The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Las Cabezas de Muerte – Chapter 8
The sun reflects off the windows of the dusty little house, set back slightly from the road by a strip of what was once grass but has been reduced to dry earth. Diana flicks her hair from her face and keeps her hand up to keep the sun from her eyes. 'I suppose if Maddy thinks she might have seen this place we should check it out,' she says cautiously.
'Yeah, but carefully," says Ben.
'Could we phone the house, and see if anyone's in?'
Damien nods as Diana looks at him. 'Sure, let's keep walking and I'll phone. He holds the ringing phone to his ear as they carry on.
Maddy turns back to the house and starts to slow. Then she screws her eyes up, and suddenly opens them, as the agents cluster round.
'Let's split up,' she says decisively. 'Fred and Daphne take the bedrooms; Shag and Scoob search the cellars.' She grins and giggles, saying 'I've always wanted to say that!'
Damien puts down his phone. 'There's no-one in, lets get serious.'
Corrin is going towards the house. 'Let me check it out, I'll try the back.'
Maddy walks off after her, 'Can I go look in the river? Water's like, significant...'
She is closely followed by Damien and Red, Ben and Diana wait outside.
'I guess we shouldn't just stand around' says Diana.
'No, Probably best if you go off down the road a bit, take the phone. I just want to check round here for a moment. I've got the RF scanner, so bleep me if you see anything.'
Ben scuffs his foot around in the dirt, looking at the tyre-tracks. They are wide enough and deep enough for the flatbed truck, but equally so for about half the road vehicles in the world. The four windows at the front all had net curtains, and there were no lights inside. He starts to walk out into the road when the scanner bleeps. It's Diana - 'There's a woman up here, coming towards you. Just thought you ought to know.'
Ben quickens his pace slightly and looks down the road over his shoulder. He can see Diana, and beyond her the large woman with a bundle of cloth, or possibly clothing. He walks out of the drive, along the road away from Diana, they had both ways covered now. As he waits for the incredibly slow woman to get past the house he incidentally admires the view of huddled together roofs nestling in the craggy hills inland of Merida. At this point a large red truck comes down the road, towards Ben. It goes past, and straight to Jaime's house, where it parks and 3 men and a woman get out. Ben looks in panic at Diana, and is glad to see she's using the mobile phone.
The phone rings 4 times, as she breathes quickly and pushes it against her ear. Then the connection closes; 'It's Diana. People, outside.'
Red makes a sound of acknowledgement, as she continues; 'in the red truck, four of them,' but he's already gone and is running through the house. At the back the water comes up to a landing stage but, unlike several of his neighbours, Jaime has no boat. On their way in the area was looked at by Damien, and briefly Maddy while Corrin squeezed in through a kitchen window. Corrin had let them in the backdoor, through which they were now all running, after Red has sounded the alarm. Red glances left, and then right, before doing the obvious thing of diving in the water. Maddy is close behind, with a mixture of exhilaration and excitement in her grin. The others follow, and are soon floating off down the river. A man comes from inside the house and shuts the backdoor, looking around suspiciously.
Out the front Ben has made his way over to Diana, and they call a taxi while hoping the others have got out. Ben looks carefully at the truck and the house, 'If they'd been found, there'd be more noise and kerfuffle.'
'So you think they got out? Where are they?'
Simultaneously they both look to the water, and it is Ben that spots the waving arm of Red, from the far bank. A mixture of sign language and patience hatches the plan to get the car, by taxi, and come back for the now dripping wet operatives. Diana begins to giggle, but more from relief than the admittedly funny sights of Damien wringing his jacket out, and Maddy's drowned rat impression.
Having dropped the others off Ben drove straight into town, eager to see how the march, the preparations for which he'd been seeing all day, was progressing. Traffic was heavy, and he was advised by a policeman to turn back. He did so, but parked and continued on in by foot. 'The scenes were typical; the horror slightly numbed by this familiarity, the CNN factor of continual exposure to such regimes world-wide.' Ben struggles to avoid himself talking in copy as he watches the brutality of the police, and armed forces, as they herd the marchers - any stragglers being hit with truncheons, and occasionally the butts of pistols. He sees counter-protests; bottles being thrown, a fire started. In retrospect this is the triggering moment; as the flames rise and people back away, there becomes a general motion, the momentum of which forces some against the police, who attack. As a full riot emerges, and gunshots are heard Ben backs away, photographs reeling from his camera, and thoughts in his mind. He walks slowly back to the Sheraton, abandoning the car and deciding the Esplendido is too far to walk, and the wrong side of town..
