The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Las Cabezas de Muerte – Chapter 10
Ben looks around the room with a reporter's eye. 'I want to be close to the action, so I'm going to stay in the ceremony room until things start to happen.'
'Make sure you check out Darling,' suggests Corrin.
'Oh, I intend to - and to make sure Jason asks some awkward questions.'
'Well - we've got a little while, so I think I'm going to head back to the church,' continues Corrin. 'That room with the running water is intriguing.'
'That's where George is, I bet,' says Maddy tipping the contents of the saucer into an ashtray. 'But I wanna meet the Saint and get him to come along.' She puts the saucer in her rucksack and removes an empty tequila bottle. 'Need to go shopping first though - maybe something that doesn't have, like, worms in it.'
'OK. Well Red or I have to meet the Willoughby's at the Esplendido anyway, so I suggest we pick Lawrence up, and bring him over here.'
'OK. I think I ought to go and try to sort out this bomb scare,' Diana says, slightly reluctantly.
'Fancy a hand,' says Red looking large and protective. 'I'm sure Damien can handle the Willoughby's.'
'Yeah, thanks,' Diana looks a little relieved.
Ben reaches over to the phone - 'Here's the number for the Sheraton front desk. I guess we want a Cuervo Cojaente bomb at midday. Phoned in at say a quarter too.'
'You got it,' says Red.
Damien glances at the wall clock. 'OK. We're short on time here. I'll see you guys in 20 minutes, back here.'
'Oh, another thing,' says Diana suddenly. 'What should we do with the skull we've got?'
'I think we should wrap it up and post it back to SITU. At least then the witchy-woman can't get hold of it, even if she has got special telepathesis.'
'I'm more worried about Arsenio, or that waiter.'
'Don't really have time to package it up,' says Damien.
'And it's a bit fragile to trust to the old Royal Mail,' says Ben.
'I guess we could give it to Mahmoud to look after,' Diana shrugs. 'I don't know about you guys, but I'd trust him.'
'That would be OK,' says Maddy. 'I think Harriet would have trouble tracking him down.'
Ben nods, 'It's probably better than leaving it in the hotel room, particularly as Arsenio is so willing to be someone's accomplice.'
Corrin looks up. 'Oh Ben - I suggest you talk to Arsenio about skulls as soon as possible. We need to know what he's offering, before the skull owners leave.'
Damien cuts in, 'Right, I really am leaving. I'll sort out the skull, and the Willoughby's and this Saint-John guy.'
Diana and Red go down the lift, and out the front of the Sheraton. They walk round from its grand steps to the shabby side door and then further to the large goods entrance. A group of about 6 kids, ages ranging from 5 to 20, are standing around, one kicks a half deflated football against the wall. Another notices the westerners and particularly Red and jabs the others in the ribs one by one.
Diana smiles nervously and takes a deep breath. 'Hi, I met you once before, with Mahmoud.'
The oldest one makes a comment in Spanish and a couple of them laugh. He looks warily back at Red before grinning. 'I remember. You said you might have something to do?'
'Yeah,' Diana bites her bottom lip. 'We want you to phone in,' she nods at the hotel, 'and say there's a bomb.'
He says something in Spanish to the others, presumably by way of translation. They look slightly more impressed and certainly interested.
'There isn't a bomb,' says Diana, 'But we want to disrupt the ceremony going on at midday.'
She struggles to explain the importance of the disruption and that the ceremony has little significance anyway. Eventually she reaches into her bag and brings out her flat blue travel wallet. The boys grin, 'We help. For you miss, we help.'
Diana gives the leader 50 pesos, about a fiver, up front and promises him another 100 if he does it.
'OK. What you want me to say?'
'Say there's a bomb that will go off at midday, because of the westerners in a Mexican ritual. Say that you are from the Cuervo Cojaente.'
This gets a bad reaction. The boys lean back and even the smallest furrows his brow. Their leader shakes his head, 'No no. Not Cuervo Cojaente, not at the Sheraton. If they found out it was us or you...' He shrugs and pretends to slit his throat with his hand.
Red looks at Diana. 'What about Viva Zapatista?'
The boy nods vigorously. 'We say that. Yes. Viva Zapatista!' He runs off a few lines of Spanish, the younger children giggle, the older look more serious.
'Will they believe Zapatista?' asks Diana.
'I'm very...' he struggles for a word, 'convincering.'
