The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Las Cabezas de Muerte – Chapter 6
Nobody seems to know what to do, until Damien shrugs and says 'I can't imagine where we fouled up, unless someone spotted George at the ruins this morning.' He raises an eyebrow, and a small smile comes to his face before continuing in a half-serious tone. 'Or unless that skull George was holding read his mind. Anyone got any ideas?'
Diana looks up from the letter, 'Let's just worry about finding him. We can ask him what happened when we find him.'
'I'm going to try and speak to people,' says Ben. 'Find out when and where he was last seen.'
'We should probably try to get a description of the person who dropped off the letter at the desk,' suggests Damien. 'Oh, by the way, could I have a look at those documents, please?'
Diana hands them over. Red gestures towards the handwritten note - 'We need to find out about those symbols.' He looks at Damien, 'Any chance of checking out if the motif is linked with the Viva Zapatista movement?'
'Right, what are we going to do?' says Diana. 'I want to go and check Chichen Itza,' says Corrin. 'George's car might be there, or something.'
'I'll go with you if you want?' offers Red. 'It's not like we've got many leads.'
'Alright, I'm going to talk to Arsenio, and some of the staff. See if anyone came to see George or anything,' says Ben.
'And we ought to go over his room,' says Damien looking at Diana.
'It might turn up something,' she replies.
'Let's concentrate on this for at least a couple of hours, then we can get back to our objectives proper, if nothing's shown up. Hopefully Maddy might have some ideas, or we'll turn something up,' says Damien.
Ben heads down to the foyer, and finds Arsenio. The hotel manager seems to notice his agitation.
'Oh, I hope everything is alright,' he says with a worried frown, reminding Ben that a cover story will be needed.
'Well, one of our friends, George, has gone missing. Do you remember the one? - Tall, well built. Blond hair, smokes a lot.'
Arsenio is nodding, 'Yes, I remember him, of course. I haven't seen him today at all, but I can ask for you if you like?'
'Yes,' says Ben, and goes with the hotel manager to talk to a variety of receptionists and general staff. Eventually it is pieced together that he came down from his room, looking sleepy and a little irritable, had a coffee and then went out at about 12:30. Several people mention the red burn on his hand.
Arsenio's receptionist is a little vague about the man who left the message. He was Mexican, and quite young, maybe sixteen.
Ben heads back up, journalistic sixth sense telling him he's found all there is. Diana and Damien are still in George's room, and appear to have tidied up the mess in an attempt to find something.
'Anything noteworthy?' asks Ben.
'Nope,' says Diana. 'A lot of crisp packets, several fag ends, general junk, but nothing we didn't know about.'
'Nothing relevant,' adds Damien. 'I have computer work to do. I guess I'll get on with it.
Red and Corrin speed towards Chichen Itza, bouncing around on the uneven roads. Traffic increases as they approach the site, and eventually they are in a traffic jam leading up to the entrance. Going slowly allows them to look carefully for George's car, the truck or anything else connected with the Black Madonna or his disappearance, but nothing is found. They drive over to the spot where George had parked overnight, but it has nothing else to differentiate it from the hundreds of places around it.
Red sighs, 'This isn't getting us anywhere.'
'That's the fourth time you've said that. I agree.'
'Let's head back, hopefully someone's turned up something.'
They turn the car around, and start to head back, past the large queue of traffic. Some way behind a truck pulls out of the traffic, obviously tired of the delay. Red watches Corrin turn to look once again at the impressive pyramid, and then she peers back, screwing up her eyes.
'You see that truck, five, no six cars back...'
Red turns to look, but there's dust being kicked up by tyres and a slight heat haze to deal with.
'The blue one, I think it might be the one we saw here last night.'
He raises a hand to shade the sun, and tries to make it out. There's certainly a truck back there, but how on earth can Corrin even attempt to make out which one?
'Shit!' shouts Corrin, and Red looks back at her, and the road. A beaten up old saloon has stopped on the grass verge and the four by four is going to hit it. Red glances left, but an oncoming car blocks that way, so he wrenches the wheel to the right as he slams his foot on the brake. They clip the saloon and bounce down the shallow grassed bank, stopping with a lurch and a crunch at a steep angle. After a few quick breaths they glance at each other, relieved that they aren't injured, and achingly unbuckle seatbelts and clamber out.
