The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Hour of the Jaguar
11pm, 18th September 1998
The giant shadow of the pyramid blacks out the stars behind Jo as she strides off, putting distance between herself and Rupert.
"Hey! Wait up!" shouts Arabella, dashing down the steps in pursuit. "We're not supposed to be wandering around on our own you know," she says, her smile betraying sarcastic intent.
"Can we go and have a look around those columns?" suggests Jo. "Now that we're here, we might as well search the place properly, and I'd like to keep out of you-know-who's way for a bit." Arabella falls in step with her, and they begin weaving their way towards the temple of the warriors.
Arabella bobs her head in sympathy. "Don't let Rupert get to you like that. We don't know how or why he got hooked onto drugs, so we can't really criticise his choices. Though if he gets out of hand..." Arabella fishes a bottle of pills from her pocket. "Sleeping pills," she explains. "I use these to avoid my dreams, but they'll lay him out for a good eight hours, so stop worrying. We have more important things to worry about."
The two women start examining the warriors themselves - upon each column is carved an eight-foot-tall man. The rich stonework picks out wicked knives, axes and spears, and lovingly crafted images of feathered ceremonial fighting regalia. All the warriors stare south towards El Castillo, cold and attentive.
An idea occurs to Arabella amidst the Toltec architecture.
"I think it's time you and I had a night out," she says. "Come on, we'll collect the others, then you can show me a good watering hole. I need a drink, and you need to unwind. No argument, soldier, that was an order from your doctor." She stands to attention and puffs out her chest, but the five-foot tall professor makes a poor sergeant-major. Jo smiles, despite her mood.
Atop the pyramid, George is trying to calm things down a little.
"Here, here. I understand what you're feeling, Rupert, but I can understand Jo's side of this argument as well. What I suggest, though, is that we put all this business aside whilst we endeavour to complete our mission. To that end, as we are here, shall we continue looking around? There's a small chance that, in readiness for the festival, some of the paraphernalia is hidden nearby."
"Just so long as that would-be general can keep her bossy little nose out of things, I'm sure we'll be fine," states Karyn.
"Now, now, can we just concentrate on what we're going to do?" pleads a mediating George.
"Certainly," cuts in Sean, flicking a glowing cigarette butt to the temple floor. "We are running out of time here. Flushing out the bad guys has to be a priority. You might think that a bunch of odd-ball screw-ups like us are going to wander our way through the next few days without a hitch, but you'd be wrong. Dammit, we've already given ourselves away. Hernandez knows what we're up to. According to the Cuervo, people have been asking them questions about us. What about the people we haven't seen, and won't see until it's too late?"
George replies. "I agree with Sean that we cannot expect to turn up to the ceremony and just improvise our way towards stopping it. Remember though, that we hold one of the cards. Maybe we can find the other items before the sacrifice? I'm certainly going to go to this other museum to ascertain if the exhibits there might be of use to a "high priest". If they are, we have to secure them.
"Also, if I remember your accounts of the Chocolate-induced vision correctly, the King took part in the procession willingly, until his son was taken from him and prepared as the sacrifice. Doesn't someone need to fill that role? Perhaps Simon and his father are to be willing participants in the festival, until the time for the ritual arrives."
"One thing that's been bugging me," interjects a pensive Travis "is this matter of the thefts in the first place. Working on the assumption that this ceremony is being orchestrated by Dr. Hernandez, why does he need to stoop to common robbery? He's an archaeologist. He's had enough time to prepare. He could just ask to study the items in question, and no-one would think twice about it."
"Talking of people with questionable intentions, what about Senor de Reconvaco?" adds Major Hardy. "I wonder about his motives for wanting the ceremony to go ahead..."
"It's a lot of bullshit, that what he's telling us," exclaims Sean. "I wouldn't be surprised if these skulls were controlling people."
"Don't forget Hacavitz," points out Karyn. "He's clearly a murderer. Mahucutah's death is too suspicious. If only we'd been a bit more discreet in our dealings with him... Anyway, if we have to side with someone, and I think that we do, I favour the gangsters. At least they're straightforward."
'Bar Americana' is a surprisingly well-appointed establishment, despite its unfortunate name. Jo sits on a stool inside, slowly sipping at a cold, golden beer.