Brett Darling is less than convincing in his TV interview with Ghost in the Machine. Jason agrees with Ben that he could make or break the show by endorsing or being indifferent to the skull's effects. Ben has given him a small summary of the Xerox PARC info. Damien has 'liberated' which he accepted with a nod and 'I think I know better than to ask where this came from.'
His opening questions are rather tame but eventually, 'So where did Tezcatlipoca come from, Mr Darling?'
'Well Mexico - I don't know that anyone's identified the exact site, but there are rumours...'
'I know, I know - but how did the American government get hold of it?'
'Well, I believe it's been part of the state's historic treasury for some time, at least fifty years.'
'Now, you said that you, personally, don't really believe in these skull's magic, but many do - have there been any tests on the skull?'
'Well, as for their being magical - we'll see what we can see. But I don't think any really conclusive testing has ever been carried out.'
'So there were no real conclusions from the Xerox PARC research of '74 then?'
Ben notices the congressman look uncomfortable, but then slip into what looks like a rehearsed line.
'There was, I believe, some attempt to examine the skull at Palo Alto for purposes of dating and material analysis - but certainly no testing of its, umm, psychic, as they say, abilities.'
'There were a lot of other things going on, I suppose?'
'Absolutely - during my time at PARC we produced a marvellous range of breakthroughs I, and all the team, can be proud of - the GUI, the laser printer, even the Ethernet.'
'So the skull worked as a good luck totem then?'
'Well, maybe so.' Darling puts what might be a twinkle in the corner of his eye, 'Maybe so.' The two security men behind him remain uniformly tense as the interview continues. Jason asks his opinion on a number of issues - Ben recognises many of them as designed to directly contradict statements made by other of the owners. It seems Darling is to be used as the measure of the other owners foolishness in believing in the mystic. As Jason would say, 'It can only boost American sales.'
After another few pleasantries the interview concludes. Next to come will be Jaime, but it is Maddy who pushes open the door after Darling and security have left.
'Hi,' she waves at Corrin and Ben, and then the crew.
Corrin leans over to Ben - 'It's Jaime next - I want to listen in, can you deal with Maddy?'
'Sure,' he nods and gets up. 'Seeya in a bit Jason - cheers for the Xerox PARC questions. He's tricky to pin down.'
'Well, as they used to say in the wrestling flicks - "we'll see what he's like after". See you in the ceremony?'
'Absolutely. Have fun with Jaime.'
Tony rolls his eyes as Ben leads Maddy out the door.
'I got some stuff, and a map of the town and I need to get into your room to look at it all. Is that all right?'
'Yeah sure, you want a hand?'
'OK, well look,' Maddy launches into her speech as the lift takes them up, 'I reckon all that stuff I thought was the sea wasn't. It's really about that running water Corrin heard and I reckon there's an underground stream or something. And it's probably the river that goes past Jaime's house and it's probably in their rituals and that's why the guy was wet. And if they're not having another soaky-wet ritual now it might be a good time to look for George.'
'OK,' says Ben.
'So I need to know if we can get into the church from the river underground.'
They are now in Ben's room and Maddy spreads the already crumpled, Ben wonders how, map out on the bed.
'OK. Well this bit here is river, and it comes into the town walls here, and then it disappears.'
'Weird,' Maddy looks amazed.
'I mean from the map,' Maddy sighs but Ben continues 'it presumably goes underground. So I guess you're right.'
'So which way does it go through the town? There's the church.'
Five minutes and a few traced pencil lines later a knock comes to the door.
'Yup,' calls Ben.
'Come in, don't be shy,' says Maddy.
Diana sticks her head round the door. 'That was weird.'
'Did they go for it?'
'Yeah,' says Red. 'Only it's the Viva Zapatista who are doing it now. And I'm not a hundred percent sure they understand the word hoax.'
'It should be OK,' says Diana. 'What are you guys up to?'
'Checking out the church, and the underground river. It's really cool. Ben reckons we can't get in that way though - cause it's too far. She points at the river disappearing at the city walls at least half a mile from the church.
'What about this?' says Red pointing at a central pool, 'that's only about a hundred yards.'
'We can't swim upstream, silly,' says Maddy, remembering she'd suggested exactly the same two minutes previously.
Damien and Lawrence are getting along slightly frostily, but such is the cultural divide. Damien was amazed by how small and frail the old man looks - he can't be more than 8 stone despite being nearly six-foot. His grey hair is parted neatly and his sharp features and piercing eyes give him an almost predatory look - matched by that of the hawk carved on the top of the umbrella he walks with. He exudes grandeur, from the rose in the top pocket of his jacket to the nasal vowel sounds of his intonation.