Diana has been waiting anxiously for any news of how the break-in, and escape, went, and if anything important has been discovered. Damien knocks on her door, and that completes the team, save Ben.
'So what happened? George wasn't there, I take it.'
Maddy looks crestfallen, 'Hmm. Sometimes my psychic powers are a bit... wobbly. I think the implant does that.'
Diana smiles at her, 'Hey, I wasn't blaming you or anything. Sorry. Water's like, significant, yeah?'
Damien looks up - 'Right, let's collate information. Firstly, the truck showed up. That's fairly solid. Next, you find some envelopes, yeah?'
He is looking at Corrin who responds. 'Yeah. They were on the desk, they were just like the one George's driving license was in.'
Damien pulls out the crumpled envelope that had been left at the desk. 'Not much Viva Zapatista! Stuff at all.'
'I saw a single poster, just A4 and on the floor,' says Red.
'But the place was so dodgy,' says Maddy. 'loads of symbols and pictures and...'
Damien cuts in, 'everything occult from crucifixes to skulls. But no crystal ones.'
'There was also this list,' says Red. Everyone looks at him expectantly, so he continues. 'It's not that major, I just saw it on his desk, and noticed the word Sheraton, at the end of a line. But it was all in Spanish, and the phone went as I was trying to make any sense of it.'
'How big a list, and where was the Sheraton thing?' asks Corrin.
'About five things. The Sheraton was the first. There was a triangle at the top, roughly equilateral. It was written in a hurry I'd say, like from dictation or the phone maybe.'
'Right, lets get organised for this afternoon,' says Red. 'We've got work to do.'
Damien and Red are left upstairs, to prepare to fool the Willoughby's. They run through the documentation again, and sort out their elaborate cover story, and made up skull history. About an hour later Maddy phones, as arranged, and tells them the Willoughby's are by the pool, saying 'I don't think they liked me borrowing their towels, and they wouldn't show me the skulls, so good luck.'
The two move downstairs, talking in over-stressed accents to one another. Red seems to enjoy the burbling nonsensically, but Damien looks a little stressed as the interpreter 'making up for two'. The Willoughby's are rather flustered when presented with the Moldovan aristocrat and the investigator from the Bureau of Occult Affairs. They demand to see papers, and having done so, agree to going somewhere 'a little more private.' Upstairs they calm down a lot, and cease trying to make a scene. They both seem slightly impressed by Red, although question why they weren't approached before. Damien says something about paperwork and authorisations. The upshot is that while the Willoughby's are keen to point out they cannot be held liable for a past crime, and they bought the objects in good faith, they might be keen to sell the skulls, were the price to be right. They talk about the value of the skulls, and their 'exceptional irreplaceability.' Martin's response to this is a slightly sly, 'Oh, I wouldn't be too sure of that.' Elsa silences him with a look, and talks again about the skulls provenance having never been called into question before. They would be happy for you to see the skulls, for 'an appraisal,' but not until tomorrow. The skulls are kept at the airport, and they will go and get them before the ceremony. In monetary terms, the Willoughby's are indicating that they might sell the skulls for perhaps 5,000 pounds each. Their recorded value, in the notebook, was about half that.
After two hours, and some room service tea, the two operatives go back upstairs to change, and head off to the Sheraton for dinner.
The food is rather better served at the Sheraton and were it not for the businesslike discussion at the table, the six people could have felt on holiday. Unfortunately talk of the mission was discussed throughout, starting with reports on how things had gone that afternoon. Ben related the events of the march, and its culmination. People look shocked, although Corrin has obviously heard it from Ben before.
'And you wouldn't believe Jason's response,' Ben continues, looking almost angry. 'He just talked about exposure, and Merida hitting the news and what a great opportunity it all was. He even asked for copies of my photos.'
'So you've seen the crew then?' asks Red. 'I thought I saw Paula on the way in.'
