The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
The Three Faces Of God
16th July, 12.30pm
Eric regards Mahmoud curiously. "Well, Mahmoud," he says in response to the boy's offer of help, "I'm sure that we would be glad for your help. What sort of thing do you think that you could do which would be of most help to us?"
Mahmoud stares back at Eric, frowning slightly, obviously taking the question seriously. "Senor, I know people," he says. "I can get information for you. Anything you need, I can find someone who has it. I know Merida better than anyone in the hotels - I have lived here since I was a baby. I can take you anywhere, get you into any place you like. You want to go to the factory, I can get you there without anyone knowing."
Eric nods. "We may need that. Thank you." He pauses then adds, "Mahmoud, what do you know about Dr. Hernandez, from the museum?"
"Hernandez? Sometimes he give me money, but not for a long time now, senor. He is very clever man, they say. Knows everything about history, has made big study of the crystal skulls. I think he "
Eric stops him. "Go back a bit. You said he used to give you money but doesn't any more."
"Si, senor. I used to beg sometimes outside museum. He always gave me money. But now he shouts at me to go away." He grins, unconcerned. "It is the way it happens, senor. People help for a while then they grow tired of it."
"When was the last time he gave you money?" Eric asks.
Mahmoud shrugs. "I don't remember. More than six months ago, I think."
Sighing, Eric thanks him. "Will you do one thing for me now?" he asks. "Ask Hernandez to come and meet us at the hotel today. And later, I think, we will be going to the factory. Where can we find you?"
"Here, senor. I will be here."
Back in the hotel, Eric calls a conference for the whole team. Motioning for everyone to be seated he begins, "First, I think we need a co-ordinated plan before we go blundering into that factory. Second " He draws in a deep breath and looks directly at Sean, "we need to set some ground rules. I, for one, was not thrilled about having live explosives five feet from me when we were in the caves with Quetzalcoatl. We are all volunteers here, not paid soldiers. While I understand there can be danger on these missions, I don't expect it to come from my own team members."
Several of the others nod. Eric frowns deeply. "We should have this discussion, I agree, but we have little time to spend on meeting in committee when Martin Keyes' life may be on the line. A co-ordinated plan is fine, but let's do this briskly."
T.R. raises an eyebrow. "Dr. Alnes, our lack of planning is what placed Keyes in this position to begin with. A little time spent now will save a lot of trouble later. If we rush in again, without agreeing on a plan, we will probably all be joining Keyes by this time tomorrow."
"Yes, but we've got to remember he isn't the most balanced of people," Belle Marie butts in with a sigh of frustration. "We've got to consider that we might save the body, but not the mid if we hang around too much. We know there's danger involved. T.R. you were at Oxford, you saw what happened there, but you're still here. I'm not suggesting that we rush in blindly, but we could certainly try and move whilst we plan. We've got to find out where he is, so surely putting feelers out to find him, whilst we try and work out what to do when we do makes sense?" Realising everyone's attention is on her, she looks a little sheepish and sits back.
Sean lights up another cigarette. "Why is it always the same? I am criticised for the use of violence by those with no understanding of what is a very powerful tool. But that doesn't prevent them from using that very same tool when it suites them. More's the pity," he adds, speaking more to himself than to the others in the room. "If my advise concerning the use of violence had been heeded then we might not be in this situation." He blows out a cloud of bitter smoke. "They never learn. As usual I have to pick up the pieces It would be well advised for them not to get in my way again."
Belle-Marie flushes sharply, Steven scowls. Martyn raises an eyebrow sceptically, mentally itemising Sean's record so far. Alienating local support; drawing the opposition's attention to the skull in the museum, while failing to steal it; blowing the team's cover to Reconvaco without consulting anyone All of which paled beside his virtuoso performance in the caves. Planting a suicide bomb on the rest of the team, while he went off to play 'rearguard', which apparently consisted of getting knocked out while Martin Keyes was being captured. Then, blowing up the cave with the skull - and for all he knew - the rest of the team in it. Not to mention giving the rest of them a bollocking for fulfilling the mission objective.
