The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Las Cabezas de Muerte – Chapter 9
Diana drives carefully, keeping a careful eye out for anyone who might follow them, or worse. Maddy is looking rather more glazed and worn round the edges. Every now and then she mutters something, '...and it was a trail, sort of like the Yellow Brick Road, except blood. Maybe we could, y'know, follow it...'
'How are you feeling?' asks Diana with concern that ends with a wry smile.
'Oh. OK I guess. Just trying to remember it all. Keep going this way, I think.'
Diana keeps driving back to the hotel and Maddy keeps muttering, occasionally saying, 'Yeah, this way.' and other positive comments. As they pull up outside the hotel Maddy goes stiff and points agitatedly at the base of the wall, 'blood. The psychic blood trail.'
'Here?' says Diana, trying not to think about who lives where Maddy is pointing. She moves with speed round to the front of the hotel and runs up to Mahmoud's usual resting place. She kicks savagely at the board and hisses 'Mahmoud' loudly. A tense few seconds pass, but as she inhales to speak again a small brown face with dusty black hair pops up. Mahmoud grins and cocks his head on one side, like an inquisitive monkey.
Diana's relief is audible and she takes half a step forward as if to hug him, but thinks better of it as Maddy stumbles round the corner.
'Can I help?' asks a confused Mahmoud, 'she looks sick.'
'I'm fine,' says a pale Maddy. 'Trail was very strong there.'
'Let's go inside. Oh, see you later Mahmoud, sorry.'
Maddy has a twinkle in her eye as she turns to Mahmoud. 'See you later. Fairly soon probably - I might want to get somewhere under the hotel.'
'OK,' Mahmoud looks confusedly at the retreating backs of the two women, shakes his head slightly and ducks back behind the sheet of plywood.
Diana walks slightly in front and greets Arsenio at the door. He smiles weakly and peers beyond her, into the gloom. Glowing blobs resolve into Maddy and he looks away again. Diana continues towards the lift and presses the button.
'Hey miss?' it is Arsenio's voice and Diana turns to see what has aggravated him. It is Maddy who he looks towards and Diana walks quickly over to her, as does Arsenio. She is sitting cross-legged in front of the staff door and looking up to the push handle. Her mouth hangs open and then snaps shut. She looks up, straight into Diana's eyes and says one word: 'Blood.'
Arsenio looks shocked and steps back. Diana looks tired and steps forward, hoisting Maddy to her feet and frog-marching her to the lift. She turns to Arsenio, 'Sorry.' The lift doors open and she steps in, with Maddy, who slumps in the corner.
'Sorry,' says Maddy as the lift starts to move. 'I guess peyote's stronger than I thought, or this place is more psychically active or something.'
'Don't worry about it. I guess.'
'We have to follow this trail though.'
'Well, OK. Anyway, lets tell the others.'
Ben, Damien, Red and Corrin are in Ben's room, where he is packing a bag to take on a stake-out of the church. Room service have provided sandwiches, and he has a torch, binoculars and the mobile phone. At Damien's suggestion he also puts in the monocular, a knife and the RF scanner, to keep in touch. Corrin hears a faint knock, and goes to the door. As she reaches it someone knocks on it loudly. She opens the door and Maddy's face pops in, framed by tousled hair.
'Found them,' she calls down the corridor and she is joined by Diana as she steps in. Stories are told; the church, in detail, the vision of the trail and Corrin's talk of the basement. At the mention of the staff exit door Diana and Maddy exchange glances and Maddy cuts in, 'I know it's, like, a really dumb horror-film thing to do, but we have to get down to the basement and find out what's in that rucksack. I'm sure that's where the trail goes and the guy was in my first vision - the waiter waits!'
The discussion turns to the practical, and which place to go first. It is decided Ben and Damien will head back to the church and keep an eye on things while the others see about the basement. As Red puts it, 'the church isn't going anywhere.'