The saloon has been shunted a few metres along the road, and is fairly irrevocably dented. A Mexican jumps out, arms in the air and voice rattling away. He gesticulates wildly and the stream of Spanish seems unquenchable, but at the sight of Red's impressive bulk, and Corrin's smiled shrug he calms a little.
'Very sorry,' says Red, shuffling slightly. 'My fault of course. Should have been looking.'
The man rattles something off in Spanish, but then stops and shouts to one of the people standing around, who walks over.
'You American?' says the new arrival.
'Well, we speak English, yes. Could you say we're very sorry, please,' says Corrin.
There is a quick Spanish exchange, and then the translator turns back to the pair.
'You will pay for this, yes? He get new car for this?'
'Yeah, of course.'
The other Mexican grins, 'OK.' he says nodding. 'OK.'
'I'm still worried about that guy out front,' says Diana
'Yeah. I wish we could work out what he's saying on the phone every hour,' says Ben. He looks at Damien. 'Do you have the equipment to bug it?'
'Just about, would look very clumsy though. I might be able to hack the telephone exchange, and get it rerouted to here. Would take a little while, and someone would have to go down and get the number, but definitely possible.'
'Well, OK then,' says Diana. 'I need to head down and see Mahmoud, so I'll go and make a call to here if you want.'
She goes down, and makes the call. She's nervous about the armed man standing just a few metres away, but he doesn't react to her at all. The numbers are pushed, and she waits for the ring.
'Hello, Damien Knight.'
'Hi, it's me, Diana,' her voice is slightly crackled given the proximity of the phone box. She reels off the phone number of the box, reading it from the square of plastic above the keypad, and then hangs up.
She walks back, and Mahmoud is waiting, with a grin.
'I got skulls.'
Diana smiles back, as he ducks behind his plywood and hands her two life size skulls, made of glass. They are fairly well made, but there are lines from the casting, and they are a bit greener than the crystal skulls seen so far. Diana tries not to look disappointed, but turns to go back inside.
'Oh, Mahmoud. You didn't see George did you? A few hours ago, leaving the hotel?'
He shakes his head sorrowfully. 'No miss. Sorry.'
'Don't worry. Look after yourself.'
'Yes miss. If there's anything more you want. I'm here, OK?'
Damien settled down to his keyboard as soon as Diana left, and had already sorted out what he was going to do by the time she called. He will make a connection, to be activated at around the time calls are known to come in, that will send his hotel phone a copy of the signal. As long as he picks up after the Mexican, and puts down the phone after him, it should be undetectable. But first, the hacking of Telefone Mexico's switchboard computer. It'll be a long job, so he orders some coffee from room service as he starts to type. As he logged on, he checked his intercepts. Lots of mail came into the Sheraton, but none with significant keywords. However, there was one that was encrypted. Ghost in the Machine have nothing, and the Esplendido service is very underused.
Ben calls Red and Corrin, to see where they've got to. On hearing about their accident he goes to help them sort out the insurance, and dealing with the car hire firm.
Sorting out the mess takes the three of them most of the afternoon, but as Red put it, 'serves me right for not looking.'
Later on, he goes for a wander around the town, to see what the 'Viva Zapatista' march is all about. Diana goes along too, and they ask Mahmoud where they should look. He tells them a few places where posters will be found, and where Zapatista speakers put their soapboxes. Sure enough, they find a man with a crowd of 20 or 30 listeners in the corner of the old park gardens. The dusty crowd are lounging around and smoking, but the speaker is fervently urging and encouraging them to action. What action and why are rather indiscernible to the operatives, but the general impression is given when police show up and the whole group disperses rapidly. Two or three are chased, and one slips, getting hit several times with the butt of a gun before scrambling off.
Diana turns away, and suggests they leave. Red nods, they know the march is to be at midday, and that to avoid it might be wise.
Damien finishes the hacking of the phone system at 6:15, but there seems little point engaging it for three quarters of an hour. Instead he decides to find out about the number Diana found. He calls it, and it rings, confirming it isn't a fax or modem number.
