest problem is going to be the case that holds the skull. Keyes recognizes the design from a jewelry shop in London that he visited three years ago. The device is completely self contained, built into the floor so it can't be hauled away, and including power source and alarm transmitter, which all are insulated heavily against electric shock. Basically the device's alarm goes off whenever it is opened or closed, and the police will have to be warned not to respond ahead of time.
Still, the London jeweller lost his collection of pearls, Martin thinks with a grin. A mystical skull is just a bit less easy to hide when the police come round.
Leaving the museum by the back way (into an alley, a hotel and restaurant backing onto it, a trash dumpster taking up the far end), Martin makes his way back to the hotel.
In the communications room, Steven and Martin Aberg are going through the equipment. Martyn has finished modifying the video camera so he can wear it and is playing with a pair of night-vision goggles. Belle-Marie sits quietly in one corner, a computer in front of her.
"All the communication devices are linked to each other and back here," Steven says. "Two pairs of the goggles are rigged so I get a picture here of whatever they're seeing. Only limited range, unfortunately, but they should work as far as the end of the street before I lose the image. One of the comms sets has a video link, as well. It makes it more bulky, but it can be handy if we know we're going to need it. Any information that comes in is saved automatically, of course, and "
Belle-Marie looks up, interrupting him. "I'm getting some information from Daniel. Care to have a look?"
<Sender: Daniel Masterton. Subject: your questions.
Hello, Belle-Marie. Sounds to me as if this investigation is becoming dangerous. The Black Madonna cult is limited to Mexico, following some mix of Christianity and belief in the mother goddess. The Madonna can either be taken to be a representation of the Virgin Mary or of Mother Earth. For a cult, they make few demands on worshippers, certainly not trying to control all aspects of money, time and personality. From what I've heard there are various occult/mystical practices, especially to do with those skulls. They claim their version of Christianity is the true one, that the Mother Goddess revealed herself personally in Mexico as Mary the mother of Christ and commanded that people worship her in both aspects.
Current leader of the cult is Jaime de Reconvaco, and has been for as long as I can tell. I believe he's the one who revived interest in the Cult. Officially banned in Mexico, it is still widely supported. Reconvaco is a clever man by all accounts, knowing exactly when to strike at the established church, and when to pull back. But SITU have beaten him twice in the past. Chances are he's still recovering from last time.
Wish I could be there to help. Do take care of yourself. Rhiannon and I both miss you.>
Belle sits in silence for a moment then turns the computer off. "Well? Shall we join the others?"
The group is sitting together in the bar. Sean has a pair of drinks in front of him, but only touches one. Eric, in fresh clothes is talking in an animated fashion, moving his hands every now and then for emphasis.
"I talked to that street boy today," he is saying as the others join the group. "Mahmoud. A strange name for this area, I thought." His eyes fill with laughter. "I get the feeling he'll sell you anything you want to know for a dollar, and sell you on to the next man for the same amount. Strange, I expected to feel sorry for him, but I get the feeling he's doing all right for himself. The priest thought so too when I dropped by to see him." He smiles at the memory. "He told me our friend Mahmoud has refused all offers of help so far. That said, the problems of street children in this area is vast." He finishes his drink and sets the empty glass down with a sigh. "Merida could do with at least another ten orphanages."
He looks around, making sure there is no one listening. "That's by the by," he says. "We have more immediate concerns. T.R., what are your plans now?"
T.R. jumps and turns around. "I'm not sure," he replies uncomfortably. "Do a bit of exploring, I guess."
"I agree with T.R.," Belle-Marie says. "But we need to be careful." She shudders at a private memory. "I think we should see about arming ourselves with proper weapons. If one of the cults is using the caves as a hideout, I can imagine them not being too pleased to see us."
Sean finishes one of the whiskeys in front of him and sits back, leaving the other untouched. "We're meeting Lalina's friends at midnight. Or rather, Martin and his mystery friend is meeting Lalina's friends."
"So we have the caves and Lalina," Eric summarises. "Also this woman, Astrid, you spoke about, Martin. If we can contact her son it could help her and us."
"Sure," Martin Keyes agrees. He stands up and claps Eric on the shoulder as he passes. "Excuse me now. Sean, are you coming?"
Steven watches them go, frowning. "Where are they off to?"
