The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Hour of the Jaguar
9am, 18th September 1998
The cool morning air is breezing past Jo's window as she collects her thoughts before heading down to breakfast. An impatient rap at her door breaks her concentration, and she strolls over to open it. Karyn is standing in the hallway.
"Oh. It's you," says Jo, not yet fully awake.
"You're damn right it's me" replies Karyn angrily.
"This is about Rupert, right?" Jo throws her arms wearily to her hips. "What are you getting so heated about? The stupid dope-head deserved it."
"Who gave you the right to destroy Rupert's supply?"
Jo shakes her head incredulously. "Obviously you can't have been paying attention during our meeting with Senor de Reconvaco. That little stunt he pulled almost got us killed."
"Don't give me that" objects Karyn. "Everyone makes mistakes."
"Mistakes? You call that pathetic excuse for idiotic, childish behaviour a mistake? He's making mistakes all the bloody time thanks to that shit he smokes."
"The point I'm trying to make" enunciates Karyn, folding her arms defensively, "is you haven't got the right to push any of us around like that. We can make our own decisions. You're not in the forces now you know. You can't boss us around like we're a bunch of new recruits."
"More's the pity" agrees Jo aggressively. "I can't understand why you're defending him. His complete lack of concern for our mission...his complete failure to grasp the principles of subtlety..."
"Oh come on. Who died and made you God?" whines Karyn mockingly.
"Just get out, will you?" shouts Jo, irritated beyond endurance, slamming the door behind Karyn as she leaves. "We've got bloody work to do!"
She mutters to herself as she looks for her wallet.
"They're all crazy."
"You're all crazy" complains Sean, shaking his head and leaning back from his breakfast. The others have objected to his plan of setting the Mayan priest's costume up as 'bait' for the thieves.
"Not so, Sean" explains Major Hardy. "We have three days to go until the equinox, and we still have other paths of investigation. Granted, it may be that by the morning of the 20th we have no more useful information than we do at present, at which time more drastic actions are needed, but I don't think we need to be precipitate at this time."
"For Christ's sake, what makes you think that the enemy are going to sit on their bloody hands all this time?" Sean is clearly annoyed that his plan is not being accepted. "We can't just wait for them to come to us and pick us off one by one. It's not as if we've been too subtle about ourselves after all, is it?"
Arabella replies soothingly, trying to calm Sean down.
"No matter what, Sean, they mustn't find out where the costume is before the ceremony. No matter what." There are nods of agreement from all bar one of those seated around the table.
Arabella thinks for a moment, then shrugs and turns back to Sean.
"I agree that no one is going to sit on their hands, but I have some possible ideas for other ways of slowing down their progress. One, we should investigate this other museum Reconvaco told us about. It's always possible they may have a similar costume, in which case we're going to have to make sure that our opposite numbers don't get their hands on it. No matter what else happens, that ritual must not be performed.
Travis looks puzzled.
"What I don't understand is why a costume should be so important. It can't be original, can it, being made from fabric and all. Lazla described them as 'replica costumes he'd made up' didn't he? It must be to do with the jewellery that was part of the costume - the belt or the headpiece, or both."
"You call that slowing their progress?" sneers Sean sarcastically at Arabella, ignoring Travis' quiet remark. "If we went with my plan, we could capture one of them and interrogate the bastard. Once we know where their HQ is..." Sean smiles suggestively. It's Arabella's turn to look annoyed.
"Shooting it out isn't the answer! Prevention, not cure, for goodness sake. Violence should be our last option; I don't want to spend time in Mexican jails, especially if Hernandez succeeds. So, what can we do to *prevent* the ritual?" She casts her eyes around the group.
"We should join forces with Reconvaco," says Jo. "And tell him what we know. Except for our connection with the skulls, of course."
"Hmm" ponders Travis. "Hunahpu managed to be quite informative, if in a rather roundabout way. I wonder in Senor Reconvaco's skull could be useful at all. I wonder how he got it? It seems that despite our good intentions, neither we nor they are telling each other everything."
"He seemed pretty nervous and agitated around his skull" points our Jo warily.