Anger rises to boiling point inside him. He pushes himself to his feet. "Well, you won't find me getting in your way any longer oh mighty one," he says. "You remember telling us that if we didn't want to listen to you, we could get on the next flight out? I'm off to pack."
With that, he walks out of the room.
Eric rises to his feet. "Hold up! Please, Martyn! Go if you must - but can you delay long enough for us to try to rescue Keyes first, at least? I don't consider any one of us expendable."
Sean lights another cigarette, an amused smile on his face. "Let him go, he clearly hasn't got what it takes. You people really don't have a clue, do you? The moment you sold your souls and became mercenaries you became expendable. Well, you came here to kill, didn't you? No matter how you try to hide the truth from yourselves, your hands are blood stained and you will have to deal with the stench of death that will come to haunt you." He turns on Marie, "Will you wash your hands before you greet your child? If you survive this situation that is and when will you confess to her that her mother is a killer? Will you wait till she comes of age and hope that there isn't rejection and fear in her eyes? "Do you think Lalina's eye were filled with terror when she died?" He wonders if he could have saved her, did he make a mistake leaving her? He shakes the thought away. "The life you have chosen for yourself will be a lonely one, accept it, move on!" he says flatly. "When we move against her, Ahuan will throw her people against us and we will kill, or be killed!"
He pauses, and TR quickly adds his voice to the argument, calling after Aberg. "Eric's right, Martyn. You're a valuable ally. We cannot afford to lose you particularly because of some idiot who wants to play soldier boy." He gestures toward Sean in annoyance. "We are not mercenaries and we are not expendable."
He turns toward Sean. "I saw 'your' Lalina's eyes just before she died. She was in some type of trance lured to her death by that Ylid creature, just as we all would have been if we tried to make a deal with it. SITU's instructions on the matter were clear - destroy it before it awoke from its trance. If you don't want to follow our instructions, then maybe you should complain to SITU. But don't take it out on the rest of us." He throws his hands in the air, "Come on, people, if we are going to be a team, we have to start working as a team. Sean, you are good with demolition - how do you suggest we break into a factory? What do the rest of you suggest?"
Sean appears lost in thought again. "There is the third Ylid to consider, he will show himself and we need to be ready .."
Martyn has stopped outside the room, pulled up by Eric's voice. The air in the corridor seems to be slightly cooler and he draws in a long breath. The same hot, fuzzy-minded sensation that he experienced in the cave with the cultists is back, building up inside him for hours, he realises, until the calm, rational part of his mind seems to be trapped within a towering rage. His fists clench. Sean. He has been an irritant from the first moment. His secretiveness about the first mission, his maverick actions. His assumption that he can give orders. Up to now, all this has been mere noise - inconvenient but unimportant. But now the emotional part of himself that seemed to have gone away so many months ago is back with a vengeance, swamping his thoughts with its anger.
"You sold your souls," he hears Sean say. Not we, he thinks. You. This arrogant bastard not only thinks he has a right to throw their lives away. He doesn't even think they have a right to mind about it. Slowly he turns, opens the door and walks back in.
Something appears to have happened to his vision. He can only see properly straight in front of him. Turning his head slowly he sees the relief on the faces of the rest of the group - all bar Sean. He can't looks at Sean yet. He's not sure why; there's just a dark fear that something will happen when he does.
"Martyn, we need you on the group," Steven says. "Far more than we need Sean. At least we can trust you not to blow us all up when we don't expect it."
TR concurs and begins saying something about nominating Martyn as group leader. Martyn barely hears. The room begins humming softly, drowning out all other sound. He leans forward, reaching for the bottle of water by his chair, and feels the hilt of his hunting knife press into his side. Straight away he knows what he has to do. He slips his hand under his jacket and takes hold of the hilt. Then he looks up, meeting Sean's eyes.