"Who knows?" Aberg shrugs. "Can we have another quick check over your equipment, Steven? If we're going to be crawling around secret hide-outs tonight we ought to be prepared."
In the distance, a siren sounds. On the roof of the restaurant opposite the museum, Martin Keyes pauses to listen. Sean must be doing his job, he grins. He makes his way along the roof cautiously, studying the museum opposite. The main window has a narrow ledge, which might be enough to get a foothold. Or it might not. Martin tries not to look down. Picking a corner where a drainpipe runs up next to the ledge he tenses for a moment and jumps.
His foot hits the ledge and slips. His head cracks against solid brick. Flailing, his knee catches against the ledge where his foot was with a jar that shakes him. The world lurches sickeningly. Somehow, his hand strikes the drainpipe and he clings on, gasping hard. Something wet trickles into his eyes: sweat or blood, he's not sure.
Hands trembling, Keyes forces himself to concentrate on the window alarm. Minutes later, he is dropping down into the museum room. The lights are still on, the door locked. There is no sound as he pads across to the case containing the replica skulls.
He works quickly, but even so it takes the best part of fifteen minutes to bypass the wiring on the case. Removing one of the skulls he slides his flashlight into its place. The silence buzzes around him. Every muscle tensed, Keyes places the replica on the windowsill and stands in front of the real skull. He unhooks a hammer from his belt, weighs it in his hand for a moment or two, draws in a deep breath and drives it through the glass in front of him.
Alarms blast throughout the building. And the bloody lights turn off. Muttering a stream of curses, Keyes grabs the skull. It is cold - so cold he almost drops it. He finds the replicas' case, grabs his flashlight back, and puts the skull in its place. He fumbles with the wiring in the dark - hopefully no one will think to examine it too closely - and lowers the lid.
A shout comes from the corridor outside. A heavy blow shakes the door. Keyes makes a leap for the window and hauls himself through. His feet shatter the glass as he tears out the wiring of the alarm. Another bell clamours. Wires and glass fall into the deserted museum room.
Keyes leaps for the trash compactor. He throws the replica skull in and jumps down just as someone comes out of the restaurant with a pair of rubbish bags. The compactor growls into life, its noise barely audible over the howling sirens.
Keyes is about to stand up when he hears a voice, shouting something in Spanish.
He freezes in position.
A uniformed man comes around the corner into the alley. He is holding a flashlight in one hand. In the other is a gun. He makes his way forward slowly, kicking bags and boxes as he comes. Keyes holds his breath, wondering whether it is safer to stay where he is or make a break for it.
Then a shadow detaches itself from the wall and another voice responds.
"Sorry, pal. I was just having a piss." It is Sean.
The guard's flashlight glances off his face. He grins back, unconcerned. "I was in the restaurant," he says. "Came out here and all this noise started. I hope I didn't do anything by mistake."
The guard looks at him suspiciously. "English?"
"Not quite. You ask them in the restaurant. They'll tell you."
The guard nods curtly. "You will come with me."
The two of them vanish through the back door. Keyes lets out his breath slowly. He retrieves the bag of clothing he left earlier, scrambles into the shorts and T shirt and throws everything else into the compactor.
Sean comes out of the front of the restaurant as he is walking past. Keyes waves a bottle of Tequilla at him. "Nice work. Now, let's be good drunken tourists who wouldn't dream of breaking into anywhere."
"Are you sure there's nothing more I can do for you?" Eric asks, faintly worried.
Mahmoud grins and shakes his head. "Thank you senor, but no. I like it here. Is a good place, plenty of tourists so plenty of money. If I go to school, I don't make money." He pauses, then adds, "Senor, when you were away today, two men came, asking questions about foreigners. They said they'd kill me if I told you, but they are not here to hear me say it. Two men, and one I know works for Mr de Reconvaco."
Eric stands up in alarm. "What did you tell them?"
"Nothing, Senor. That you are mad tourists with too much money. They went away. But I think, maybe, they will come again."
"Maybe, I "
T.R. comes out of the hotel. "Alnes, I've just had Hernandez on the phone," he says. He glances at Mahmoud and draws the doctor aside. "Someone's broken into the museum and stolen the skull. He's on his way there now. Where are Martin and Sean?"
As he speaks, the two of them come around the corner.