"Mmm," mutters George, who has been thinking about something else. "Whilst we're on the subject of information gleaned from these crystal artefacts, I am quite concerned about the 'King who has taken the city by right of arms' part. Surely, even here, the Mayor is an elected office, not one imposed by force of arms. While I agree that we should continue as if it is Simon who is in danger, perhaps the sacrifice could be the son of the most powerful 'Warlord' in the area. Or maybe the Chief of Police. They could certainly be considered to have the 'right of arms' mentioned. Just a thought."
"It's a question of translating ancient lore into present terminology, isn't it?" says Jo. "I've looked into local politics a fair bit, and the governor is elected, of course, but he's the guy who orders the chief of police around. He's been around for quite a bit too - Mexico seems to be almost a one party state given the state of the opposition."
"If Hernandez is the man behind all this, I suspect he's doing it for political reasons" posits Arabella. "His paper on the poor people and the Government definitely shows he has some strong feelings about their plight. The Governor is the most political target I can think of." She puts down her knife and fork.
"I'm going to see Mahucutah again," she says.
"Not by yourself you're not" counters Jo quickly. "It could be dangerous, wandering around alone."
"That's fine" smiles Arabella. "I'd appreciate the company. I'll take Jo or Karyn, if either of you wants to come, but I'd say no more than two of us or we'll have trouble." Karyn and Jo exchange an angry glare at the mention of each other. Karyn shrugs.
"You can go off to be Arabella's nanny" she mutters towards Jo. "You're bound to want to." Jo ignore her as Arabella continues.
"I think he knows more than he's telling and we need what he's got. If we have to go head to head with Hernandez, I want to have the counter-ritual in our possession and I think he'll either know it, or know who does. This'll require a lot of persuasion." She glances at Rupert, who is opening his mouth. "No, Rupert, I don't want you along! You're cute, for a druggie, but your tactlessness could do more harm than good."
"You're coming with me to your appointment with the Cuervo lot anyway" scowls Sean, still irritated at his 'investigators'. "Lets get going."
Cigar smoke clouds the air of the bar as Sean, Rupert and Karyn find seats. About six large men, wearing a scruffy mixture of blue jeans and ponchos, are grouped around the man whom Rupert spoke to yesterday.
"My friend" comes some gutturally accented English. "Sit down. Get these people chairs." He leans forward, running a hand yellow with rough cigar stains through his grey hairs.
"I did not expect to need so many chairs, my friend."
"Yes, well" replies Rupert brusquely. "I brought my colleagues along because I feel you did not believe my story. They are here to corroborate it. Also, just in case you had any funny ideas about taking my money and running."
The Mexican grins in mock affront, as do his 'friends'. Sean's eyes flick nervously between the men.
"I'll do the talking, alright?" he whispers loudly.
"Just a minute" Rupert isn't in a mood to be pushed around. "I'm due to receive something from you, aren't I." He points at the man opposite him. "We had a deal."
With a heavy nod, the crook reaches under the table, and pulls out a tatty plastic bag. He slides it over to Rupert.
"There's our deal. Now. Wha' else do you have to say?"
Rupert doesn't respond. He's too busy investigating his package.
"We can do the business from now on," says Sean, casually lighting up a cigarette. "There are two things I want. Information, and protection."
The old Mexican starts to look more serious as Sean takes over, and turn to face him.
"What kin' of information?"
"Dr. Hernandez. Know the name?"
"Alright, what about the Governor's son? Has anyone been asking questions about him? Is there anyone around here powerful enough to want to get at the Governor through his son?"
"Look, my friend, you're the ones who keep talking abo' Simon Comos. I don' know nothing about anyone trying to 'get at the governor'. That is a fool's idea. I wouldn't want to be a part of anything..."
His protest is cut short by a shout from Rupert.
"Hey! There's only half of what you said you'd get me here."
"Woah! Woah!" The gangster puts up both hands, open palmed. "I stick to my deals. We said five ounce, five ounce, yes?"
"Seven!" cries Rupert. "You know full well that I said seven. Now just you.." Rupert leans forward across the table. Several of the heavies shift their weight forwards in response.