"Jo," soothes Arabella "don't let Karyn and Rupert rattle you. No matter what they say I don't believe you're being hard on them, in fact I think you're showing an amazing amount of restraint."
"Amazing is certainly the word," says Jo. "It's amazing that Karyn is dumb enough to support Rupert, for another thing. That's her problem though, not mine."
"Easier to say than to feel though, isn't it?" asks Arabella. "And that talk of Gulf War Syndrome is bullshit." Jo's eyes flare at the mention of the conflict, but her partner continues undaunted. "I do believe the war had an effect on those involved in it, but that isn't why you're so down on them."
"That little over-privileged upstart doesn't know the first thing about the fucking war. He's never even seen a fucking war! Idiot!" shouts Jo. Arabella pats her on the back.
"You're just worried because they could screw up everything, and frankly so am I. But... listen. How about this for an all or nothing plan?" Arabella pauses and lifts her drink. After a second or two, Jo looks her questioningly in the eye.
"Tomorrow" she begins, "I'm going to go with the Major, and you, to see Senor Reconvaco. I intend to tell him everything we know about him, the Black Madonna, and the ritual. I know he's getting his information from the skull, he has to be, because there are no written treatise on Mayan beliefs, unless you count the Spanish ones which are riddled with Catholic propaganda and lies."
Jo starts to object, but Arabella holds up a hand.
"Before you say anything, hear me out. The reason I want to do this is because he knows the counter-ritual and if we have any chance of avoiding a shoot-out that's the way. Martin Raimbaud wants this kept quiet, but we can't do anything unless we know who's doing what. We have suspicions, but no actual proof and damn little chance of finding any. So we either find an ally who can help us put a stop to this madness, or sit back and watch the world go to hell in a hand-basket. And if you don't believe the ritual will work, why are you working with SITU?"
Jo thinks for a few seconds, concern covering her brow. "I don't fully trust the man, Arabella. He's getting his information from the skull of Cukulcan, sure enough, just as we got information from one. But don't you think he might have some other motive for wanting us to stop it at a certain point rather than prevent it?"
"Do we have a reliable method for stopping the ceremony which doesn't involve the counter-ritual?" asks the professor. "I expect it only works at a particular point in the proceedings, and that's what he's trying to engineer."
Jo tries another argument. "SITU's fought, actually fought, with the Black Madonna only last year. They cannot be a cult of altruistic do-gooders!"
"No, I accept that," replies Arabella. "In the matter of the ceremony though, our objectives seem linked for some reason. We have to side with some faction, and I prefer those who know what they're doing to Rupert and Sean's bunch of gun-toting thugs. Better to have made a choice and tried, than to fail through indecisiveness."
"Agreed," says Jo reluctantly, placing down her empty glass. "But promise me you'll tell them nothing about SITU."
"Thus far we have singularly failed to win Senor Reconvaco's trust. We need to be open with him!"
"Announcing ourselves as employed by his enemies hardly amounts to winning his trust, does it? I'll go along with your scheme, and I think some of the others might agree too, but only if you avoid the topic of SITU altogether."
Arabella agrees. "All right. Then I'll do it," she gulps. "We'll have to have everyone there of course, but please don't say a word about this to the others. Not until it's over and done with."
"I'll stay quiet, don't worry," connives Jo. "I was starting to feel like I had to stop this ceremony by myself anyway."
The following morning, George and Travis drive off bright and early to Mayapan. Sean pokes his head around Rupert's door, trying to find his companions. Rupert is chatting quietly and good-humouredly to Karyn as he draws on one of his hand-rolled cigarettes.
"I'm just off to find that girl from the Zapas. The one who was after me a few days back," Sean winks. "Looks like the two oldies have gone somewhere, and the other girls are fast asleep. Enjoy yourselves and I'll see you at lunch." The door closes.
"As I was saying" Rupert continues, "it's just her intolerance that gets me. Here I am, doing my own thing, my own business, no bother to anyone, and she has to take offence."
"It's terribly boring, isn't it?" agrees Karyn with a laugh.
"And after I've been so apologetic and understanding, too!" protests Rupert seriously. "I keep trying to put this little matter behind us, but she insist on bringing it up again and again. It's unbearable."
