The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Three Faces Of God
10pm, 14th July.
Eric glances at Martin and Sean and raises an eyebrow speculatively. "Well, well, I never did believe in coincidences very much." He looks down to the boy. "How about you, Mahmoud?"
The boy shakes his head, grinning.
"Better get everyone together," T.R. mutters. "I'll go and talk to Hernandez."
The others are coming out of the hotel. Belle-Marie rubs her eyes wearily. "What's going on?"
"Someone broke into the museum and stole a skull," Eric explains. He turns and stares hard at Sean and Martin.
Martin gives him the trace of a shrug and a smile. "I don't actually have the skull with me," he explains. "I suspect when our friend Lalina tells Reconvaco's men that she has a skull to deal, they will follow her and everyone who has contact with her. That means they will eventually trace her either to Sean or myself. Soon afterwards I think either Reconvaco's blokes or the police will arrive and conduct a search of this lovely establishment that will not leave one floorboard intact." He looks up, meeting Steven's gaze. "My guess is they will probably wreck what ever they don't steal, so make good use of your computers in the next few hours folks."
"What?" Steven's brown eyes darken angrily. "Have you go any idea how much trouble I went to to get that lot set up? You put it all at risk, and for what? You -"
"Martin, where is the skull?" Sean cuts in.
"Oh, it's still in the museum," Keyes says carelessly. "And the building's operators are probably welding iron bars over the windows as we speak. So I'll be forced to extract it in broad day light. But, frankly that will be easier than what I went through tonight."
He seems almost surprised that the others aren't pleased at his news. Steven shakes his head in disgust and turns away, T.R. swears under his breath, stares at Martin as if he's about to say something but shakes his head, brushes past him and hails a taxi to the museum.
"Let me get this straight," Martyn Aberg says slowly. "You two broke into the museum, stole a skull and left it in the museum. Didn't it occur to you to bring it out so we could examine it?" He sighs and turns away. "Seeing as none of you self-anointed experts have any ideas of what to do next, I'm going to go back into the caves."
"What did you lot find at Chichen?" Keyes asks.
Belle-Marie explains, stooping to draw the devil sign in the dirt, thankful that T.R. isn't around. She wonders what happened to make him so afraid of the sign. He mentioned something about a friend dying
She erases the sign quickly, accepts her bag back off Keyes and stands up. She doesn't look at him, but turns to Steven instead.
"What are you going to do about your equipment?" she asks.
He still looks angry. "I'll back everything up then erase it all from the machines. Make sure there's nothing there to find. The smaller pieces of equipment I can hide, the rest will have to stay as it is."
"A strange thing." Hernandez is shaking his head. "We thought the real skull had been stolen first, but when I checked I found that's not the case at all. It was one of the replicas that was stolen and the real one has been put in its place. Look."
T.R. wonders whether to tell him what he knows and decides to keep silent for the time being. He bends to examine the skull in the case. Looking at it, there is very little difference between it and the replica, maybe a certain depth to its colour that suggests its dark surface is more than ordinary polished crystal.
"For some reason the thieves wanted us to think the skull had been taken," Hernandez says. "As if they thought we wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the real thing and a replica." He, too, bends to look at the skull then straightens with a sigh of regret. "Of course, this means I'll be tied up here all night. Can't risk leaving the skull unguarded in case another attempt is made. So, I won't be able to accompany you to Chichen Itza. Will you get in touch tomorrow to tell me what you found?"
"If anything, yes," T.R. promises. He checks his watch. He pauses then adds, "I'm sorry about this," before leaving.
At the hotel, the rest of the group are studying Martyn Aberg's map of the cave system. Only Martin Keyes is missing.
"We've discovered something," Sean tells T.R. as he comes in. "The opening you found today is marked on the map. According to this it doesn't go anywhere, just down for a few hundred metres, then a dead end."
"But maps can be falsified," Aberg adds. "If the caves are being used by Reconvaco, there'll be a way through them, whatever the map says."
The group look at one another uneasily, T.R. still avoiding direct eye contact with Sean.
"I suppose there's only one way to find out," Steven says at last, standing up. "How soon can you lot be ready to go?"
Martin Keyes' case containing his laptop computer and a document envelope weighs heavy. He is glad to be able to put it down when he reaches Astrid's bar. He chooses a table behind some fake plants and sets to work, taking the cover off the computer's detachable hard drive and altering the files that he has already printed out.
"What are you doing, Marty Gringo?" Astrid interrupts him. Keyes shuts the computer.
"You need to get off work early. Now, would be best. We can go to a meeting of the cult tonight. Your son might be there - or he might not. But tonight is likely to be the only chance we get." He puts the laptop back into the case and hands it to her. "One more thing. Please put this somewhere safe."