Damien and Ben head off, wishing the others luck. They leave the mobile phone and scanner but take the other things, except a sandwich, which Red grabs. They walk through the streets, avoiding the eyes of all they see - there are a number of drunk Mexicans around and Ben can't help remembering the scenes he witnessed earlier. The church looks quiet, but the bar opposite has got more noisy. After a brief discussion they decide to wait outside, next to a phone box. Damien pulls out a coin and dials his mobile number, to let the others know how to contact them.
The phone rings as he drums his fingers against the graffitied plastic of the booth. Then it cuts off. Damien dials again, but the phone has been turned off.
Corrin, Maddy and Diana go out to talk to Mahmoud, Red waits in the lobby to see if direct access to the basement would be possible. He waits around for a while without any movement in the staff area, so he moves over to the door. It is just within sight of the reception desk, and Arsenio's office, but slipping through unnoticed would be possible. Red does so, with a shrug and a thought about not being able to fit through any little holes under the hotel anyway. Ten tense seconds pass as he waits for the lift, and the chime it makes on arrival sets his teeth on edge, but soon he is proceeding down.
'So how about it?' says Maddy for the third time. Mahmoud shrugs again - 'It's possible, but Arsenio won't like it.'
'It's really important,' says Diana. Corrin nods, and continues peering into the dusty area Mahmoud calls home, the flashlight beam picking out the cobwebs with small scintillations.
'OK, follow me.'
They do, after Maddy fails to find Red in the lobby. As they crawl through the dust Corrin asks Mahmoud if he saw the waiter leave, but refuses to be drawn on what they want to do when inside. Mahmoud says he didn't, but he had only just returned when Diana had called for him before. After a few minutes of crawling the four get to a grille large enough to climb through. Corrin works at the eight screws holding it on with the knife while Diana lights the area for her. Corrin stops suddenly and waves the torch away, a man bustles along the corridor and out of sight, without looking up to the watching eyes. Corrin continues, and soon the grille is lifted away and the three women drop through.
Mahmoud waits after passing Maddy's large empty rucksack down to her and resting the grille back in its place.
Red is in a dark cupboard holding the door closed with his left hand and silently cursing the phone he holds in his right. He turned it off as soon as he could, but the ringing seemed to resound through the room he'd got to. His breath had sounded awfully loud as he had crouched, flinching as the light had been turned on in the room outside. Eventually the light had gone off, and he had not been discovered, but he was taking a moment to compose himself before coming out. He puts the phone back in his pocket and tries to shift his feet without knocking over whatever is sharing his cupboard.
The light is turned back on and he freezes again, tensing himself to hit out at whoever opens the door. He hears a muffled squeal and an excited 'here, here.' It takes half a second for him to realise it was English, and the rest of the second for it to click that it was Maddy's voice. He sighs and eases the door open a crack.
'Ssh,' says Diana. 'Oh God.'
Her eyes and the others' are fixed on a large cupboard towards which Maddy is pointing. The door is opening slightly.
'It's OK. It's me, Red.'
'What?' says Corrin leaning forward as the door swings open.
'Oh thank God,' says Diana.
'What on earth are you doing here. It's here,' says Maddy pushing forward and leaning into the cupboard. Sure enough, after a little scrabbling she pulls out the rucksack. Red's explanation of the 'bloody phone' is cut short as she waves it at them and they all lean over as she opens it. Sure enough, there's a skull inside, pure crystal seeming to suck in the blackness of the bag.
'It's covered in blood,' says Maddy to the others' surprise - it isn't and Red says so. Maddy shakes her head and pulls it out. Sure enough it is clean and she shrugs.
'Let's get out of here,' says Diana.
'Follow me,' says Red, moving quietly out towards the door. The others follow, after Maddy has put a souvenir skull in the rucksack, which she replaces in the cupboard. The real one she tucks in her own bag with a look somewhere between glee and trepidation.
A happily uneventful minute later they are in the lift, and go straight up to their rooms.