Rage bursts through him. He snatches the knife from its sheath and lunges at Sean, driving the point of the heavy blade at the sneering mouth.
Martin Keyes struck by the fact that Ahuan does not leave the room. "Why give me the time?" he asks.
Before she has chance to answer, he walks over to her chair, slowly. He stoops down before her, not as a supplicant, but in the way one might bend to one knee to be at the eye level of a child, laying the palm of his hand against her cheek, looking into her eyes with as much affection as he can muster. She turns her face into the caress. She is silent, waiting for an answer, more woman than goddess now.
"I can give you what you want, from one moment to the next and willingly," Keyes says. "You will have to decide from one moment to the next if I am yours to command or not." He draws his hand away. "Ultimately, I believe you will have to kill me because I am not the kind of person who does things unwillingly."
The Ylid's eyes darken with anger. Keyes puts an arm around her waist to draw her closer and she stiffens against him. "The problem, Senór Marty, is that you want something so small, so insignificant that my mind can barely see it, let alone give it to you."
Her face is so close now he can feel her breath against his cheek. Her lips are parted slightly. "Have you finally seen through me," Martin asks. He kisses her on the mouth, softly, and when he draws back she is smiling. She touches his face gently with her finger tips.
"It is the only thing you have that I cannot get for myself," she whispers. "I can force obedience. I cannot force love." She reaches for him. "If it is just physical love you want."
Keyes kisses the side of her mouth, slides his free hand around her neck and whispers his response. "No."
She is Ahuan once again. She pushes his hand away and stares at him coldly. "You waste your time and mine, Senór Gringo."
Keyes opens his hand between them. "Take it," he commands softly. She hesitates then does as he says, cupping her hands around his. Keyes keeps his gaze fixed on her eyes. "Now if you play your cards right, you can have the rest of me. You have only the one thing I want" he mimics her softly. "It is the one thing that I can not get myself. Even my life is not in your control, because all I need do is wait an hour and I can force you to end it."
She laughs, but there is a hard note to her voice. "Senor Marty, you never give up, do you? Oh, if I could love anyone I do believe it would be someone like you."
Keyes cuts her off. "I am in control here." Quickly he reaches down with one hand, grabs the clock that is ticking away the minutes of his life and throws it against the wall. There is a satisfying explosion of glass and springs. "Kill me now," he says, "or risk that you may just give me what I want. Let me live, and risk that I will betray you even if I ," and Keyes hears himself choke on the word "can find a way to love you."
Sean leaps to one side as Aberg's knife comes down, twisting out of the way so that it rips through the fabric of the chair he was sitting on. Martyn is fighting blinding, striking out at anything within reach, and all Sean's fighting instincts spring to the surface at once. He dodges another blow and tenses, ready to hit back.
Then the others get in between them. Steven and TR wrestle Aberg to the floor, yelling at him to calm down. Eric and Belle-Marie jump up to intercept Sean, and the idea that one old man and a woman think they have a chance of stopping him does the trick. He pulls himself up short and grins at them ruefully.
"Martyn," TR shouts, still struggling with Aberg, "I know how you feel. The guy is a basketcase and he deserves anything he gets, but not now. We need to save Keyes and complete the mission first. We have got to pull together."
Whether his words finally register, or whether Aberg's rage has simply burned itself out, Martyn suddenly stops fighting. He lets Steven take the knife, pushes TR aside and stands up, calmly brushing dirt from his sleeves. It is as if the last couple of minutes never happened. He glances at Sean carelessly, registers him as still alive and shrugs.
"Let's get a few things straight," Sean says. He seems equally unconcerned by the incident. "What troubles me most is the way you make such a lot of noise about not killing anyone when you first arrive, then suddenly decide it would be more fun to shoot at anything that moves. We had two situations when we could have got more information - the meeting with Jaime, and later with Quetz. Both times someone started to shoot."