"And she can't take a joke," observes Karyn. "We'd be a lot more efficient if it wasn't for her causing all this friction."
"Damn right," nods Rupert. "I bet she's off dreaming about it all now, trying to get us to march up and down her square, getting nowhere..."
He takes another deep lung-full, and blows a playful ring with the smoke.
Sean follows a few of Mahmood's directions and soon finds himself outside Lalina's flat. In the richer part of town, the building is cool and almost Roman in design. A central courtyard is built around a garden and a fountain, and leads off into eight separate apartments.
"My father gives me a generous allowance," explains Lalina, embarrassed by Sean's puzzled inquiry. "He works in Mexico City, and he still thinks I'm his little girl." She motions for her guest to find an armchair. "Better that he spends his money on me than on himself, I think?"
"Sure, whatever you can get," smiles Sean, eager to win her friendship. The armchair is covered in blankets, and a couple of plastic bags litter the floor. The mess is out of keeping with the prim atmosphere of the living room.
Lalina starts apologising. "I'm afraid you'll have to excuse the state of this room. This is quite a busy time for me, for us, and I've had to put up a couple of guests for a while. They're not very tidy people."
"That's all right. No problem," Sean says as he shifts the blankets to the floor. "I came round to ask you about that 'us', anyway. I'm going to be very open with you, Lalina. I've been appalled at the behaviour of the police and the government to the poor in this country."
Lalina enthusiastically shakes her fists. "Yes! I could tell you were a sensitive and intelligent man. Are you able to do anything to help us? Even a small donation..." Sean interrupts her.
"I, and my friends, are planning to make a gift reflecting our depth of feeling and concern for this country's plight. First, though, I personally would like to know more about what's actually going on."
"Well, I can't really talk about that, I'm afraid. You'll understand, I'm sure, being a clever man."
"Yes, of course," says Sean, trying to roll with her flattery. "This whole business must take it out of you. All this emotional concern, every day..."
"It's very hard, yes," sighs Lalina. "Especially at the moment. So much tension, so much..."
"Yes?" asks Sean, carefully.
"I guess I can just say that, well, we're quite small in this area at the moment. We're having difficulty getting our message across to the people who matter. But Jua... that is, but our boss has organised a publicity stunt! It's really clever, I've had all the symbolism of it explained to me..."
"Yes?" asks Sean, dry-mouthed.
"I shouldn't be talking to you like this, I'm sorry," says Lalina. "I know I haven't told you anything concrete or real about what we're actually doing, I'm sorry, but I can't."
"Well," says Sean "it sounds like a really important time. Here's what I have on me. It's not much..." He hands over three thousand pesos in a mixture of notes. Lalina looks at the money with heartfelt gratitude. There are three knocks at the door, then two.
"Thank you, Sean, thank you so much. You have no idea..." The young woman moves to the door and answers it. Two men walk into the room. They are dressed in casual browns and creams, and make an odd couple. The older of the two, who exchanges a few gruff words of Spanish with Lalina, has a harsh and square face. He is quite short, and wears a tatty cotton jacket, but his features are reminiscent of Hacavitz. His companion is a youngish Mexican lad, clearly trying to look mature with a cigarette drooping from his lip.
The men stroll casually into the room, then slow and stop with surprise as they see Sean. Lalina begins some polite introductions. "Well, this is Sean, guys..." The Mayan completely ignores her and mutters something to his friend. The young man tenses up, drops his cigarette and walks deliberately across the room; he picks up the phone and starts dialling. "...and that's Phillipe," finishes Lalina. She is looking confused.
"I really have to be going now," says Sean "so thanks for all your hospitality and..." He stands, crosses his fingers in his pocket, and starts strolling towards the door.
"I don't think you should leave, man," growls the Mayan, who takes a couple of steps into the doorway.
Sean's heart leaps to his throat, but he manages to control his speech. "Actually, I really have to leave. I'm sorry we can't get to know one another better, but..."
"You are not leaving, man," snarls the Mayan.
There is a moment of silence. Phillipe starts whispering into the phone.
"What the fuck is going on?" says Lalina, fear present in her voice.
Sean's mind races. He hasn't stopped edging towards the doorway and the older man.
"Sit down," comes a gruff order.