After a brief discussion they decide to leave the skull behind and to join the others.
'I assume it was them who phoned, I hope it wasn't important,' says Red.
Ben and Damien have tried phoning again, twice, but without luck. They've also seen the man who has the key to the church go back in, at about midnight and return, accompanied by about a dozen men twenty minutes later. One of them has wet hair and face.
'That guy looks like he's just had a shower,' comments Ben.
'Do you think that's the lot?' asks Damien.
'Maybe. We thought it was the lot before.'
The group of men have gone to the bar, from which spills loud music and the occasional drunk. Ben and Damien go round to the back and both scrabble up to look in to the dark church, lit by a single large candle. It is black and the flame spits occasionally.
'I guess we wait for the others,' says Ben.
'Yeah, but I reckon we ought to check on them if they don't show soon.'
They retire to stand by the phone box again and see the others before they are seen. Ben points them out, and the group join up. Damien looks sheepish when the phone is mentioned, but both are impressed with the ease they found the skull. Maddy grins, 'it was the psychic blood trail, all I did was follow it.'
'Are we breaking in then?' asks Red.
'Been thinking about that,' says Ben. 'Do you think you could force one of these windows? Anything else will be seen from the bar, and I don't think they'll be quietening down for a while.'
'Well, since I don't have to worry about noise, it's gotta be worth a go.'
Damien and Ben help Red get up to the window, where he uses its sturdy frame to pull himself up. His biceps bulge in an almost disturbing way as he strains to push the join of the windows in. That done he takes the knife Corrin offers and jams it between the two sides. A quick lever and twist and something gives. Red slips down and hits the floor heavily but gets up with a grin - the window is swinging open.
'Right, who's going in,' says Damien.
Ben half raises a hand, as does Red. Corrin nods, but Diana looks unsure.
'I don't suppose you "saw" whether George came here, did you?' she says to Maddy.
She just shrugs. 'Maybe. This place freaks me out though, and I still keep seeing these blood smears everywhere.'
Diana nods slightly. 'How about we two wait outside, with the phone.'
'OK. We'll take the scanner, and keep the channel open. If you see anything, just whisper,' says Damien.
He helps Red up to the ledge, where he reaches down to help pull the others in. Corrin clicks on the light, which takes away a bit of the eeriness of the building, but makes the shadows deeper.
'OK,' she says. 'Let's check out the side-room.'
They proceed down, through the room, surrounded with pegs.
'No clothes,' points out Ben. 'Good sign.'
A small archway leads to a downwards spiral staircase. At Damien's suggestion the operatives walk on in the darkness, Corrin leading and feeling for every step.
At the bottom, some light is filtering through, and Corrin strains to make out a large, roughly oval room. Statues sit in niches in the walls and there is some sort of design on the ceiling. She raises her hand for silence and then nods.
'I think I can hear things, that way,' she whispers. She points out the passage the faint light comes from, and creeps forward to the corner. After a moment she turns back and beckons them on, they move forward as slowly and quietly as possible, but she winces several times. 'Maybe, you'd better go on alone to hear what's going on?' whispers Red, and she nods.
Ben stands at the corner as she creeps along, watching carefully for any change in the light that might indicate movement below. The passageway curves gently and Corrin goes out of sight. Ben glances at his watch, and does so several more times in the two minutes before she returns. She waves him back into the large room, and follows the others right up into the church before speaking.
'OK, there's someone down there. I'm pretty sure it was Jaime, and he's talking to a woman - really odd voice though. I think he said Sheraton once. Oh and something else - running water in the background, quite a lot of it.'
'Shall we get out of here?' asks Damien, glancing around.
'Yeah,' says Ben, as Corrin and Red nod.
Maddy and Damien remain to watch the church, the others all head back and go to sleep. After a about half an hour of Maddy asking Damien about various computer hacker things, as she puts it, he is beginning to get a little tired. As he explains again that the Ethernet is just another type of computer network he notices the faint light at the church windows has gone.