'Yeah, they've been setting up all day I think. When Corrin came over we went down to speak to them, and supposedly lend a hand.'
'They seemed quite organised actually,' says Corrin. 'Which I hadn't expected. I picked up a schedule from Tony. I think he wouldn't mind if I came along.'
'Jason asked us both along,' says Ben. 'We might be able to sneak the rest of you in as well, if you want to be inside.'
'We'll have to see,' says Damien. 'How was security tightening up?'
'Surprisingly low key actually,' says Ben.
'Yeah, I really didn't see anything of them. Couldn't find out much,' she sounds a bit disappointed.
'It's actually good, I'd say. It seems not much is changing so our preparations are going to be useful. The plans of the room are accurate, the number of people invited is known, at about 60, we can have people inside, and we know when things are happening.'
'I expect they'll have been busy with Brett Darling
At this Corrin pulls out the schedule. A photocopied sheet with notes in Tony's spidery hand all over it.
11:00 Reception, drinks in Reception room C. Darling and Jaime interviews.
11:45 Assembly of owners in Main conference hall. Jaime detail.
11:55 Jaime's speech (MCH), and 'reunion beginnings'
12:00 'The resonance of the skulls'
12:05 Jaime to talk again, and reactions.
12:10 Darling's speech, and subsequent press call (Reception E).
12:15 Post-ceremony drinks (Reception C). Interviews (Reception E).
Tony's comments are along the lines of 'detailed shot', 'wide angle', 'general', 'NB Darling', 'Resonance? Have filters/LensGuard', 'Drinks!'
There is some discussion of the timings, and the possible 'resonance'. Then Damien and Red recount the details of the afternoon with the Willoughby's.
Once they've finished, Maddy looks excited. 'Right, our turn.' She looks at Diana, who motions her to carry on.
'Right, well we met up with Mahmoud, and I had a little poke around under the hotel. But then we had a chat and got him to take us over here, only not to the front, but round the back. There were these friends of his. They were a bit stand-offish, which was nasty, and they didn't seem to like us knowing they were dealers, nut it's not like we're the sort to go to the cops, is it?'
Diana stops biting her bottom lip, and says in a quiet voice, 'I do hope Mahmoud doesn't get into trouble for that.'
'Anyway. Diana gave them a bit of cash, cause I still haven't worked out which ones are worth anything, and they would talk to us. Apparently this ritual is this really huge thing, but we 'Eengleesh and Hamericans' cannot understand. I think they were being nastier about all the owners, than us, and they said they'd help us out if we needed anything tomorrow. We do yeah?'
'Perhaps,' says Corrin.
'Oh, but they wouldn't sell us any drugs for poisoning people. Which was a shame. Oh, and I talked to the Willoughby's of course, but I don't think they liked me at all.'
Damien leans forward. 'Speaking of which, I checked out the room next to theirs, where that waiter came out from. It hasn't been occupied for over a week, and it's not reserved for the rest of this week at all. I really can't figure out what he was doing there.'
'He could have been hiding something,' says Diana, thoughtfully. 'Where better to hide one of the skulls, if you've stolen one, than in the hotel itself? No-one would expect them to be so close. I think it might be worth checking the room out. Oh, and can you find out other things, from the Esplendido computers?'
'Well, what do you need to know?'
'I was just wondering who had kept stuff in the hotel strongroom. Some of the skull owners must be using it. Is there a list somewhere on the computer, do you think?'
'Probably. I think if I do some digging I ought to be able to find something,' he says with understated confidence.
'A couple of other things from Mahmoud,' Diana says. 'Firstly, the Cuervo Cojaente, and how they fit into all of this. Apparently they aren't really involved with the Black Madonna's - some of them might be members of the church, but not many. Secondly, the church Mahmoud showed me and Maddy is the major one in town, although there are something like a dozen small chapels around. I think maybe we should stake it out tonight.'
'Yeah,' says Maddy. 'But I want to go to Chicken Itza, see what I can see out there.'
'Well, we can do both,' says Ben. 'But we have to be careful. We still don't know where George is, our car is known to them, if it's still in one piece, and I don't want anyone getting hurt. I had a glance into the church earlier, it was empty but it gives me the creeps.'
'What do you think, Damien?' asks Corrin.
