The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Hour of the Jaguar
9:00pm September 16th 1998
A cool breeze filters out from the cenote as Mahucutah's sun worn hands extend the cocoa drink.
'Yes, yes, I'll try the stuff! Bagsy me first!' rings out Rupert. Mahu frowns at his irreverent enthusiasm, letting him drink nevertheless.
'How much can I drink? Just a sip or a full pint?' queries Rupert as his eager hands close around the bowl.
'Take no more than a little,' advises the Mayan. 'No more than that.'
Karyn shuffles up alongside Rupert, waiting cross-legged and silent for her turn. Arabella looks expectantly, if slightly nervously, at the liquid and the skull.
'Are you completely mad? It could be poisonous for all you know!' The outburst comes from Jo, who glares in disbelief at her companions.
'Now, Joanna, I agree with you that the situation calls for caution,' calms Major Hardy, 'but I also believe that experimentation may lend us important results. We're not going to get any information from this man if he doesn't understand that we respect his beliefs.'
Arabella joins in. 'We really need to understand what is happening at the moment, Jo. I'm prepared to take the risk.'
Sean looks both ways, and pulls out his Colt. He carefully loads one round, and flicks off the safety as he hands it across to Jo.
'You make sure nothing goes wrong. If the old bugger pulls anything, blow his head off, weight the body down and dump it in the well.'
'Sean!' whispers George. 'Please!'
'That's a solution to poisoning, is it?' says Jo, looking disdainfully at the weapon. 'Still, if you're going to take whatever you're offered, I agree that I'd be better hanging on to it.'
Sean nods, turns and crouches in front of Mahu.
'So, old timer, show me the way to enlightenment.'
Waiting patiently, Arabella is the last to drink as Jo, George and Travis looks on with a mixture of curiosity and concern. She nods to Mahucutah and extends her hands for the bowl. Taking a sip, the chocolate is warm and unusually acidic as it slips down her throat. Rupert meanwhile lies flat on his back, staring at the stars, sighing contentedly to himself. His smile is eerily broad.
Major Hardy glances up the shadow-shrouded road towards El Castillo, the main pyramid. All is quiet, aside from the incessant chatter of insects.
'I guess we wait, and we don't interrupt,' he suggests. 'I half wish I was drinking myself. I must admit to a fierce curiosity, but I couldn't leave you two by yourselves.'
'That's most kind of you, Major,' thanks Travis.
'Yeah. I can do with as much sane company as possible,' complains Jo.
A few yards away, only ten minutes after imbibing, Mahucutah and his initiates are enjoying a fitful sleep.
As the embers of the campfire dim, they cast an orange glow upon the skull's crystal form. An orange glow that seems to grow, as individual burning straws cast tendrils of light that are caught and reflected and captured by Hunahpu. The captivating display throws the surroundings into darkness by its intensity. Jungle fades to night, and the cenote, lit by the faintest hint of stars on the water, borders on invisibility.
A voice, a female voice, a respectful voice, Arabella's voice, pierces the silence.
'Hunahpu, please tell us, if you can, what it is that these people seek to do with the items they have stolen?'
There is no response. It the ember light, the crystal skull seems to pulse, ever so slightly, in unison with a faint and distant heartbeat.
'Hunahpu,' asks the voice again, 'tell us of the ritual to Cukulcan, if you can? Tell us of what the priests and people do to revere their God and call him back to the land? Tell us of the ceremony that summons the great God Cukulcan?'
The heartbeat, everyone's heartbeat, echoing around the cenote, hardens and quickens. It grows louder and louder, and the skull brighter and redder, until...
...it is sunrise.
Hunahpu's light spills out from the sky, and the site is suddenly bursting with activity. A shantytown of makeshift wooden buildings spreads haphazardly in every direction. The jungle has fallen back, giving way to fields of maize and seas of huts. The meagre crops are trampled as men, women and children shout and run in any and every direction. A shining sun watches all from its position due east.