"OK, OK" replies Sean, who opens his arms wide and shows his palms to the Mayan. "I'll stay. I'll stay." Sean stops three feet in front him.
The man opens his legs and crosses his arms aggressively.
Sean's foot arcs upwards with a fear-driven snap of his right leg, landing squarely between his opponent's legs. The Mayan doubles up soundlessly, and Sean jabs his fingers clumsily into one of his eyes. Phillipe drops the receiver and starts to hurdle the sofa. Lalina shouts at everyone to stop. The older man grabs blindly at Sean's belt, and the investigator hardly has the strength to keep his footing, but an awkward knee into the man's face gives Sean the time to fumble with the door handle. He sprints off into the street, and when Phillipe gives up the chase after only one block, Sean doesn't stop running.
On the other, seedier side of town, the self-styled godfather of a small Mexican town stares Rupert in the eye.
"Look here, old chap. I have to apologise on behalf of my rather tactless friend Sean. Clearly I'm the only one with any tact or control in the whole group."
"Everything's OK. Don't you worry. And here's your stuff, just like you asked for. Am I not an honest man?"
"Certainly," says Rupert as he takes another plastic bag. "Look, I want to come to some arrangement about hiring men, but before I do, I asked you about the business of the stolen items. You said you'd look into it, but you haven't told me anything. Spill the beans now please, just no the refried stuff because I'm bored with those."
"Look, man, it's you who keeps talking about 'thefts' and 'artefacts'. Always with you, its these thefts. I'm sure they are very important to you, but I don' know nothing about them, OK? Nothing. You said something about men?"
"Yeah. I only want to hire someone for protection to, say, about midnight on the 20th? Just 36 hours. You can trust me, I'm not totally off my rocker like my friend Sean. I'm really responsible, and I have no intention of trying to disrupt your ceremony. So can I have two hired men?"
"Two men? Protection. Nowhere near Chichen Itza. OK... Let's see. Let me think, Senor. You want four men, so you have two at a time, you see, all the time, two bodyguards is four times as good as one. So that's..." he frowns and murmurs numbers under his breath. "Five hundred dollars each. Two thousand pounds please."
Rupert hands over the money. Five minutes later, he is introduced to Marcos and Octavio. "Octavio doesn't speak a word of English," warns the old gangster, "but Marcos here knows a lot of English, don't you Marcos?"
"Yes," comes an obedient, deep reply. Marcos is a wiry man of average height. He has a long, drawn face and lazy brown eyes. Octavio is large and broad, with the gut of someone who enjoys Mexican cooking. His face is covered in stubble.
"They're armed, yes?" asks Rupert. "Some people in this town are after our blood."
"Don't you worry about that, Mr. Rupert. My boys carry, yes, and they know how to handle themselves. You're in safe hands."
As everyone makes their way towards the Plaza della Madonna, Marcos and Octavio prowl behind Rupert, looking meanly from side to side. Most of the Europeans look disconcerted by the presence of the thugs, but are in no mood to argue. Sean is still pale-faced and nervous. Over lunch, everyone had been shocked at his story, and at the implication that those men, through Lalina, must know about the Hotel Esplendido. "They're probably scared to come to a public place like a hotel, and anyway they probably knew our address beforehand," had been Karyn's less than reassuring comment.
The other topic of conversation had been raised by George, who is still carrying his copy of the Merida Times. The headline blazes across the page.
Simon Comos Kidnapped
In a terrible and deplorable act of the utmost barbarity, the evil terrorist organisation 'Viva Zapatista' yesterday sunk to new depths. Merida was rocked by the worst violent incident since the Tolerana shootings of the seventies. The darling of Merida, Simon Comos (13), son of Governor Comos, was snatched as he left his lessons at Cortez High School. Early reports suggest that seven Marxist gunmen made their move as the children filed out, but were surprised by three police bodyguards, deployed in an inspired but ill-fated precautionary measure. In the ensuing battle, one of the valiant officers was killed outright, and Sergeant Raul Taola received a fatal shot to the stomach which was to claim his life three hours later. Two of the murderous Zapatistas lost their lives to the heroic fire of these noble policemen, but poor Simon was nevertheless bundled into a car and abducted. Some reports state that he was knocked savagely unconscious by his assailants as he struggled to prevent them killing his loyal bodyguards.