'Si?' comes the abrupt voice, obviously Mexican and male, at the other end when it is picked up.
Damien clicks off the connection, hoping it doesn't seem too suspicious. He sets a quick computer search going on anything specifically linking the ceremony date and Mexican folklore, before heading down to meet the others in the bar.
They are all there, and all except Corrin are drinking lager. Ben gets straight to the point, 'So what are we going to do about George?'
Ben answers, 'I think we should split up. How's about Red, Corrin and Maddy work on finding George, and Damien, Diana and I continue to find ways of halting the skull ceremony?'
'Sounds reasonable,' says Corrin. 'Only I can't think what to do to find George.'
'Well, I reckon we should continue with the plans we've already set in motion, in the hopes that our activities might uncover some information concerning George's disposition.'
'Hmm,' says Diana, 'He did get taken because of what we were finding out. I suppose that means we ought to keep looking.'
'Let's just be careful,' says Red, and then kicks himself for using the phrase from the note. 'Anyway, who's going to meet Maddy? I can if no-one else is bothered. I'd drive over and pick her up, but...'
'Yeah, never mind.' says Damien. He turns to Corrin, 'How confident are you that that truck was following you?'
She shrugs, 'I don't know. I think it was the same truck, but that still doesn't prove anything anyway. I might just be being paranoid, this George thing is creepy.'
'But about Maddy,' says Damien quickly. 'I think we want to go ahead with the plan to break into the Willoughbys, so we'll have to meet her after. I suggest we leave a note, in case we're busy when she arrives.'
'Bit unwelcoming, but I guess it'll work,' says Diana. 'Oh, I got those skulls, but a switch is going to be a bit dodgy. They don't look identical at all. In dim light, or wrapped up, they'd be fine, but the Willoughbys must know those artifacts really well.'
'Never mind. We'll just see what info. we can get,' says Ben.
'Hopefully we can get enough background to talk them into handing them over. If I can chuck Russian at them, and Damien acts as interpreter, I think we can pull it off.'
'The letters are done,' says Damien. 'But we need to get them to a professional printers to make them look decent.'
'We can sort that out tomorrow, if we're going ahead,' says Ben.
'The phone tap is sorted,' says Damien. 'We just have to wait for the seven o'clock call. I need someone out there, to tell me when he picks up.'
'I'll handle it,' volunteers Red.
Damien tells the others about the phone that might be Jaime's, and adds that neither Arsenio, nor Maria seems to have heard of the guy. Diana confirms that Mahmoud doesn't know of him either, though he said he'd ask around.
At seven o'clock Red is waiting, with Damien's mobile phone and a newspaper. The phone rings across the street, and he phones the mobile in the hotel room where the others are waiting. Damien is at the computer, checking the bugging's worked OK. Which it seems to have done, because Damien's hotel phone is ringing.
'It's ringing,' says Red.
'I know,' says Diana, 'has he picked up yet?'
'Not yet... Now.'
Ben picks up the hotel phone at Diana's nod, and holds the tape recorder against the ear piece.
A minute later Red says, 'OK, he put it down,' and Ben puts down the hotel phone. As he rewinds the tape Damien resets the telephone exchange, covering the traces of the intercepted call.
Playing back the tape, the only recognisable word is 'Arsenio'.
'I guess we could ask Mahmoud to translate,' says Diana.
Damien is still tapping away at the keyboard, and turns around. 'You know that check on significant dates I was running?'
'What, for the ceremony?' asks Red.
'Yeah, well there are a few things worth looking at. Firstly, it's a Sunday, ie Christian Sabbath. There's a certain amount of crossover between the old beliefs and bastardized Christianity here, has been for a while. Secondly, it's a feast day to Ahuantapec. A fairly minor one, in that it probably hasn't been celebrated much in the last few centuries, but it ties in. Also, it's at midday, which has significance for virtually every religion ever.'
'Interesting,' says Ben. 'We'd better get ready for dinner Diana'
'OK. Good luck guys.'