Amidst the desperate blur of people and animals, a richly dressed and gaily decked procession forces its way toward a resplendently painted El Castillo. Beyond the central plaza, priests are screaming and assaulting anyone and everyone in an attempt to clear the temple of the warriors of its residents. They move amongst the columns, stringing shabby garlands of flowers around the necks of the statues. The procession has reached the pyramid, and begins the steep climb. One member struggles violently, and is held down by those surrounding him.
The sun shines down also on the wide dirt road that leads to the city of Chichen Itza from the outlying farms and villages. Farms which are burning on the dawn's horizon. The dirt road is filled with men, marching to war, marching towards the city. A horde of Mayans with spears swords and sharpened maces run alongside a central column of horses and armour. At the sound of a musket shot, the Spanish order their allies into the assault.
And still the sun shines down upon the pyramid, rising in the sky. Along the side of main stairway, stretching up towards the tiny temple at the summit, the light begins to trace a serpent-like slither on the carved facade. The first few steps glow as the white rock gleams strong against its blood red painted surroundings.
The clamour of battle descends over the south of the city as foreign forces flood through into the decaying capital. Fires leap up as buildings are torched. The panicking throng frenzies in an attempt to escape the troops surrounding them.
Halfway up El Castillo, a ring of Chichen soldiers is deployed to stand guard and defend the temple until the very last minute. At the top, a violent argument rages. The king, instantly recognisable in golden military garb, cries and shouts at his dark faced priests as they blacken their faces and tie his young son to the alter. One priest produces with reverence a stone statue of their god, which is with much care placed standing on the alter, and then tied to the boy as well such that the two are as completely joined as rope will allow.
The light cast by the sun continues its slow ascent of the structure, now snaking from the bottom few steps up over blocks and carvings of scales and wings, up past the nervous ring of defenders...
The priests physically restrain the king from helping his son, pinning him against a wall with narrow eyed ferocity.
The high priest places on his face a horrible mask, with dark black eyes and blood red, hooked nose. He raises a dagger, adorned with feathers, and waits, shaking.
The light continues to snake towards the top of the pyramid. Block after block, towards the headstone facing the altar.
In the square, there are shouts in Spanish as the conquistadors detach a large iron cannon from the team of horses that has pulled it. Bearded men sweating in their breastplates drag it around, and elevate the barrel. Powder is brought and poured.
The snake of light twists to reach the neckstone. Already it seems to glimmer and shine with its own, unreflected brightness.
The high priest stands waiting as fearful sweat drips down the blade in his hand, suspended over his prince.
The Spanish captain pulls back on his reins and flourishes aloft a sabre, glinting and sharp. The light inches towards the headstone. The priest's mouth drops wide open with tension.
Dagger and sabre hang heavy in the air.
The sabre drops. A dull crack echoes through the dying city, smoke charges out from the barrel, and the high temple of El Castillo explodes in a shower of masonry.
In the darkness once more, Hunahpu sits fading as the embers die. Mahucutah's voice, intoning in strangely perfect English, flows across the fireplace.
'Cukulcan was King in this city, and Cukulcan made provision that he would be King here again. Down the years, each king that followed Cukulcan would inherit their position from their father, or else they would take the kingship by right of arms. Cukulcan decreed that when the city was in its time of direst need, and when the king sacrificed his own heir to make way for Cukulcan to succeed in his stead, and if this sacrifice was made in the proper fashion, at the proper time, Cukulcan and his retinue would reclaim their rightful position as rulers of Chichen Itza.'
'This ritual has been attempted once before. It was started many hundreds of years ago. It has yet to be finished.'
The embers dull to black as the world fades to darkness.
Six of the seven investigators arrive at breakfast as it starts. The grey pall around Arabella and Karyn's faces explains their order of only orange juice. Sean pushes his refried beans around unenthusiastically with a fork.