Moving round to the front they see Jaime leave the church, carrying an object wrapped in black cloth.
'His skull,' says Maddy.
Jaime locks the door behind him, pops into the bar briefly and gets onto a moped to buzz away.
'I reckon that'll do for the night,' says Damien finding it is past one o'clock.
'OK. I'm not tired but I have a few things to do anyway,' says Maddy and they head back to the hotel. Once back Damien sees mail has arrived, from SITU. Apparently a Lawrence Saint-John is to be sent out to assist in their attempts to find George, since it is 'of the highest priority'. He's another Englishman, with experience of the occult. He'll receive some briefing in England but it's expected he'll follow their lead. His flight gets in at 11:00 tomorrow and he will meet them at the Esplendido shortly after. Maddy remarks, 'silly name' and insists on getting George's room key before leaving Damien to sleep.
She goes to George's and potters round for a while. Eventually she settles - a saucer and three lit candles, 'black for shadow, white for light, red for blood' are in front of her and she is attacking one of his paperback books with nail scissors. She snips up random words and phrases from some of the middle chapters - avoiding the really nasty bits of the horror story - and makes a little pile. She takes another gulp of tequila and then jabs herself in the thumb with the scissors, squeezing a few drops of blood onto the saucer. 'Ow,' she says, and then giggles.
'Okay,' she says. 'Here goes...' She drains the last of the tequila with a noisy gulp and then lets her mind go blank. She thinks of George as her hands scrabble around in the bits of paper. After a few minutes of concentration she scrunches up a handful and scatters them in the air. She breathes deeply, hoping the ritual has worked and then opens her eyes as she smells harsh smoke - one of the bits caught light on a candle and is gently burning its way into the carpet.
'Ooops,' she says, hitting it with the scissors, and then looks at the saucer.
Red wakes early and starving. He heads down to breakfast without waiting for the others. In the lobby a furious looking old woman is screaming at Arsenio.
'Gone. I leave it in your hotel and gone. Very good security I was told. We'll look after it, you told me.'
'Madam, madam, please. Let us talk about this in my office.'
'Absolutely not. I want everyone to hear how you've let me down, and as for you,' she turns to a heavyset man in a smart grey suit who is watching on, much as Red is. 'You, Mr Hein, I wouldn't think you above suspicion,' he recoils from her look.
'What is the problem?' he asks with thick German accent.
'Aleister is gone. Stolen. From my room.'
'We do advise guests to make use of the hotel safe for valuable items,' says Arsenio, and then wishes he hadn't as she rounds on him.
'I can't be separated from Aleister all the time, can I? You understand nothing of anything you foolish man. Now do everything you can to find my skull. I have attempts of my own to make,' with this she sweeps round and stamps up the stairs past Red, hardly seeming to notice him.
Hein looks round and spots Giles Lovesmith, sweltering in Leather trousers and black T-shirt, albeit ripped. 'It seems her skull has been stolen, the reunion will not be complete.'
'Serves her right, the witch,' he says with surprising vehemence before striking a moody pose and walking out of the lobby, pulling a packet of Marlboro lights from his pocket.
Arsenio looks round with exasperation and then walks into his office with a sigh and shutting the door with a slam.
The morning of the ceremony is spent, with the exception of Maddy who is dead to the world when timid attempts are made to wake her, in feverish activity - first of all around the Esplendido.
Corrin, Damien and Red break in to the room next to the Willoughby's but find little of interest in the empty room. Whilst there Corrin checks the Willoughby's empty room, it is a lot tidier than before but little is different.
Meanwhile Ben and Diana are talking to Arsenio to find out what extent his help will extend to. He is hiding in his office but lets them in when Ben talks about reaching an arrangement, perhaps. At the mention of skulls Arsenio sighs - he seems to have given up on always smiling in front of the customers.
'Skulls, why is it always skulls?'