Whilst no ransom demand has yet been received, the...
On Arabella's insistence, the hired guards wait a block away as Jamie de Reconvaco's doorbell is rung. With an odd glance from the lackey who responds, everyone including Rupert is shown upstairs.
Jamie sits down expectantly and crosses his legs, regarding his seven visitors curiously. Arabella, taking a seat in the middle of the sofa, returns his stare, studying him for a moment before calmly beginning to speak.
"I think it's time we laid our cards on the table, don't you?"
De Reconvaco leans back an folds his arms.
"We are here to help recover the missing artefacts. We know a great deal about what is happening and who some of the players are." She draws breath, and then continues with a flat statement of fact. "For example, I know, Senor Reconvaco that you are involved with a semi-mystical cult known as the Black Madonna."
De Reconvaco freezes.
"Before you decide that we know too much and have us killed, hear what else we know and what we plan to do with the information. Your religious views are none of our business..."
De Reconvaco snorts slightly, a sharp exhalation of surprise at what is being said.
"...except where they interlock with our mission. We are not in conflict with you and therefore could be valuable allies."
De Reconvaco's eyes stare off into mid-distance as he starts thinking.
"Now the information you have mentioned concerning the counter-ritual. I KNOW that came from the skull, there are no written manuscripts or texts, the bloody Spanish saw to that. Also, the Mayans never discovered paper. Almost all of their lore is passed verbally. So unless some member of your family is descended from a line of priests, you had to get it from the skull. If you want to know how I know I'll tell you."
Jamie holds up a hand, asking her to stop. He then continues thinking in silence. After a tense minute, he replies.
"I'll hear your story."
Arabella begins with Mahucutah and his skull, and tells Jamie everything she knows and suspects.
"Our employer wants this stopped quietly, without trouble." She glances at Sean and Rupert, and adds "Trigger-happy clowns with a gun-slinger attitude are only going to get people, innocent people, killed. Our employer would also like to arrange the legitimate sale of some, maybe all of the artefacts back to a trust in England, but that isn't essential. Now, Senor Reconvaco, I've told you all I know and suspect, what can you add to this?"
Jamie pauses again, and stares at each of the people facing him in turn. His face turns stern.
"Right. You are right in saying that this important concern is pressing. You are also right in saying that I am linked with the Black Madonna. As far as you are concerned, yes, I do get my information from the skull. Where do you get your information from?"
Arabella thinks swiftly. "We will tell you that if you assist us in thwarting this ceremony. Perhaps then we can co-operate more in the future."
"I would like to correspond with your employer. Give me his address, and we will be on an even footing."
"We will," says Arabella tensely. "After the ritual."
Jamie's eyes close, and he takes a deep breath.
"Agreed, on the condition that you do exactly what I say. I know what is happening, and how to avert it."
"You are going to help me. Our enemy are recreating a historical event, and turning failure into success. There was an earlier battle, though, and this is the one we are going to fight. Long before the Spanish came, the Chichen Maya were defeated and their empire reduced to a ruined shell. After years of oppression, the Zapotecs joined with the true Maya of the area to conquer their Toltec conquerors. The memories of that time are still alive today, and they will be brought to bear to drive Quetzalcoatl away for a second time."
Travis clears his throat. "Excuse me, sir, but don't you mean Cukulcan? Being ethnically accurate and all..." he rambles unselfconsciously.
"Silence! They are the same thing. This is what you are going to do. Whilst we draw up the past to direct the future, Quetzalcoatl's spirit must be enticed to manifest physically on this plane. Only if he does so can we destroy him." Reconvaco's eyes gleam, and he sits back.
"Can we not prevent the summonation altogether?" asks Jo.
Jamie narrows his eyes. "We won't. If we do that, his threat will always lurk, ready to explode into the world. We must be strong. We must end his existence, once and for all, and finish a job begun eight hundred years ago.
"The sacrifice will proceed as planned. Once he has occupied a human body, he will be as weak as a human until he can regain his strength at the head of his divine army, in the Temple of the Warriors. You will take the skull that I have in my possession, and you will smash it. It has a connection with his spirit. I hope this will disorientate him. Then, you will intercept the host body as it makes its way from the pyramid to the Temple of the Warriors. And you will kill it."