"It's all right, Rupert" Karyn lays a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sure it's just an honest mistake."
"It's not even five," he growls quietly, sitting back.
"Ees very difficult to get my hands on this kind of stuff very quickly. You have all that I have, Senor." The old man is adopting a very honest tone. "From the bottom of my heart I am sorry if there has been some misunderstanding. What I will do is I will get you the rest as quickly as I can, and you will get it. That is the best I can do, that is everything I can do."
"You *said* I'd have seven ounces here today!" comes the objection. The six men, who have taken a keen interest in the conversation, fold their arms. Karyn starts whispering quietly in Rupert's ear. The Mexican sat at the table shrugs and looks hurt.
"I do the best I can!" he nods to Sean. "Anyway, you were saying about information?"
"OK" says Sean, taking a drag on his cigarette and trying to remain unshaken by the commotion.
"How about this question. Has anyone been asking about us?"
The old man grins wide. "Now that" he says, "is why I have given you the honour of my conversation. I am a busy man. But I am interested in you. Because you have such strange stories that you tell. And because three hours ago, two people came round this bar asking questions about a bunch of English types who might be wandering around. They said you might be asking funny questions. Hinted you might be trying to sell stolen artefacts."
"What did you tell them?" asks Sean.
"Nothing!" replies the gangster. "Nothing at all. You can trust me. They didn't make it worth my while to tell them anything anyhow. Strange couple. One of them was a young lad of about seventeen. Looked pretty out of his depth. The other guy was older and, er., different. The older guy had this very square face, like he was one of them Mayans."
"And the younger man looked normal?" inquires Sean, getting the facts straight.
"That's right. I think I've seen him before. He must be a local. Haven't seen him around much, though."
Sean reaches over to Rupert, and unceremoniously takes his wallet. He hands over some money.
"Remember anything else?"
"Nope. That's it Senor. That's all that happened." This doesn't stop the crook taking the notes, though. "You wanna talk about protection now?"
"There's one thing I want." Sean sounds serious. "You dealt with some friends of ours a year ago doing something similar. With a Black Madonna and a church."
The man from the Cuervo Cojaente suddenly looks very serious indeed. "I do remember a little something about a church. You're very strange people, Senor. Very strange. Go on."
"This time, we want your men to be ready for a bit of a rumble for a few days. A few cars on standby. That kind of thing."
"This is only a small town, Senor. I don't have that many men. Who might you get into a fight with?"
"Just some bastards. Leave that for a while. Just let's say that you might need to buy some tickets to the autumn equinox festival." Sean slides two thousand pesos across the table - enough for twenty admissions.
"Chichen Itza" replies the man. "Are you mad? There will be guards, and police, and...I mean, an old church is one thing, but you want us to cause trouble at the single most important tourist event of the year? You can forget it. I mean, I respect your money and all, and if there is something we can help you with, a bit of muscle in the right place, something quiet, or anything really, we'll be there. If you want a few hired hands for anything specific, you know. But you can't just go crazy at the festival without getting into, you know, serious trouble." He runs his finger across his neck. Then he reaches into his jacket, and pulls out a scrap of paper on which he scrawls a number.
"Here, Senor. If you get into trouble, and you need something, and there's anything in it for us, you just call. But remember. You may be fools. But we are not. You don't get to be as old as I am in this business by taking stupid risks."
The village of Solula is quietly unwelcoming when Arabella and Jo draw up in their hired car. Out by the maize fields, over to the left of the potholed road, what looks like a celebration is taking place. Men have gathered together, and are engaged in a chaotic dance of some sort. The jeans and boots that they are wearing seem a little out of place.
As the pair of investigators move through the village, they attract frowns and stairs from numerous groups of women.
Clustered around doorsteps, these circles are stitching beads onto belts, and coloured strips of cloth and feathers onto white cotton shirts. They natter idly in a strangely harsh tongue for tourists used to soft Spanish vowels.
Jo and Arabella weave through the chaotic jumble, eventually arriving at Mahucutah's tiny hut. The wooden frame of the door rattles as Jo knocks. There is no response. She knocks again, and after another moment of silence pokes her head inside the dry stone walls.