Ben and Diana get ready for dinner, as the others prepare their break-in to the Willoughbys. Red and Corrin mutter about harnesses, loops, grab angles and tie-offs, Damien fiddles with the RF scanner. It is agreed that if Maddy shows up she can help Damien look out, but they'll go in at 8:15 whatever.
Damien heads up to check out the area, and see if there are any previously unnoticed security measures. He walks up carefully, fairly sure the Willoughbys have left to meet the others, but not certain. The corridor is empty, of people and cameras, IR detectors or any other problems. Slowly he walks up to the room, and listens at the door.
As he slows his breathing he hears a few sounds, little bumps and rustles, but no voices. He backs off, and steps back down the corridor. The room next door is open, but empty, so he stands in the doorway for a second, wondering what to do. Hearing nothing more, he goes back to the Willoughbys' door, and has a quick listen - this time it is all quiet, and as he strains he is shocked by a louder noise, and a slight curse, from the open door next to him.
Standing back, and trying to look nonchalant he startles a man leaving the open room. He is Mexican, and his dress identifies him as one of the hotel waiters. He jumps and then tries to compose himself. 'Sorry sir, err, broken window. All fixed now. Can I help you?'
'No,' says Damien.
'Right then, I have things to do. OK?'
The man locks the door behind him, and walks quickly off, as Damien wanders along the corridor. He decides to go back up and tell the others, before they go in.
Maddy smiles again at the air hostess.
'Yes, yes,' she says, missing the irony of the asked 'Would you like any more peanuts?'
She takes the extra four bags and stuffs them in her pocket with the others. 'This is a major attack of the Munchies,' she thinks, and giggles at the air hostess again. She takes another swig of the tequila and walks out into the warm air of the airport.
She looks very distinctive and attracts several glances as she waits at the carousel for her army surplus rucksack. Her vivid, dyed red hair falls over a pale, freckled face which has been smeared with stripes of dayglo orange sunblock. Her bright yellow-green tie-dye skirt clashes with her green DMs, and the fluorescent alien head on her black T-shirt just looks weird.
Outside she whistles loudly and shouts 'Taxi!'
Ben and Diana are entertaining the Willoughbys by the simple method of letting them talk about whatever they want, and ignoring everything they say. Fortunately the food is tolerable, even if the surroundings are gaudy and Americanized, or 'quaint and authentic,' as Martin put it.
Consoling themselves that some good is being done they munch on, and Ben gives Diana a little nudge and a nod at the clock as they finish the nachos. The time is eight o'clock.
Damien hangs around in the lobby on the off chance Maddy shows up, and decides to give her until ten past. As he makes this decision he sees a thin, boyish-looking woman stagger up the steps, grinning manically and waving an open bottle of tequila at Arsenio.
'Wow, you look so smart. I guess you work here yeah?'
'That is correct madam, and you are?'
Damien has too good a sense of fate to not predict the answer, but he pales as she replies, 'Maddy Hook, I'm staying here.'
He wanders over, 'Arsenio, Miss Hook's here to join our group, I'll take her up, if you could get me the key.'
'So you must be one of the other SIT-' She claps a hand over her mouth and then removes it, revealing a sly smile, 'I mean one of the other innocent holiday makers...' She taps her nose in a clichéd gesture, adding the twist of a smear of orange coming off.
'Want some tequila?' she says with a slight sway.
'No, look I'm Damien,'
'Wow! like the Antichrist?!'
'No, listen, let's go upstairs, there's something I have to do.'
Damien grabs the key from Arsenio, it is for the room adjacent to his, and goes upstairs, with Maddy in tow. They chuck her things in her room, and he turns to leave.
'Where are you going? Where are the others?'
'Look, we're breaking into a room. I'm looking out. Just settle in, I'll be down in about ten minutes.'
'Oh that's OK. I'll come along. Is it like a stake-out?'
'No, a stake-out's when you wait around for something to happen, this is a look-out.'
'Well, I'll come along anyway. Why're you breaking in?'
They are now in the corridor and Damien turns towards her with a 'shush'.
'Listen Maddy, just keep your voice down and stay with me, OK?'
'Yeah, OK,' she whispers back.