"Killing the body is the easy part. Once it is left manifest in the physical world without a host, we are going to consume his spirit. That is what I will be ensuring."
"I beg your pardon, my dear fellow, but all this seems a tad, well, dangerous, doesn't it? Where will you be during all of this?"
Jamie's eyes are cold and condemning. "I will be present, and in far greater danger than any other."
"Except for Simon Comos," objects Major Hardy.
"Our enemy will cause deaths untold if we do not succeed, Mr. Hardy. It is a matter of mathematics."
"Our intentions are to stop the ceremony as quietly as possible," announces Arabella. "This is an extremely unpleasant..."
"Quiet? Pleasant? What kind of words are those? This is an opportunity to show the strength that spawns success, not the weakness that leads to failure. And all its consequences," he adds, casting his eyes over the group.
Reconvaco stands, and ignores all further objections.
"Now that we are resolved upon our course of action, we need discuss no more until tomorrow evening. You will meet me here at midnight. After all this is over, we will talk more about your employer. I'm sure we have many interesting things to discuss."
Back in the hotel lobby, Arsenio Vizcaya comes rushing over with a telegram for Arabella.
"Miss. Robyns! Please! This came for you this afternoon, and it is marked 'urgent', so I have been looking out for your return," he beams an ingratiating smile.
11AM 19/9/98 PLAYA DEL CARMEN
DEAR ARABELLA STOP I READ ABOUT KIDNAP TODAY STOP I AM VERY CONCERNED ABOUT WHAT YOU SAID STOP I REMEMBERED YOU SAID I SHOULD GET IN TOUCH STOP I WOULD LIKE VERY MUCH FOR YOU TO TELL ME EVERYTHING YOU KNOW STOP I MAY HAVE INFORMATION THAT WILL HELP YOU BUT I CANNOT SAY MORE UNTIL I KNOW WHAT IS GOING ON STOP SORRY STOP I AM IN MERIDA FROM MORNING OF 20TH AT YIA STOP PLEASE VISIT OR PHONE STOP THIS IS VERY URGENT STOP THANK YOU STOP
Everyone seems to be brooding on something after the meeting with Reconvaco, but George tries to motivate some discussion.
"We made it to Mayapan museum, by the way," he explains as everyone climbs the hotel stairs. Octavio and Marcos trail behind the group, and Senor Vizcaya watches them suspiciously. "Didn't find any costumes, though," continues the Major. "There was a fair bit of information on the stolen statue, though. Had a chat with one of the guards. Apparently, it was found amidst a load of rubble and debris in the ruins of El Castillo before it was reconstructed. The ruins also contained several bodies, dead from violent causes. Most were of old men, one of a younger boy. They found a good bit of jewellery on one, and they reckon he was a king."
George opens the door to his room, and his companions file in.
"They had a record of what had been excavated from that location, out on public display. A lot of pottery shards and rusted knife blades, of course, but also two statuettes - one onyx, one stone. A ritual bowl used for collecting blood from a sacrifice, edged with gold leaf. And a metal headband, used for holding a head-dress or crown. It sounds familiar, doesn't it?"
Sean is the last through. In private at last, he slams the door shut is frustration.
"I can't believe you told all that stuff to Reconvaco!" he shouts at Arabella, marching over towards her. "All this 'honesty is the best policy' crap, it's a load of rubbish! No warning, as well! No discussion! Should I do this Sean? Well let me think, no, Arabella, you shouldn't, because it's stupid!"
Sean grabs Arabella by her tiny shoulders and starts shaking her violently.
"When are you going to learn..." he snarls as he pushes her around.
"Oi!" she screams. "Get off!"
"Hey!" shouts Major Hardy, and he, Rupert and Jo all leap to pull Sean back. "Get a damn grip on yourself, man, for goodness sake!"
Sean struggles briefly, then gives up with a growl of frustration.
"Get some sleep!" orders George as Sean marches out of the room, rattling the door's hinges as he goes. "Are you all right?" he turns to Arabella.
"Fine. I'm fine, thank you," she replies, a little shocked.
George sits down on his bed. "Well then! If we can finish squabbling for two seconds, what on earth are we going to do?"