Eric shakes his head in disagreement. "We have already had more success than we could reasonably have hoped to succeed, although at a terrible cost. And now the one missing of our number is a prisoner of Ahuan, a man whom we do not want to see turned. As far as I'm concerned, not one of us is expendable; we didn't abandon Sean at the caves, and we can't abandon Martin Keyes now. It's time to stop arguing, and time to go in and rescue him from Ylid captivity. I, for one, am going now. Are the rest of you coming?"
Aberg shakes his head in disagreement. Clear-headed again, he looks at the others and wonders why Belle-Marie appears so nervous when she returns his gaze. "If Ahuan had the means to take him, she has the means to keep him," he points out. "I suspect Keyes is more of an ally now than a prisoner and so we may well be seeing more of him that we'd wish soon. He might even be the third Ylid." He flicks a quick glance at Belle-Marie. "Have you considered that? Anyway, I think our priority should be to use the dart-gun on Ahuan." He smiles coldly. "May I take it your suggestion of making me team leader is now withdrawn, TR?"
TR looks away.
"We'll need plenty of firepower if we're going to attack the factory," Sean says, making everyone groan. He adds. "As far as I'm concerned, burying the skull in the cave was fine. Ahuan wants it and can't get it. That should slow her down." He pauses in thought. "She may try to get the one at the museum - someone should watch that if possible. I reckon someone we all know will be sent to fetch it for her."
There is a brief, tense silence, with everyone looking at each other. Sensing what little team spirit there is left splintering, TR makes a final effort to pull everyone together. "First I think we should make a quick trip around the factory, see where the back doors are. Then Sean should create a distraction. You like demolitions, Sean. Maybe you can set off a few small charges at one side of the building - not enough to do any real damage, but enough to make all of Astrid's men come running. Keep them busy for a while, while the rest of us are elsewhere. Steven can set up communications equipment in the car. He can stay there to watch it with Eric or come in with us, if he thinks Eric can run the equipment by himself.
"Meanwhile, the rest of us will head toward the back door, or to the back windows, if there are any, while the guards are distracted. We will try not to fire any shots or do anything else to attract attention. If we get separated, we can stay in touch through Steven's equipment. We will take out any guards we meet as quietly as possible and search for Keyes' room. If we can make contact with Keyes through the communications equipment, so much the better.
"If any of you see Ahuan, run away as fast as you can - we are just here to get Keyes and leave. I don't think we can fight Ahuan directly." He pauses and raises a hand, "That is, unless we see Tezcat there with Ahuan. If so, we should fire the dart gun at Ahuan, take our pictures and run like hell out of there."
Aberg claps slowly. "A good plan. Let's do it, then." As long as Sean stays out of the way, he adds to himself, there will be no trouble. The dart gun forms a steady weight in his pocket as he leaves the room.
While Steven gets busy on the computer, finding blueprints of the factory from when it was operational the others split up to carry out separate tasks with a feeling of relief.
Eric's first priority is tending to the injuries everyone has already suffered. The plaster cast on his arm makes his movements awkward, and in any case he's not entirely sure how to proceed. The work of surgery is pure instinct to him - as instinctive as Sean's fighting or Steven's skill with the computer - but what he's trying to do now is different, something that has only worked once before.
In his mind he sees the grail set before him again, clearer than ever. He concentrates on it, seeing the small flaws in the dark wood, the carving around the rim. A feeling of warmth floods him, pushing away the last of the aching from his arm.
"Now for you, Martyn," he says.
Aberg lets him take his injured hands. He only moves once, at the moment the cuts close. He jerks his hands away, nods his thanks to Eric and goes back to staring out of the window. Eric staggers slightly as he stands. The cast feels heavy on his arm, dragging him down. He makes his way over to where TR is sitting and sinks down beside him. "Help me get this thing off, will you?" he asks. He smiles tiredly. "I'll have a go at those cuts on your face later. Once I've rested."
Sean slips from the hotel. Negotiating the back streets of Merida he soon comes to the place where he met Lalina first and knocks on the door. Two men open it up.
