The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Las Cabezas de Muerte – Briefing
From: Andre Swahn, Briefing/99
To Operatives: George Kellsal, Damien Knight, Diana Knight, Benjamin McDonald, Corrin Muir, Dimitri Redchenko
Subject: 'Las Cabezas de Muerte' - proposed TV documentary programme
Rendezvous: Gatwick Airport South Terminal, 0600 hrs BST, 24 November 1997
Destination: Merida, a small resort town in the Yucatan, an area in the East of Mexico, with a population of around 20,000. Its primary industry is tourism, with cliff-diving at nearby Progreso and ancient Zapotec remains being the chief attractions.
Travel Arrangements: British operatives - you will fly British Airways to Mexico City, departing Gatwick 0855 BST, then transfer to an internal flight to Merida airport. You should arrive at 1200 local time barring weather difficulties. The total flight duration is 12 hours. You will return on 29-30 November by the same route, leaving Merida at 2000 hours local time and landing at Gatwick 1400 BST. Mr Knight - you will fly British Airways Washington DC - Mexico City, departing 0930 EST, to transfer to the same Merida flight. You will return to Washington DC from Mexico City at 0645 EST.
At Merida airport you will be met by a local courier, Maria Tengue. She has been engaged to act as guide and translator during your stay in Merida and will be available to you during working hours or otherwise by mutually satisfactory arrangement. She will conduct you to the Hotel Esplendido, where you will be staying.
Cover: You will be in Merida as a party of tourists, there to watch the cliff-diving contests which will be running throughout the week. You will be travelling with Artifex Tours Ltd, of 16-18 Boundary Row, London SE1 8HN, tel / fax 0171 865 0088. You should be clad and equipped accordingly.
Note: this cover is rated Code 3. Calls to the above number will authenticate your story.
Background information: During your week in Merida, an independent TV production company called Ghost in the Machine will be making a documentary called 'Las Cabezas de Muerte' ('The Skulls of Death'). This will centre around an occult ceremony to be conducted using a number of crystal skulls, which will be taking place in the Sheraton on 28 November. The programme is to be broadcast on BBC2, the American CBS network, Rai Uno in Italy and DSF in Germany.
These crystal skulls have varied histories. Some are ancient Zapotec artefacts, some are more modern, and others may be forged. Their owners have agreed to unite the skulls together in Merida for the purpose of enhancing and combining whatever occult powers the skulls are purported to possess. In Zapotec days they were used as ritual items in sacrifices to the goddess known as Ahuantepec, the Sea Mother. It is not known how long this cult persisted after the fall of the Zapotec culture in the eleventh century AD, but it may well have been still extant even after the Spanish conquest.
One of the skulls, known as Tezcatlipoca, owned by US Congressman Brett Darling, was tested by bombardment with radiation of various wavelengths in 1974, at Rank Xerox's Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC). All results of these experiments have been made unavailable, but SITU has reason to believe that the skull emitted ultrasonic frequencies, exposure to which was severely traumatic to the researchers involved. Within the next two years staff at PARC were responsible for the invention of the laser printer, the graphical user interface and the Ethernet.
Priority A: to establish who was responsible for the initial suggestion to unite the skulls. Was it a group decision, or was it an individual? If so, who? And who has organised the event?
Priority B: to prevent the skull reunion ceremony from taking place. See note below on extra-legal activity.
Priority C: to recover one or more skulls for SITU. See note below on extra-legal activity.
Expenses: SITU will reimburse Operatives for all reasonable expenses incurred during the investigation. Receipts will be required. Note that this does not include the purchase of souvenirs, cliff-diving lessons etc, except as is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of your cover.
Extra-legal activity: All Operatives should be aware that, while they may choose to operate outside the Law, they are not above it. SITU does not condone or sanction unlawful activity of any nature. Note that SITU will not act on the behalf of an Operative who is cautioned, arrested, charged etc in the course of an investigation. Indeed, if an Operative were to attempt to contact SITU in such a situation, s/he would find all telephone numbers unobtainable and all addresses unoccupied.
The five operatives were gathered together only an hour before their flight from Gatwick. SITU's welcome was professional and brisk, as might have been expected, and Andre Swahn explained that they would be meeting the sixth member of their party, Damien Knight, at Merida.
'A local, is he?' Ben McDonald had asked in his light Scottish accent. The tall, slim journalist had been fiddling with a pen and paper throughout the briefing, at which he had managed to take the seat closest to Swahn. He was expensively dressed, in his late twenties, and his green eyes sparkled from behind glasses underneath a tidy fringe of black hair. Although he was forever thrusting himself forward, asking questions and monopolizing attention, he seemed likeable and understanding.
Now, half-way across the Atlantic, Ben is trying to engage his neighbour Diana Knight in conversation. She too is tall and attractive, and is around the same age, but she is dressed casually in jeans and baggy jumper, with a small bag slung over her shoulder. From time to time she flicks her auburn hair back off her face, and as she nods in answer to Ben's questioning she occasionally worries her lower lip between her teeth. Her responses are reserved and quiet.