They have taken the lift to floor five and Damien knocks on Ben's door, noting with a slight smile that he's been gone precisely twenty minutes.
'Let us do so,' says Lawrence and sweeps into the room after Damien. He carefully shakes hands with Ben and Red and gently squeezes Diana's with a quiet 'madam.' He ignores Maddy, she glares at him reprovingly.
'A very good day to you, ladies and gentlemen. My name, as our associates have already taken the liberty of disclosing to you, is Lawrence Saint-John. You need not trouble me with a briefing as our associates have allowed my good self to review all aspects regarding your assignment.'
Corrin raises an eyebrow at Damien, who shrugs. Maddy giggles slightly but Lawrence continues unabashed, 'I must say, I have heard a multitude of unfounded rumours regarding the powers of the skulls you are currently in pursuit of. Have you managed to locate the required items yet?'
Damien nods, 'It's with Mahmoud.'
'The streetboy? the urchin living in the grime entrusted with one of the skulls? I do not believe it! You incompetent imbeciles! And you are not even aware if they are...'
He stops at the stares from the SITU team all of whom are mesmerized by the active voice and increasingly frantic gestures of their new associate. No-one speaks as he wipes his brow with a very white handkerchief, 'Please accept my sincere apologies. The passage from England to Mexico appears to have taken a heavy toll upon me. While we are here I believe that I should explain to you the motivations underlining my expedition here. Our associates are of the belief that your venture here has been something of a debacle. In particular, they are most concerned with the relative ease with which you have lost one of your number. As my predecessor has been rather - how shall we say? - lazy at progressing in this area...'
Maddy looks outraged, but her response is prevented by a knock at the door. Corrin joins them, accepts Lawrence's hand and asks him to continue after muttering something about Jaime.
'Well, the errand to locate the good Mr Kellsal has now fallen to my good self. However, as the sands of time run at a rate which even the magic of Prospero could not halt, I suggest that we forfeit normal formalities and that I proceed with my line of enquiries whilst you continue with your own agenda.'
Maddy chirps up - 'We were going to go and get George now. I know where he is and if we head over like now, they'll be too busy to stop us. Oh, I'm Madeleine but you can call me Maddy, only don't call me Mad, 'cause that's not nice.'
Lawrence acknowledges her, at last, with a raise of an eye. She grins at him this time, 'Can I call you the Saint? Like in the films with the really thin man with the polo mint on his head? Want some Hooch?'
She pulls a bottle of purple alco-pop from her bag - 'didn't know you could get it here, but you can.'
Corrin looks agitated. 'I think I'll go with you guys. Sorry I was late.'
Maddy sounds confident, 'George is under the church. We're going to go in there and kick some bottom!'
Diana giggles, and wishes them good luck. Damien hands his mobile phone to Corrin, who puts it in a small bag with a torch. Maddy goes quiet, then points at the bag - 'We need a spanner and a screwdriver as well. They were in my vision, along with the torch - and we could use them as weapons.'
'We'll have to buy some,' says Corrin slightly nervously. 'If you're sure.'
'Yup,' and she takes another swig of purple fizz, dribbling a little down her chin.
'Oh before you go,' Ben addresses Corrin 'How did things go with Jaime's interview?'
'Well, nothing dramatic - he just kept saying to wait for the ceremony. His skull's a real work of art though. And the way he looks at 'her' is really reverential - almost makes you think she's in charge of the whole thing.'
'I do suggest we waste no further time,' says Lawrence. 'We may have only a small time to rescue Mr Kellsal while this church is empty, as I believe was indicated.'
'It might be,' says Maddy. 'We'll have to see.'
'Then let us proceed.'
Lawrence opens the door for Corrin and Maddy, and then leaves with a short nod to the rest of the group.
Damien has a quick chat with Red about the Willoughby's. Their sale price will be eight thousand pounds, or the pair for fifteen thousand. They did sound a little flexible - Martin said 'it depends how things go today,' - but not very.
Then he settles down with his computer to monitor the timing of, and reaction to, the bomb scare. He tunes the RF scanner into the hotel main desk phone and has his lap top in the Sheraton's network. He idly prods around for advanced access while waiting.
Ben, Diana and Red leave him to it, the latter going to the lobby to eye up the manual override to the sprinklers, the other two to check on the TV crew.
'Ah, hi kids,' Jason greets them. 'Just setting up for the ceremony itself. That way Tony, over there.'