She hesitates then takes it. Moments late she reappears. She has shed her apron and is tying a dark headscarf over her hair. "I am ready now. And, please take this." She hands him a souvenir plastic skull. Smiling tightly, she adds, "I did not want you to leave empty-handed, Senor Gringo. Shall we go?"
"Shall we go?" Steven asks. He has shed his usual dark suit and is wearing a black jump-suit, full of pockets that bulge with odd bits of equipment. The others are similarly equipped, carrying rope, cameras, compasses, water bottles, food supplies. And weapons. Sean has managed to produce a set of small handguns. He tucks one inside his jacket and gives the other two to Martyn and to Belle-Marie, who has tucked her hair up into a wig and is looking decidedly nervous.
"Are you sure you want to come?" Steven asks Eric.
The elderly surgeon smiles at him blandly. "Of course I do. It seems our best chance of finding Reconvaco at the moment, doesn't it? Bear in mind that these cultists are presumably in communication with the Ylids, at least one of whom probably knows the entire area of Chichen Itza like the back of his hand. I'd bet that there is some set of secret chambers deep beneath the complex, which can be reached by any of several entrances, which was built into the place from the start, and that our friend Jaime knows all about them."
"Another thing you should be aware of," T.R. adds, "this could be dangerous. The last time I saw the sign there was trouble."
On the drive to Chichen Itza, he breaks the silence again to tell them what happened on the ill-fated Guatemala expedition.
"The first time I saw La Sena Del Diablo was a couple of years ago," he says. "An archaeologist named Robert Terrero was leading an expedition to excavate the ruins of the Mayan city of Copal in Guatemala. He planned to make a documentary about it, so he asked me to come along to record the expedition. At one point we uncovered a doorway with a strange glyph on it - the same one we saw at Chichen Itza this afternoon. The local diggers Terrero had hired called it La Sena Del Diablo the Sign of the Devil. They bolted in panic, leaving only the archaeologists and me. Since it was only a couple of weeks until the rainy season, Terrero asked me to go back to town and hire some more people to help dig, while they continued to explore behind the doorway.
"It took me three days to get back to town. I kept in radio contact with them along the way, so I heard that they found a staircase behind the doorway, partially blocked by rubble, that headed down beneath the pyramid. They were very excited and urged me to hurry back.
"Unfortunately, when I got to the nearest village, I discovered that our frightened diggers had already spread the story of what was found. I was arrested and thrown in jail. The local police didn't really have a charge, of course, so they couldn't hold me, but it took me another three days to finally convince them to let me out. I hired some diggers who were not afraid of superstitions. I was getting ready to set out for the site again the next morning.
"That night I contact Terrero on the radio again. He told me excitedly that they had reached the bottom of the stairway and found another door with the same glyph on it. Since he still wanted me to record the discovery for the documentary, he rigged up the radio so they could give me a live account as they opened the door.
"They described what they were doing in great detail. The radio equipment was pretty good and I could hear them working in the background as Terrero spoke to me. They opened the door and started to describe the room behind it. I heard a strange whistling noise - the same one we heard today at the ruins. Suddenly they started screaming about something alive inside the room. There was a crash and then silence.
"I didn't wait until morning. I got the police and some soldiers to come with me and set out that night. When we arrived, we found the radio lying in the tunnel where it had apparently been dropped, but no sign of Terrero or the others. No bodies, no blood, no evidence of guerrillas or looters. Just that damn glyph on the walls of the empty room at the bottom of the stairs.
"The soldiers searched the ruins and the surrounding woods, but found nothing. We finally gave up and started back to town. As we were leaving, I could have sworn I heard that whistling noise again."
There is silence when he finishes. Belle-Marie shivers and winds her hand around the borrowed gun. Even the cold metal is of little comfort. This far away from Merida there are no lights, and the sky is clouded, as black as if they were already in the underground passageways.
"Where did the Yucatan Archaeological Institute get their skull from?" Sean asks. "Who are they anyway?" His eyes narrow to black slits. "And why has Jaime not tried to get this skull?"
T.R. shrugs. Maybe he doesn't want it. The Yucatan Institute own most of the museums and excavation sites in this area. Or rather, they nominally own them. Technically speaking, historical artifacts belong to the country as a whole. The Institute are responsible for displaying the ones they've got and uncovering more. They're purely into academic research. Hernandez has been a director for years so I believe."
"Oh." Sean subsides into silence. For a while the unsteady rumble of wheels over rough ground is the only sound. Then, even that stops.
"We're here," Eric says needlessly.