The other female member of the group is Corrin Muir, and she is still more reserved than Diana, almost to the point of coldness. She can only recently have graduated from university, by her age, and she is dressed simply in a tracksuit and trainers. Her hair is long and black, but her eyes are an unusual brilliant blue, and although of average height she appears small among the group, all of whom top her by at least four inches.
George Kellsal is also in his early twenties, but his manner is a complete contrast: he is a friendly, happy fellow, always ready with a joke, usually closely followed by his infectious laugh. He was smoking in the departure lounge, but pulled a rueful face when he found his health-conscious colleagues preferred to sit in the non-smoking section. He too is tall and good-looking, in an understated sort of way, with short blond hair and expensive casual clothes.
The fifth member of the party sits by himself, staring out of the window. The rest of the group have been a little wary of him, as they all recognized his name and remembered the scandal that surrounded the ending of his career. Dimitri 'Red' Redchenko was the greatest decathlete of the last decade, winning Olympic gold in 1986 as well as two world and three European titles. In 1990, though, while defending his Olympic title, he flung his javelin at one of the judges, spearing the unfortunate fellow to death, and he was banned from competition for ten years. It was widely assumed he had fallen victim to the irrational mood swings of steroid abuse, and he disappeared from sight. Here he was, though, popping up in England: still built rather like Hercules, his manner was cool and his accent strong.
There is a sudden lurch as the plane encounters turbulence. A mutter runs up and down the aisle, and Ben looks nervously out of the window. He can see nothing but cloud. Diana, who has remained cool, turns to calm him, but the shaking gets worse and the 'seatbelts on' light flashes. Everyone quietens down as they obey the instruction and only one voice is raised above the others.
'Wow! this is like some B-movie or something. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. Fairly soon we're gonna get some air hostess come through - she'll be the love interest - telling us both pilots are dead and can anyone fly a plane. Then our hero, who in the opening scene was getting his first ever flying lesson, will go forward and it'll all be cool.' At least half the people in the plane turn to look at the person you recognise as Jason Enright, owner of Ghost in the Machine and producer of the programme about the Skulls. He nods at the attention and raises his glass. His unworried atmosphere is a little spoilt by the sickening crunch that drops the plane a few feet and sends the contents of his glass all over his director, Paula McCormick. She turns to him rather harshly, but her anger is diffused by the laughter of Tony McCormick, the cameraman for the outfit. Everyone seems to calm down at this, and a lighter hearted look at the plane's difficulties sweeps through the passengers.
'You know, we're almost over Bermuda' remarks George. He seems about to add something, but then freezes, staring across the aisle to another passenger. A large woman is sitting there with one of the famous skulls on her knees, and its eyes are glowing slightly with a faint greenish colour as she strokes its cranium.
'Isn't that the one called Ed?' Ben asks at a whisper.
'Yeah,' responds Diana. 'She was showing it the sights earlier.'
'Weird.' is Corrin's only comment before the air hostess comes over to check that everyone is belted in satisfactorily.
The plane calms down, and nothing more is said on the subject of the skull. After the excitement of the turbulence the aura is one of rest, and the flight quietens down until the vast expanse of Mexico City spreads out below. The transfer to the Merida flight is to be taken by the programme makers, the SITU team and ten others, including the woman with the skull named Ed. The TV people are whisked through both customs and immigration, while the operatives have to queue for nearly 20 minutes. Eventually however they all get to the transfer lounge to wait for the flight, where they take the chance to examine the TV crew and the lady with the skull.
As the five SITU members wait for the transfer flight, they are approached by a blond-haired man in his mid-thirties, dressed in a dark suit with a plain silk tie, wearing dark sunglasses. He introduces himself as Damien Knight. He is quiet, solid, and rather unimposing, a couple of inches short of six feet, with a pleasant Mid-Western accent. He is carrying a laptop computer in a shoulder bag, and bulges in his jacket pockets testify to the presence of a dictaphone and a portable phone. He says little but seats himself beside Red in the transfer lounge.
Jason Enright is enthusing about the heat and the sun and spaghetti westerns. He has a very energetic way of talking, using hands, eyebrows, shoulders and other gestures to convey his views. He looks to be in his 30s and has reddish-blond hair is set off nicely against his tan. Paula is very small and quiet, she is probably about the same age as Jason, and they seem to have quite a history together. They and Tony seem a little insular, and in-jokes fly through their conversation.
The woman with the impressive skull she calls Ed is talking to a couple about skulls and the ceremony. The Willoughbys, as they introduce themselves, are British, and they too were on the flight over from London. The party resist the temptation to go over and snoop - better to establish some cover first, there'd be plenty of time in Merida.
Three hours later the SITU team are at the steps to Hotel Esplendido, waiting for the two taxi drivers to unload their bags under the watchful eye of Maria, their cliff diving guide and translator. They've been too tired to talk to her much, but she seems friendly and outgoing. She is in her early twenties, and very fit. They are met by the manager Arsenio Vizcaya. He smiles welcomingly and offers his hand, which is at length shaken by everyone. His smile remains fixed throughout and begins to look a little forced as he invites the team in.
'Come in, come in - your rooms are ready.'
The operatives are led away, and three men scurry hurriedly for their bags. As they look back they see another taxi pull up, and the Willoughbys get out. Arsenio turns back with a sigh.