'We've got a lot to do. And I really need to get on with some more hacking before too long. We're going to have to split up, to cover both places, I suggest a couple of us stay at the Esplendido, as backup for either team.'
'OK,' says Ben. 'How's about Diana drives Maddy up to Chichen Itza. If they take the mobile, they can call us if anything is happening and we can go out and take care of it. If not, Red and I can check out the church'
'And if there's nothing going on, I'll try a bit of this,' says Maddy waving the button of peyote around. 'See what I can see'.
'Be careful,' says Corrin.
The dessert course resumes.
Ben is dropped off at the Esplendido by Diana, after showing her and Maddy where the car was. It has been badly scratched, and has a large dent in the front passenger door, meaning it won't open so Maddy clambered over to get in, muttering something about the Dukes of Hazard.
He goes inside, and Arsenio is there to greet him. 'How are things? Pleasant as always I hope. Is there perhaps anything I could do for you?'
'I'm not sure.'
'I noticed your friends were talking to the Willoughby couple, about their skulls, yes?'
'That's right. They have a certain interest in two of the skulls in particular.'
'I believe we have several in the custody of the hotel. Which is a great honour. Your friends are scholars?'
'Well, one is from the Bureau of Occult affairs. He has a certain interest and knowledge of the skulls. I'm sure he'd be interested if he could see them.'
'Perhaps something could be arranged?'
Ben notices Red, over Arsenio's shoulder and decides to end the conversation. 'I must go upstairs I'm afraid.'
'I'm sure I will see you soon.'
The first thing Damien did on getting back to his room was check on the work the computer had been doing - a search on the Black Madonna. The Net presence is not huge, and more academic than genuine, but details are there. The circles and triangle symbol are there and are a symbol of the cult from its early beginnings. the religion is a fusion of Christianity and Zapotec ritualism. There are rumours of sacrifice, and subversive behaviours from some corners. The religion is looked slightly down on by the government, but it has a large enough root following, and perhaps a few high-up supporters, that it has never really been badmouthed. The Earth mother/Gaia concept is rather ignored here, but it would come under the folds of the encompassing religion.
He makes a few notes, cutting and pasting text across from the selection of sites and newsgroup threads. Then he gets into the Xerox PARC, logging onto Weasel after about half an hour. As he gets there, the phone by the bed rings, and he picks it up.
'Hello, Damien Knight'
'Hello, Diana Knight.'
'How are things?'
'Oh fine. There's no-one around here at all. We're going to take a little wander inside and I think Maddy wants to take the peyote.... Yeah, she's nodding lots.'
'Well good luck. I hope she sees something.'
'Bye. Tell the others 'Good Luck' from us,'
Damien puts the phone down and calls Ben, so that he and Red can go out and check the church. Then he gets back to Weasel, checking other datafiles of the period for references to the Tezcatlipoca incident. One of the most important is a negative one: 'So it seems that if we cannot understand the incident we should seek to avoid repetitions. Following instructions follow until superseded. Potential Ultrasonic sources should be kept shielded. Fluorescence to them to be limited in duration and energy. Particular care with IR. Original object to be effectively quarantined, pending resolution of testing.'
Another note is attached: 'Testing concluded, details and object sent on to /487/.'
Further delving to /487/, presumably a name code, is fruitless.
Ben checks his watch as he and the large Russian round the corner. It is ten past nine, the air is still and warm, and there is a slight smell of smoke. The city has calmed down from the riots earlier, but evidence is all around. Both the men feel nervous, but happier it is they, rather than any of the others, who is out in such conditions. The church is a detached building, with a path around all four sides. The front, and it's large arched doorway face the street they're on. A bar is almost opposite. They walk around the building, and hear sounds of movement and perhaps chanting, very faintly, within. Red pushes Ben up so he can glance through a window; there are candles, about 5 people moving around and a lot of incense. The church is arranged in a very straightforward manner. An altar at the other end from the main entrance, a door through to a sealed side chapel, and what would in a Christian church be the vestry. There are benches facing the altar, but with a large space down the middle. The room has several heavy hangings on the walls, but little other ornament. Red grunts and Ben gets down. 'Let's wait opposite, you can tell me what's happening in there.'
'Sure but it's not much.'