'I think that Mexican chocolate is a rather acquired taste,' murmurs Arabella.
George puts down his copy of the Merida Times, which is leading with a story about a cave-diving accident.
'I expect our tall friend might be some time, then. Shall we make a start? We have a few hard choices to make about our next avenues of inquiry.'
'I want to continue at the museum library,' states Arabella, 'I'm sure there's something there so help us.'
'Really?' asks Sean, 'I for one want to know more about this 'Black Church' business.'
'Indeed' replies George. 'The fact that the Black Madonnas were waiting for someone else at the Museum suggests to me that they are not involved in the thefts of artefacts, but might know who is.'
'We should go en masse to talk to them,' points out Jo 'or at least talk to this de Reconvaco fellow. If they're looking for the statue in the photo, we can rule them out as thieves, but I'd like to know why they want it so much. And there's no harm in pooling what little information we've got, is there?'
'As for the Zapatistas,' she continues 'I'm not sure if they're going to be anything more than a red herring for us. Nevertheless, it's quite suspicious, don't you think?'
'Very much so,' joins in Major Hardy. 'I do not trust this Lalina creature at all. I do not like the way she seemed to be trying to get you to tell her we were well paid in our professions, and wanted to get us all together for her 'tour'. I have deep suspicions about her motives. Perhaps she was setting us up to be hostages. I am not sure, but I certainly do not like the sound of her attitude.'
'You're being a little alarmist there,' warns Sean, 'but I agree, we want to be very cautious with this whole thing. If nothing else, because we're dealing with the people the police here hate more than anyone.'
'Just thinking in the long term, maybe we can get these local gangsters to give us a hand. A bit of hired muscle, that kind of thing, in case things get nasty.'
George murmurs something in reserved agreement, but Karyn is surprised.
'What are you going to do, just wave some cash at them and smile? How are you going to approach them? Hell, how are we going to approach this de Reconvaco guy? Shouldn't we sort that out before we head off to his office?'
At just this point, Rupert strides dramatically across, arms flung open in greeting.
'Good morning, good morning. To you all!' he shouts, flinging himself into the empty chair.
'Dear oh dear, did you see those large jaguars fighting on the stairs? It was rather violent you know. Look, one of them has come to join us for breakfast!'
He swings in his chair and announces himself to a rather surprised looking retired American couple.
'Hello Mr. Jaguar. How's the wife?'
'Just making polite conversation,' he explains.
George thrusts the pot of coffee across the table.
'For goodness sake, man. Are you quite all right?
'Never better' replies Rupert, staring fixedly into his cup.
'This isn't funny, Rupert. We're trying to accomplish something serious, here, and after last night...' starts Jo, to be cut off in mid sentence.
'I'm fine, my dear, I'm absolutely fine.'
Jo stands and excuses herself in frustration.
Outside, the noon air is clear and clean as always as the group stroll gently through the town. A few lethargic street sweepers are clearing debris from last night's festivities away. Arabella, however, is not to be seen.
I've gone to Tulum for the day, to see if I can get anything more out of the doctor. I think we were a bit heavy handed last time, interrogating him as a group, and a more delicate approach might help. I will see you this evening.
Sean turns the note over in his hands, then hands it back to George.
'Hell, why didn't she just mention that at breakfast. I've been keen to know just what Dr. Hernandez is up to as well.'
'That might be why she didn't mention it, Sean' suggests Karyn sarcastically. 'So you couldn't go and mob the poor man along with her.'
'I'm sure the archaeological profession can do without another encounter with Mr. Discrete, too,' whispers Jo, jerking a thumb at Rupert as he trails behind. She turns to confront him.
'Are you positive you're OK? You're not putting this on, are you? Are you really capable of being sensible when we meet...'
'I'm fine, my dears, absolutely fine. I can handle this stuff very well you know... Look up there, chaps. Hasn't that fridge got beautifully iridescent topaz wings...? How enchanting!'