"You're late," Lalina snaps. Her eyes flick curiously to Astrid then she gestures with one hand. Two shadows detach themselves from a doorway opposite and come forward. "Franco and Miguel," she says. "They will take you."
She leaves them standing in the road together. After a moment's pause, Franco waves them on to a van parked at one side and ushers them into the back. There are no windows. Franco grins back at Martin from the front seat. "You and the lady better make yourselves comfortable. It is a long drive."
Almost a full hour passes before they stop. Astrid spends the whole time sitting rigid and afraid despite Martin's best efforts to make her relax. When the van finally stops she gasps aloud.
"We here," Franco says needlessly.
They get out of the van and look around. They are in the open, not a single building visible. The ground is rough, thick with shrubs and long tendrils of leaves that catch at their feet as they walk.
"Where are we going?" Martin asks. "I don't see anything."
"That's because you're looking in the wrong direction." Franco snaps a flashlight on. The pale circle of light bobs unevenly, showing up darker shadows on the ground and coming to rest on a patch of pure black. It takes Martin a few seconds to realise he is starting into the mouth of a tunnel.
"You should stay behind," T.R. says.
Eric shakes his head firmly. "I shall be fine. A little exercise will be good for me. At least this incessant heat has worn off."
He's right; the air drifting up from the tunnel is cool. T.R. sighs and lets himself down into the dark. The others follow, one at a time, landing softly on dry ground. Wearing night-vision goggles the single light of Aberg's torch is enough. The tunnel stretches on ahead of them, curving slightly west. The roof, just high enough to be able to walk without stooping, is garnished with occasional fronds of tree root that become gradually fewer as they walk.
They appear to be going down: a shallow incline that takes them further beneath the ruins of Chichen Itza. T.R. walks on resolute, Sean just behind him, his gun raised. Steven watches Eric worriedly as they go. So far the doctor hasn't shown any sign of strain, but so far it's been an easy walk. How he'd cope if they had to run back through these passages, he doesn't know.
Belle-Marie touches his hand in the dark. "You all right?" she whispers. He nods and forces a smile for her sake.
A sudden whispering disturbs the air. T.R. stops dead. "Martyn, put out your torch," he orders Aberg obeys, surprised.
Without the torchlight, the tunnel is soot black. the whisper comes again and this time everyone is certain they can hear voices.
Belle-Marie clutches at Steven's arm. The far end of the tunnel is glowing. A faint, flickering red, immediately familiar.
"Fire," Sean mutters, starting forward.
The tunnel has steps carved into its deeply sloping floor. Franco leads the way down, Miguel following the group a little way behind.
Martin puts his hands out and feels the walls either side of him. Slightly damp, furry in places with moss. The slightly-sweet smell of wet earth makes him want to sneeze.
"Where are we going?" Astrid asks in a frightened voice.
Franco turns his head to look back at her. "Quiet. You'll see." He walks on, turns a corner in the tunnel and stops so abruptly Martin stumbles and only just catches himself in time.
They are standing at the entrance to a cavern. A good fifty metres across, hung with grey stalactites and lit by burning torches set into the walls at intervals, their flickering light casting bands of dull orange across the floor so it gives the uneasy impression that the rock is crawling towards them. And, gathered in the centre of it, is a group of fifty or so people, either kneeling or sitting, all looking at the little man who stands in the centre, holding a glowing skull aloft.
Franco whistles to himself. "You're in luck," he mutters. "We were told Reconvaco wasn't in Merida. He must have come back. Come on. And keep quiet now."
Carefully, trying to stick to the shadows until they join the main part of the group, they make their way forward. Reconvaco does not appear to be aware of them. His eyes are closed, his face turned up to the skull in his hands.
"This is Quetzie," he announces dreamily. "A direct link to the old god of the wind, and our Madonna's greatest enemy." He sets the skull down and turns full circle, his dark eyes taking in everyone there. Martin hunches lower. A shiver passes over him with Reconvaco's gaze. Then it is gone.
"The time of the Lady is coming again," Reconvaco says. "Virgin mother who gives life to all things, her rule will not be denied. She "
Beside Martin, Astrid stiffens. "Mario," she hisses. "Marty, there he is! I can see him." At the sound of her voice, a few of the worshippers turn round to look.
Reconvaco sets the skull aside and steps from the centre of the circle. Left untouched, the skull slowly turns, as if pulled by some force. The rest of the party find themselves staring right into its empty eye sockets.
"What now?" Eric whispers. He's not sure how far his voice will carry in these empty spaces. Aberg loosens the knife in his belt. Sean readies his gun.
One of the Cultists turn full around and stares. "Mother?" Several others swing round, staring at Astrid.
Martin Keyes takes the opportunity to dart forward and seize hold of the skull.