'So, where's going to be best to watch from?' asks Ben.
'Jaime reckoned we'd want to get in the platform, and across to the far wall and windows. That's where the camera's are pointing, so I guess sit with us, behind them.'
'Great,' smiles Diana. 'I wonder what's going to happen?'
'Probably nothing,' says Jason cheerily. 'Darling's guys have been over the place fairly carefully so I doubt there's any special effects rigged up. All we've got are these roving spots - Jaime said they'd help with the resonance. Paula's running them, with help from Jaime's assistant.'
The two sit down.
Lawrence walks slowly enough that Maddy can dash on and into a few shops to find her tools. Corrin talks to him about the layout of the church and their chances of sneaking in. When they arrive the door is slightly ajar and Maddy walks up 'nonchalantly,' as she explains. There are 3 Mexicans inside - one large woman with very crude looking clothes and two men. As they enter she turns and raises a staff at them - it has a large slightly glowing skull at the end. She gestures with it, and one of the men steps forward.
His first few words are in Spanish, but he soon gives up - 'Who are you?'
Maddy grins, 'Just innocent holiday makers. Can we look around?'
She pushes past and Corrin follows. Lawrence holds out a hand to the man who looks at it slightly suspiciously. Maddy has gone up to the other man and is badgering him with questions - 'How old is this? and what does this symbol mean? and does it have any catec...cama...tunnels underneath the floor?'
Corrin is watching the woman, who gives her a fierce look back. She then turns to the man who inadvertently let the SITU operatives in. She mutters a few words and turns dramatically to stride out of the church. Maddy walks up to Corrin and hisses, 'keep them busy, I want to go down the tunnels.'
She turns and tries to walk over to the curtained off area, but is intercepted by one of the Mexicans. 'You must go, we must go now, and the church must be locked. Sorry.'
Maddy looks round, but gets just a shrug from Corrin and nod from Lawrence. They are escorted from the church and one of the men locks the door as he leaves. He goes over to the bar and buys a bottle of beer.
'Any suggestions as to our course of action?' asks Lawrence.
'We could go round the back again,' says Maddy.
'I could climb in, but...' Corrin looks at Lawrence's fragile frame.
'Well, you could let us in the front,' says Maddy triumphantly.
'It sounds a bit risky,' she says.
Lawrence looks up. 'Risks must be taken if we are to recover your lost associate for SITU. I suggest you carry out the action - I shall wait at the front. Two knocks in the door shall indicate I wish you to open it, that I may enter.'
Maddy says a quiet 'Yay!' of excitement and goes round to the back with Corrin. They quickly find the loose window and Maddy pushes Corrin up, and into, the church. Then she turns round guiltily, half expecting someone to have seen. With a sigh she returns to the front, where Lawrence is pacing.
'Let's go. No-one's watching.'
'I concur,' Lawrence taps on the door with the umbrella and it quietly slips open. He steps inside and Maddy gives a glance around before doing likewise.
'Damn,' she says. 'That guy in the bar. I think he saw me.'
'What?' says Corrin.
'I suggest you lock, or otherwise fasten, the door.' says Lawrence. 'It appears we have not the solitude we desired.'
Maddy and Corrin manhandle a bolt across and soon enough a bang and a Mexican curse resound through the church.
'Ooops,' says Maddy. 'Let's get out of here.'
She runs through to the entrance to the tunnels and squints into the blackness.
'Let me go first,' says Corrin turning the torch on.
The tunnel continues down towards the running water. Eventually Corrin sees it, a channel just a few metres wide flowing along one side of a large room with flickering candlelight and a strong scent of... incense? Corrin rounds the corner and gasps. Maddy walks into her but she hardly reacts. Lying on a long stone altar is a body. Corrin finds herself relieved to see it is Mexican, and whispers, 'It's not George.'
'Mr Kellsal isn't here?' says Lawrence, slightly behind them and oblivious to the body. 'I thought you said you were sure.' He steps forward into the room. 'Oh, I say, bit of a mess isn't it.'
He walks over, hardly seeming phased. 'Some local chap, from the look of his demeanour. Knifed, I'd say - probably some ritual sacrifice. Oh, and slightly drained of blood - probably just poured into the river when they'd finished.'
'Yes, alright,' gasps Corrin very shocked. 'Oh God, it's that waiter, the one who took the skull.'
'Interesting,' says Lawrence. 'But we must find George, wouldn't you say?'
'George,' he calls out softly, and then again louder. 'George.'