"Lalina is dead," Sean says. He can't think of any softer way to put it. "Reconvaco killed her, and I killed him. I'm going after the person Jaime was working for next, if any of you fancy coming along."
The men take in the news in silence. Finally, one of them nods. "Thank you." His face shows no expression. "If you have killed Reconvaco, thank you. We will tell our people the news."
"Good. Are you with me now?"
The man shakes his head. "No. If Reconvaco is dead our interest ends there. We have other concerns." He smiles faintly. "And we have heard of you. You are a dangerous man to work with, Senor. Good luck, but this time we will not join you."
Keyes has lost track of time. With the clock smashed there is no way of counting the seconds as they flow past. Surely the hour must be up by now, though.
"What is it you want?" Keyes asks. He's lost track of how many times he's asked that question, too. The dubhium serum, obviously.
Ahuan kisses him once, hard. "The skull," she says. "I want the skull." She sees the surprise in Martin's eyes and laughs. "I already have everything else," she says. "The dubhium serum is in my blood now. There's nothing your friends can do about that. And I have you - even if only for a little while, I have you. But Reconvaco was supposed to bring me the skull. He failed. Prove yourself to me and fetch it for me now."
Keyes feels sick with relief. For one, horrible moment he thought she was going to ask for the anti-dubhium serum. At least she doesn't know about that. He takes a deep breath and forces himself not to think about it in case she can read the thought from his mind. "Why the skull?" he asks. He smiles. "I'll get it for you, I promise, but tell me why it's so important. Trust me that far."
"I will never trust you," she whispers. "Do you not know? I created the skull. I let your friend George Kelsall see it. I wanted SITU to come and take it. It led you to Quetzacoatl so you could kill him for me, and all the time you were in contact with it, it was reading your thoughts. Everyone's thoughts. Once I have the skull, I will have all that - everything I need to know about SITU. That is why I need it."
Mahmoud instructs the group to park a few streets away from the factory. Sean gets out immediately and sets off at a slow run to the back of the buildings. The others wait there a few minutes while Steven checks his equipment and makes sure Eric knows how to use it.
"According to what I've found," he tells the others, "the factory was used for making clothes. It closed down eight years ago and all the equipment was sold off then so it should be empty." He unfolds a set of papers and spreads them out. "There are three stories including the basement with a floor area of several thousand square metres. The are around it was a car park so it's all open. Eric, are you sure you'll be all right here?"
"Positive," the doctor assures him. "I monitor communications and if anything goes wrong I prepare to act as first aider and getaway driver combined." He flexes his right arm. "Now I'm not encumbered by a weight of plaster I'll be fine."
Steven gives him one more, half-worried look, then collects up the papers. Gesturing to Mahmoud to go first, he follows the boy out of the car. Aberg, Belle-Marie and TR are close behind.
The first explosion comes when they are nearing the factory. Only a small one, Belle-Marie notes with relief. She watches Aberg as she jogs along, wondering what triggered his murderous rage earlier, and hoping that nothing will happen to set it off again. He seems to be unnaturally calm now, only responding when one of the others speaks to him, keeping his gaze fixed on the ground.
"Here," Mahmoud whispers. "The windows are all broken, you can get inside easily." His words are muffled by another explosion and a rattle of gun fire.
Aberg knocks the few edges of broken glass out of the way and swings himself through the window. The rest of the group go after him.
Inside is dim and everything smells of damp. Bar wires hang from the ceiling, paint is peeling off the walls. The floorboards creak as they move forward.
"This way," Steven whispers, his voice echoing in the empty space. A door is standing open at the far end. Footprints, recently made, mark the dust. Somewhere outside, Sean's voice shouts a challenge and a gun fires, once.
A staircase leads down into a passageway that looks surprisingly new. Steven pauses. According to the blueprints he found, the basement was an open storage area. It looks like someone has been here since and converted it into a set of rooms.
Belle-Marie tries the doors as she goes past. Her heart is beating fast with a mixture of excitement and fear but her face is set and determined. In the little light there is, she doesn't realise TR has stopped until she walks into him. He reaches back to steady her and points.