'He really better be joking,' whispers Jo under her breath, 'he had really better be joking.'
Doctor Hernandez does not appear amused to see Arabella. Arms folded in his makeshift office on site, he waits for her to speak.
'Doctor, I'm sorry for coming up without calling first, but I felt that I owed you an apology. Our last meeting wasn't exactly a big success.'
'Indeed not,' agrees Hernandez. 'Where have you left your compatriots?'
'They're all in Merida. I came on my own.' Arabella pauses. 'You see, my friends tend to look for sensationalism in any situation, and I have to admit that I have a strong feeling that they may be right, but that doesn't mean we had any right to act like the Spanish Inquisition. Please accept my apologies and I hope that we can start again?'
'I'm not sure what there is for us to discuss, Miss Robyns.' Arabella isn't sure whether or not the 'Miss' was a mistake.
'As far as I'm concerned, you have your rather ludicrous theory about a number of thefts that hardly concern you, and I have my work to do.'
Awkwardly, Arabella continues.
'Well, the fact actually is that I do have something of a valid interest. A mutual friend of myself and Professor Lazla asked me to have a look around whilst I was here, I've done a few psychological profiles for the police back home and he thought a new perspective might help. To be honest, I think it's collectors, looking to pick up new pieces, but there are cultish overtones as well. That's why your help is so important.'
Hernandez looks unconvinced, but his guest keeps talking.
'Your work here reveals what the Mayans were truly like, what drove them. If this is some cult thing, then they'll be following the ritual to the letter. But I don't think that's it, after all, the Spanish destroyed just about all the written evidence of the Mayan's culture, so how would anyone discover what the ritual was? No, this is one for the art people.' Dr. Hernandez raises an eyebrow at this. 'So, Doctor, what about that tour? You never know, I might be of some help?'
The doctor shrugs in resignation. 'Why not?' he asks, 'why not I suppose. Come along.' The two tour Tulum in all its glory, winding amongst the wind worn structures along the oceanfront. Hernandez rambles on about the functions of Tulum as a port and the nature of trade between cities and across the sea. As Arabella tries to move him onto the subject of myths and beliefs, she cannot help but feel patronised by the man's superior attitude.
'You're quite right about the scarcity of our written record, Professor Robyns. If the beliefs of the Maya did contain elements of the finest detail then that detail needs must have been lost. These things tend to be rather fluid and ill formed in most cultures, though, don't you think? I wonder if they didn't just depend on which side the priest got out of bed in the morning.' He chuckles to himself as he concludes the tour.
'Thank you very much for an entertaining hour or two, Professor. I wonder if you would do me the honour of giving me your address. I am rather apt to think of things to say hours after I have had a conversation, and I wouldn't want to deprive you of any clues.' He exaggerates the word with a mischievous air.
'Of course,' tuts Arabella. 'I'm staying at the Esplendido in Merida. Let me write that down for you.' She casts her eye around for a piece of paper, and snatches one of a set of small leaflets lying on the desk. As she scribbles the hotel phone number, she cannot help but notice the unmistakable profile of Chichen Itza on the glossy cover. She glances at it for barely a second.
The Yucatan Institute of Archaeology, in co-operation with the Mexican Tourist Office, present
The Autumnal Equinox Festival
Chichen Itza '98
Your host: Dr. A. Hernandez
Special Ticket Price: Only 100 pesos
'Thank you very much,' says Dr. Hernandez, guiding Arabella to the door. 'So sorry I couldn't be of further assistance.'
The church in the plaza is old, and seems in somewhat ill repair. Its sharply yellow walls are crumbling to white plaster in many places, and it has the appearance of a building put up by the Spanish and left unrenovated since. Around to the side, and across the street, stands a small door adorned with the numeral '2'. Sean knocks loudly, the door is opened, and a bearded man looks out. He yawns as he opens the door, but sharpens in surprise at the unusual visitors arrayed before him.