Maddy has taken the peyote and looks around the empty end room of the small Black Madonna complex. Her eyes are large and Diana sits nervously opposite her, with the Dictaphone and her pad open. A doodle of scrollwork covers most of the edge of the page as Maddy starts to speak. 'George never came here. Asleep in a car and a truck. Here is empty of him, full of peyote. dancing, shouting, singing, peyote. Peyote Cojaente. Feathers and birds, dancing. and sleeping. Asleep in the water, all around. Salt like sweat, or tears. or blood thicker than water.'
Diana scribbles quickly, and takes a moment to compose herself as Maddy pauses.
'The others, the hotel. Find Me, it said. Find me with the others. It speaks but what is it? Atlanteans, and the implant, or the FBI and the KGB and everyone. A person, a face, everyface. Skull, and blood. Ooh'
She looks up with a start, as does Diana.
'blood? here. and there. and everywhere between. blood? blood. Thicker than water, thicker than thieves.'
As she speaks she gets up and falls silent. She is pointing at the altar, and then the wall, and then the floor and then the door. She stays pointed, and freezes. After ten seconds that feel like a minute Diana gets up and walks round Maddy to see her face. Her eyes are open and very dilated, from the low light, and the drugs. Examining her, Diana brings the torch round to look closer. As the torch shines on Maddy's eyes she screams pitifully quietly and jolts back. Her neck snaps back and bounces forward. Diana catches her, and at the sensation Maddy wakes with a start. She immediately points at the door and starts to walk out.
Over the next half hour Ben and Red see men and women, and even a couple of children walk in to the church, about ten in all. They are inside for about twenty minutes, very little sound escapes, but a few thumps are audible. You return to look in through a window, but all have been covered, even close up there is not much sound, beyond occasional quiet chants.
The children leave first, with their mother, and are followed by a stream of Mexicans, until the last stragglers leave about ten minutes later. The church is locked and he comes over to the bar. He seems recognised and sits down for a drink with a few other men.
'I guess we might as well head back,' says Ben, obviously disappointed.
'Yeah.' Red finishes his bottle of beer in a swig and gets up.
They get back to the hotel and meet up with Damien. He tells them the computer work he's done at Xerox PARC and while they peruse that he checks on Arsenio's accounts in the hotel computers. They seem to be rather poor, especially as he notices that the hotel is shown to be lending large sums of money to Arsenio himself. Either he's very rich from fraud, or deeply in debt.
Corrin has been wandering around the bar for a while, idly picking up chat and having a drink. She has successfully avoided the Willoughby's and also reassured Maria that they haven't forgotten about cliff-diving, but have been really swept up in the excitement of this skull programme the TV people are making. Later on she notices the waiter from the break-in, and decides to keep an eye on him. He moves through various tables, and taking plates from place to place. He moves over, with them, to a large movable table, stacked with crockery. He puts the plates down, and reaches behind the table, picking a small black rucksack up. He then wanders out with this towards the lobby.
Corrin gets up, and walks quickly towards him. He pushes the door through to the staff area. Corrin sees through the swinging door that he nods at two other people, in cleaners uniform, and goes with them into the lift. As the door closes Corrin moves up, and watches the display go down to B1. A man walks round the corner, and Corrin moves away from the lift, and out into the lobby with a quiet 'Ooops wrong door.'
She heads upstairs and meets up with the others. They say some 'hello's but seem lost in thought.
'Diana and Maddy just called. Very odd,' says Damien.
'Fine,' says Ben. 'Maddy's gone a bit trippy. They're heading back. Maddy's talking about some trail and blood and skulls.'
He pauses, then looks at Red, who squints back. 'Yes,' says Ben. 'OK. You remember all those people leaving the church?'
'Yeah, about a dozen, and the kids.'
'They were all women. All of them. No men left the church, except that one who locked up.'
'Are you sure?' says Damien.
Location: Damien's Room, Esplendido AND Road back from Chichen Itza
Time: 11:10, 27 November 1997.
Ben: you take some random pre-edit tapes from the Ghosts in the Machine store room. You don't have any idea what's on them, but you know you don't have the one with the fuzzy patch. Maddy's interesting.
Damien: Send back stuff. Haven't hacked Gareth, because Ben and Red were there. Could you say how you want to do it?