The hut seems much as it did before, cloth strewn over the mattress, plaster strewn over the desk and floor. Beneath the desk, discretely pushed into shadow, sits the carved stone box of Hunahpu. It is shut, and the room is unoccupied. Something in the stillness is oppressive and unpleasant.
"What do you think you are doing here?"
Jo whirls around out of the doorway, joining Arabella in facing Hacavitz, the village elder. He stands taller than Jo, unusual in a Mayan, and frowns fiercely from beneath his crown of swept back grey hairs. Behind him, a number of men cluster attentively.
"We were just...um..." Arabella becomes lost for words beneath the elder's stare.
"We were just visiting your lovely village" cuts in Jo, forcefully.
"You are paying your respects to Mahucutah's house, I see. Do your tourist's eyes find it... interesting?" spits Hacavitz.
There is a pause as neither woman answers his insulting question.
"Your insults to my people know no bounds, I see. Even after death, you hound us with your cameras and your notebooks."
There is a confused and worried exchange of glances.
"Umm...excuse me, um... what do you mean, 'after death'?" stutters Arabella.
Hacavitz's frown lifts, and he tilts back his head, bathing in superiority.
"Mahucutah was a very old man. He passed away last night of what you would call a heart attack."
"Did you come to see him?"
"You cannot see him now, rest his soul."
The frown returns, in conjunction with a tight smile, painting a very hostile expression.
"We will escort you back to your vehicle. You are leaving our peaceful community now. Do not disturb us again."
Pablo Fabrica's Underground Tours are the only company in Yucatan prepared to take novices on dives. Pablo himself seems somewhat hard up. His brother Frederico, his only business partner, is driving their white van, rusting around the doors. Aqualungs, ropes, torches and all the equipment of exploration litter the back.
Following Frederico in the air-conditioned minibus, Maria tries to sound upbeat as she encourages Rupert, the only person willing to try out the waters.
"Senor Fabrica's rates are really very reasonable. Most companies only accept you if you have a scuba-diving certificate, you see..."
"Isn't cave diving one of the most dangerous sports in the world?" inquires Travis from the back seat. Maria frowns at him in her rear view mirror..
"Don't worry Rupert. I'm sure you won't be doing anything dangerous. Senor Fabrica said he was only willing to dive around the cenote with you anyhow - it's not as if you're going to be running off underground. It'll take you a while to learn how to use the equipment."
"But.." objects Rupert, "my dear girl, I *want* to be able to explore a little. Isn't that the whole point of this sport?"
"You can't, I'm afraid" states Maria sympathetically. "Like Travis said, you're just not well trained enough. Even if you were it can still be dangerous...those poor Germans..." She trails off.
"Isn't there a safer way down to these caves? Through the cenotes, perhaps?" asks George. Maria looks genuinely confused.
"A safer way to the underwater caves than diving?" she asks. "This whole area is only just above sea level. Underground and underwater mean pretty much the same thing. And the vast majority of cenotes are natural pits. They have very steep sides, you know. You have to abseil down to get at the water in the first place."
Rupert raises his eyebrows at the news.
"I don't suppose Rupert could explore the cenote at Chichen Itza, could he?" suggests Karyn.
"I'm afraid not" replies Maria, smiling. "They'd never allow that. Even the archaeologists haven't properly investigated it yet, and it's on a national reserve... . Pablo says he knows a safe, simple place for you to get your feet wet." She pats Rupert on the shoulder. "I'm sure it'll be just as interesting."
That night, Chichen Itza is as quiet as the grave. The sides of the pyramid feel desperately exposed away from the jungle in the central clearing, but there is no one around to spot the seven figures scaling the steep steps.
"This would be an ideal place to hide the artefacts" puffs Arabella as she climbs. "No-one would think of looking where the ritual is going to be held."
"Except us" grins Karyn.