'Hello' introduces George. 'We're looking for Senor de Reconvaco, and we were told to advise him that Ricardo sent us.'
'Ricardo, eh? Ricardo?'
'You wait here. Minute.'
The door shuts unceremoniously, but is opened again after two minutes.
'You come through in here. You follow me. You wait,' advises the bearded man, shepherding everyone through the door. Beyond, a single flight of stairs leads immediately up to a sitting room, appointed with a sofa and a few wooden chairs. Seconds pass, and Jaime de Reconvaco walks in. He is dressed in a blazer, canvas strides and deck shoes. His small, slim frame is topped with slicked back black hair, with which he nods smoothly to the assembled company.
'You have me at your advantage, ladies, gentlemen. I am Jaime de Reconvaco, as I believe you know. And you are?'
First name introductions are made, and Rupert wanders over to busy himself at the back of the room. His eyes examine a pot plant, as he mutters something about acrobatics to himself. With a brief, confused frown, Jamie continues.
'I think we will cut to business straight away. Ricardo has advised me of his meeting with you on the road. My apologies if his actions alarmed you, but I assure you he did not intend to disturb you.'
'He'd have to be a little subtler to avoid disturbing us,' smiles Sean.
'Indeed. He is quite new to the detective business, I am afraid.' Jamie puts his hands together and regards everyone quizzically.
'Before we get this interview underway, I would like to know a little more about your interest in this matter. Do you represent an organisation?'
'These are questions,' replies George carefully, 'that we too want some answers to before we lay our cards on the table, so to speak. What is your 'interest in the matter'?'
'My dear sir. The urgency of our situation is great, but I am not about to throw my caution entirely to the wind. You know my full name, and you know where I can be found. Let me say for now that I am a private citizen who is extremely interested in preventing anything, shall we say, untoward happening in my country. You, on the other hand, are quite some way from home. Why is that?'
There is a pause. Jamie leans back in his chair, a fascinated smile playing over his lips as he awaits a response. George looks questioningly at Sean and Jo, and they seem to be reaching a decision.
From the back of the room, Rupert pipes loudly up.
'Is this Black Madonna woman of yours 'The Fallen Madonna With The Big Boobies' or the American woman who sings 'Like a Virgin'?'
Senor de Reconvaco's smile freezes and disappears as relaxed silence is replaced by palpable tension.
'You will tell me who you are, and why you are here immediately or else this meeting is terminated' he states, businesslike. He stands up. From the next room, the bearded man and another Mexican stroll in casually and face the Europeans.
'Now, now, steady on' starts George, 'I really think that we might all be on the same side here. My friends and I were asked by an archaeological organisation with affiliations to the Yucatan Institute of Archaeology to investigate the thefts of...'
'Hey...hey...' shouts Rupert, as Jo strides over to silence him. 'Just ease up on the furniture jumping...oi!'
De Reconvaco coldly ignores his antics, and stares at George hard. His eyes seem to smoulder. 'Answer me one question. How does your friend know the phrase 'Black Madonna'?'
George stutters for a second. 'Er...well...'
'Goodbye George, Travis, Karyn, Jo, and... Rupert' smiles Jamie dangerously. 'You are leaving. If any of you feel the need to be straightforward, honest, and sensible, you know where to find me.' He gives a final glare at Rupert and stalks out of the room.
As the group is bustled down the stairs by a less than polite bearded man, George's excellent hearing distinctly picks up Jamie's faint voice from above.
'Find out where they live.'
The afternoon sun beats down upon Jo as she sits wearily on the hotel steps. Sean and Karyn have taken Rupert up to his room, and the Major has gone off to find Maria, so that he can start trying to explain the recent goings on to her.
'Arabella ought to be back by now. Wonder how she got on without us.' she murmurs, almost to herself.
Mahmood sits sympathetically in silence beside her.
'Sometimes I don't know why I bother,' she mutters, shaking her head. 'I really don't.'