A symbol, scratched in the wood above a door. "The sign of the devil," he whispers.
"I will get you the skull," Keyes promises. He stands up, pulling Ahuan up with him. "More than that I cannot promise. You want my love and, yes, I could love you, but it cannot be forced. You will have to learn to trust me a little."
"Trust you? While your beloved friend Sean is plotting my death! How will you stop him and his guns and his bombs and his ever so ethical friends, all armed to the teeth?"
For that moment she sounds more like a frightened child than a goddess. Keyes feels a shudder of compassion go through him He wraps his arms around her shoulders and tips her face up until she is looking at him. "I won't let them hurt you," he murmurs against her mouth. "I won't -"
The door bursts open behind him.
Ahuan freezes in Keyes arms. He freezes, staring at the shocked faces of his rescuers. Aberg reaches for his knife, remembers at the last minute that Steven still has it and balls his fists instead.
"Traitor." He starts forward. It is unclear whether he intends to attack Ahuan or Keyes himself.
Martin pushes Ahuan behind him. "Wait, don't hurt her." Speaking quickly, he says, "Astrid, let me go now. I will come back to you."
"I know." She smiles at the others over his head. Then, suddenly, she is no longer there. A last, fading thought echoes in Keyes' mind. "Go where you will, Senór Marty. I will find you when I please. Anywhere on Earth."
"Let's get out of here before the guards come back," TR suggests tersely.
"Any guards that Sean left alive," Belle-Marie adds.
Sean rejoins the group at the car. His clothes are bloodstained but he is smiling and declares himself unhurt.
Keyes brings everyone up to date on what has happened as they drive back to the hotel.
"Events seem to be working in our favour," TR comments. "I suggest we wire you up with a microphone and camera and you go back to her until Tezcat shows up."
"And talking of Tezcat," Eric says. "Does anyone know who he is? By the way, do you know that Hernandez means adventuring or world-daring? Certainly an interesting meaning."
The radio is playing in the background - an English language news station. Steven fiddles with the controls once or twice while the others phone SITU.
Geoff Blaize listens to the group's latest report with mixed reactions. He congratulates them on work so far, giving them the latest finding from Quetzie's body.
"I'm not sure that there's anything we don't know already so far. There was no evidence of the dubhium compound in his tissue, and the body is remarkably well-preserved - no evidence of any injury or disease in the past. No sign of any aging either. It's impossible to tell how old he was."
Eric frowns. "This is just the sheerest speculation, and maybe we don't need to worry about this at all, but it occurs to me that there is just an outside possibility that these things can come back from the dead, you know. You might want to take precautions about that, if you haven't already."
"We have. Don't worry."
But when he hears what happened between Sean and Martyn Aberg his voice hardens to cold anger.
"This is a team operation," he snaps. "We cannot afford to endanger it by agents attacking each other. Have you got any idea at all what is at stake here?" He continues before any of them can respond. "You have to uncover Tezcatlipoca's identity, engineer a meeting between him and Ahuan and shoot her with the anti dubhium serum. I would have thought that was enough to be going on with without fighting amongst yourselves. If anyone doesn't want to work as part of this team, SITU will happily pay for your flight home. Otherwise, put your differences to one side and start working together."
The group hear a definite click of a receiver being slammed down.
Aberg glowers, furious. Sean opens his mouth to point out that it isn't his fault.
The voice of the newsreader on the radio fills the room. "Police, investigating an assault on a tourist group in the caves below Merida today uncovered two bodies. One has been identified as that of a woman belonging to the Zapatista movement. The other was discovered buried in a neighbouring tunnel. It is the body of a middle-aged man, badly burned and decomposed. Police say it was there at least six months when they found it. They have not yet identified it."
"Dr Alnes?" There is a tap at the door then the voice comes again. "Dr Alnes, sir, I am sorry to disturb you. There is a Dr Hernandez here to see you. He says you are expecting him."