'They are very valuable items,' says Ben.
'Yes, indeed. I suppose. How valuable, really.'
'Oh, I'm sure it varies. Anyway, we don't have one so...' Diana pauses, could Corrin be right and Arsenio would steal a skull for them? Damien's hacking showed that four of the skull owners are using the strongroom, and...
'Well then, perhaps after the ceremony,' says Ben.
'We could organise something in advance, like now?' says Arsenio, smiling almost convincingly. 'Perhaps if you like I can look into you, err, seeing one of these skulls and we could talk about an arrangement fee, for getting hold of the thing,' he pauses and wipes his brow. 'So I could talk to one of the owners about it.'
'Can you get hold of one?' asks Ben bluntly.
'Yes, of course.'
'Well, when you do, we can talk about money, yes?'
Ben's bargaining tactics are a little harsh for Diana, and she still isn't quite sure what Ben's dealing for, so she just nods.
'Well, OK.' says Arsenio. 'I'll talk to you here later, yes?'
'Yes,' says Diana as Ben stands up.
'After all you have to have time to go to your bank, yes?'
Ben nods and the two operatives leave. When upstairs Ben ventures his professional opinion - 'he'll do anything for cash - including stealing a skull.' Red and Damien arrange to meet with the Willoughby's at quarter past eleven - in the hour before then Damien checks at his hacked access to the Sheraton. The sequences are in place to set off the fire alarm, and to block out the computer cut-out, the manual is another matter. He decides to set the sequence on a timer, so that he can be at the Sheraton when the fun starts.
Red nips off for a quick swim with Maria, and to ask her about any sea access to caves at low-tide. She says there are a few things down there, but not much. Since the water is fairly low at present there are some exposed that would not normally be. Red checks them out, but none go back at all far. He decides to, and indeed does, impress Maria by having a go at cliff-diving. It's certainly exhilarating.
Corrin and Ben have been spending time at the Sheraton. Brett Darling came through to the interview room at half past ten, flanked by two men in identical suits - one of whom is the person who was once mistaken for Damien. The two SITU operatives spend some time with the film crew, and make sure they will be allowed to be around during the ceremony. In fact, the crew seem busy and unconcerned enough that any of the group could show up and be introduced.
As eleven o'clock approaches skull-owners, most clutching there skulls, begin to filter in to the Sheraton. Harriet, the angry woman from the Esplendido lobby, is fuming and Giles looks ill, but in general the mood is of expectation, a feeling shared by the operatives.
At eleven o'clock the operatives are together in Ben's room at the Sheraton. Maddy has woken, and has brought along a saucer with a red smear that she confirms as blood, and a number of scraps of paper. They say; 'so near, but not quite', 'to focus on the pupil of the eye', 'water', 'below', 'last night', 'brought rather than sent' - these last two with stains of blood. Her convoluted explanation of method and apologies for tiredness are accepted.
As they discuss the strategies to halt the ceremony Diana announces a brainwave. 'Maybe we could get one of Mahmoud's friends to phone the hotel and claim there's a bomb in the hotel. They could claim they were part of the Zapatista or the Cuervo Cojaente or something.'
'Cool,' says Maddy.
She continues, 'the ceremony's meant to be at noon exactly, so if we could get them to phone at 11:50 or 11:55, somewhere about there, it would throw it all out.'
Ben nods. 'The timing of the ceremony is probably significant so if we can delay it ten minutes it might be enough to ruin it.'
'If nothing else then I imagine the FBI would want to check it out,' says Diana. 'And if they won't do it for us Mahmoud would, but he'd probably sound a bit too young to be convincing.'
Damien nods. 'OK then, let's run through things a last time so you guys can get set while we dash back to check on the Willoughby's and meet Saint-John.'
Location: Merida Sheraton
Time: 11:00 AM 28th November
Ben: you can sit in on the Darling interview, and suggest a couple of questions to Jason.