At the top, a small exterior walkway surrounds the temple itself: a tiny stone shrine, big enough only for about six people to comfortably occupy. The entrance arch, almost the size of the entire east-facing wall, looks out and down the largest stairway as it plunges to the ground, becoming when it does the main avenue of the city. The avenue cuts a path through the encroaching jungle all the way to the sacred cenote, half a mile away due east. The cenote is distinguishable only as a dark hole on an otherwise moonlight sea of trees. Flanking the sides of El Castillo's stairway are two enormous stone serpents, flowing up to the temple at the top. To the north, by the side of a subsidiary stairway, similar serpents descend the structure, looking towards the many columned temple of the warriors.
"It's a terrible shame that Rupert couldn't explore underground more fully" bemoans Major Hardy. "I'm sure something of import is down there."
"I expect it's the stolen artefacts" opines Rupert. "It'd be a good hiding place."
"It's a mad hiding place" objects Arabella. "All that trouble with scuba gear and suchlike - you'd be bound to draw attention to yourself."
"Whatever is down there," pants Travis as he recovers his breath, "killed two divers and seriously injured a third." He arches an eyebrow. "Those are rather nasty 'artefacts'. I expect Rupert can count himself lucky to have had an uneventful swim."
"All they have to do is put the objects in a bag in some house, surely," points out Karyn. "They could be anywhere."
Arabella nods. "Perhaps, but it's still worthwhile looking. How did you get on with Mr. de Reconvaco, George?"
Major Hardy mops his brow with a handkerchief. "I saw him for a short while this afternoon, to fill him in on most of what we know, as we agreed. He said that he had received some new information about what was going on. When I pressed him about it, he said that he had been working with some old Mayan texts, reading about ritual lore. But he definitely used the phrase 'received some information' to start with."
"Anyway" George continues, "he was saying that he thinks our best course of action would be to let the ritual go ahead as planned, but stop it just at the crucial moment. He said that any other solution would allow the ritual to be performed again in six months time, at any equinox in the future. He said he wanted to 'solve the Quetzalcoatl problem once and for all'. He was rather short on details, I'm afraid. He used the phrase 'counter-ritual'. When I talked about our plans for stopping Simon Comos being kidnapped, he said we couldn't - that we had to let everything go ahead - that we couldn't let them think they had failed."
"We're supposed to let Simon Comos get kidnapped?" asks Jo incredulously.
"I've already phoned the police, anyway" says Rupert. "Anonymous call."
"We don't have much of a plan for preventing his kidnap anyhow, do we?" asks Karyn. "When we thought it was his birthday party soon, there was a chance, but it turns out that the street party happened two days ago. We've no idea when or where it's going to happen."
"I don't know. I'm not sure the police are going to ignore a kidnap threat to the Governor's son in the run up to an election," says Arabella. "We shouldn't give up hope, even if time is running out. Lets have a look round up here."
She wanders off around the walkway, studying the architecture.
"What about an experimental sacrifice?" suggests Rupert. "Where's Jo? She might want to volunteer."
"You can tell that this is a reconstruction clearly enough" says George, examining the pyramid's shrine. "The kind of mortar used is very different from the kind that's binding the rest of this colossal building together. It's been cleverly done though. Looks authentic enough."
A voice from inside is Jo's. "I can't find anything here. There's nowhere to hide a bean up here, and it's crawling with tourists during the day. I say we head back down."
"Jawohl mein Fuhrer!" snaps Rupert moodily. "We should go back to ze Mayans, yes? Fraulein Jo, do you haff ze piano wire? If zey do not talk Fraulein Jo will make them, no?"
"Oh shut up, Rupert, give it a rest for once today, will you?"
Rupert's just getting into his stride. He turns to everyone else.
"If any of you are found mit ze drugs, zey will be tied up by Fraulein Jo until zey confess. If zey do not confess zen zey vill die, pigswine!"
Jo looks Rupert in the face.
"You're a really pathetic idiot aren't you?"
She strides off down the steps, ignoring his shouts after her.
"You can't insult me over drugs! You lucky so and so's in the Gulf War got a whole cocktail of the stuff. That's something I can only dream about."
Jo just continues walking away going to search the nearby buildings. Rupert turns to the others, who are looking at him wearily.
"Don't worry about her" he explains. "The poor dear is rather imbalanced due to Gulf War Syndrome."