Corrin has a loop of rope around her waist, and gently drops off the edge of the roof. Red braces himself and takes her weight on the rope looped round a large metal post. She slips down and onto the balcony with no difficulty and quickly unties the rope, which snakes back up. The balcony doors are easy to slip open, in fact it looks like the lock is broken. Once in, she goes over to the door, and gently eases it open. At the end of the corridor is Damien, and a bizarrely dressed young girl, not more than seventeen. Damien nods, and she grins expansively as Corrin slips the door back shut, without locking it.
'Wow! Was that one of you? I mean us.'
Damien just nods.
'Cool! Oh, sorry, we're supposed to be quiet...'
Damien concentrates on the RF scanner coming through the ear-phone. The channel is open, but neither Corrin or Red is speaking.
Corrin looks round the room, which is in more of a mess than she'd have thought from the Willoughbys' tidy attire. She sorts quickly through their things until she gets to a draw full of paperwork. At the back of the draw is a hardback book, a handwritten label on the spine declaring it 'T + C'.
She flicks it open, and it's a record of the Willoughbys' involvement with the two skulls: disappointingly, little more than frequently-updated estimates of their value, and the gradually-pieced-together identification of their history. At the back is a neatly-folded letter from Jaime de Reconvaco, giving an address, with the phone number noted before. It invites them to the ceremony, and a copy of their reply is also there. She relays most of the pertinent details down the phone, since Damien is recording all she says, and answers the few questions from Red. These concern the details of the provenance of the skulls, so he can make the Moldovan story convincing. Corrin also notes that the Willoughbys have been keeping a record of the other owners, and their skulls. Jouke's name has an 'S' by it, and Giles Lovesmith's has a 'B'.
Ten minutes later she is finished, and checks out the rest of the room. There is no sign of the skulls and after a further five-minute search she decides it's time to leave. Corrin communicates this to the others, and then slips out through the door, locking it behind her. Soon she, Damien and Maddy are joined by Red. They are in Maddy's new room and she wanders around, chucking clothes in piles and occasionally grabbing a bag of peanuts and eating it in ten seconds flat.
'So, um, you've lost whatsisname, George. Where's the last place you left him?'
Red shrugs as she shakes her head, long red hair flapping in front of her eyes.
'I've got psychic powers, y'know,' she says in a conspiratorial stage-whisper. 'Even though they tried to neutralize them - the Atlanteans I mean.' She glances around as if looking for someone listening in, 'and the Government. And the tentacle-men. Anyway, I'm quite good at finding things - 'cept my memory I s'pose...'
'I suppose we ought to fill you in on the details so far,' says Red.
'Ooh, hang on.' Maddy reaches into her bag and grabs a big, tattered book, and a biro. She takes a few notes as he tells her what's been going on. Damien chips in occasionally.
She hums, 'Like a Prayer' under her breath when Red mentions the Black Madonna, and gets very excited at the name of Chichen Itza, 'Yeah! let's go back there. Is it really named after chickens?'
By the time the story's been told Ben and Diana get back, muttering unmentionables about the Willoughbys, but keen to hear the news. They are also keen to meet Maddy, and despite her asking if Diana and Damien are married, they get on well.
Diana shows her the lumps of plant they found at Chichen Itza, when she asks, and Maddy grabs one and stuffs it in her mouth, crying out 'Oh Wow! Peyote!' As she chews noisily she tells them a little about the drug. 'I've always wanted to try this - supposed to give really cool visuals and stuff.' She smiles and sits back as the drug begins to take effect.
'Hey, give me that cassette thing of the Black Madonna, I might get a vision of George or something.'
She lies there, listening to the random chanting in a foreign language. The other SITU operatives shrug at each other. She'll certainly be an interesting addition to the team.
Location: Maddy's Room, Hotel Esplendido
9:10 PM 26 November
Damien: The coded E-mail to the Sheraton is probably FBI. You recognize the format. You get some of George's details while searching the room. Nothing very suspicious. Nothing taken from the safe.
Corrin: No reply from Mace yet. You call him, and he confirms that it might well be peyote. Maddy's details of it as a hallucinogen and slight stimulant are generally believed to be correct.