'Ssh,' says Corrin and points at the other side. Above the sound of rushing water a tapping can be heard. Maddy rushes over, through the water. It is at knee height until about half way across, when she slips and splashes in, and under. The current isn't strong and she is in no danger, so she starts to laugh. Then she splashes and disappears below the surface.
A minute passes and Corrin begins to feel uneasy, but then there are more splashes and Maddy reappears, with George behind her. 'Asleep in the water all around,' says Maddy excitedly. Lawrence looks at her strangely, but then to George to whom he offers a hand. The dripping George accepts it and beams at Corrin. Then he jumps slightly - 'Fuck, you didn't? did you?' Following his arm Corrin sees the body on the altar. 'No, it wasn't us. The cult must've done it. Anyway, good to see you. Let's get the heck out of here.'
'Pleased to meet you sir,' Lawrence says.
'Told you he was weird,' whispers Maddy in his ear.
'Right yeah. Let's go,' says George. 'I'd kill for a cigarette.'
He starts towards the passage way but stops - 'can I hear people?'
Corrin shrugs slightly, 'yeah. I think they're coming to get us.'
Maddy speaks up. 'It's OK, I thought of that.' She points slyly at the water looking straight at Lawrence and his suit in a mischievous way.
'We haven't a clue where it goes, or if we can even breathe if we go down there. The idea is madness,' he says looking round quickly. 'Is there any other way out?' he asks George.
'Nope, that's Jaime's little room there -' he gestures to the side of the altar. 'Apart from that, we're stuck.'
'Oh what the heck,' says Corrin. 'That sounds like a lot of people to me. You can swim can't you?'
Lawrence nods. 'Of course madam. I may have lost a little of my fitness but I can assure you it isn't the exertion of the challenge, but perhaps the undignified manner in which... Oh!' This is the closest Lawrence has come to an exclamation so all three look up. A Mexican is at the doorway with a pistol in his hand, more footsteps can be heard.
A splash, and Corrin has gone, closely followed by George and Maddy. Lawrence pushes forward with the umbrella which seems to startle the man more than the gun startles Lawrence. Then he turns and half runs, half falls into the water, which takes him away before the man with the gun gets up. A shot is fired, and then another, but then the only sound is the water flowing and the deep breaths of the swimmers.
Maddy had better be right, thinks Corrin. But she is, and daylight can be seen above. The small lake in the centre of town is surrounded by trees and Corrin manages to grab a low branch and pull herself to the side with little difficulty. She grabs George but Maddy slips past with a wave and a 'wheee!'. Lawrence is spluttering behind, and his waterlogged clothes look in danger of dragging him down. She grabs his suit, winces at the ripping sound, and pulls him over to where he can right himself. She notices with amazement that he is still clutching the umbrella. He wheezes for a few seconds, 'Thank you madam. I am in your debt. I think, Mr Kellsal, you can consider yourself rescued.'
The phone rings in Ben's room, and Damien answers it quickly. It is Corrin, with a garbled tale of water and getting changed and meeting them soon and having George! Damien congratulates her, and says for them to hurry, as the ceremony will reach its climax in twenty minutes. Corrin promises they'll be there in ten, and rings off. Damien smiles, having George back is a weight off his mind, he looks back at the computer and gets hit by an idea. If the manual switch is broken the sprinklers will be entirely computer controlled. He rushes down to tell Red this, and pass on the news about George to him and Ben and Diana. All receive it well.
As he goes back up he is listening to the RF scanner: a crackle of connection and a Mexican voice engaging. He hears the word Zapatista and a shocked response from the receptionist. The call is over rapidly and Damien glances at the time - 11:44. The receptionist is soon calling the manager in panic. Damien dashes in and watches the hotel's computer send a few rapid messages out, to the police, Darling's people and their own security.
Ben looks up suddenly and nudges Diana's arm. The conference hall is almost full of skull owners, all but Harriet clutching one of the relics, and other assorted dignitaries. Diana notices, as Ben does, that Darling is leaving - being hustled away by two of his people, another two move forward to where Jaime stands near the platform.
'Wonder if that's...' Ben begins. 'Viva Zapatista!' whispers Diana.
The two men have a hurried conversation with Jaime, and lead him away. Ben follows and Diana turns to Paula - 'Wonder what that's about?'
'Dunno, but it's got the FBI worked up. If Darling's going to back out this whole thing'll go down the pan. Excuse me.' She strides off to the reception area.
Diana walks out also, nods at Red and then rushes towards the door. She hugs a slightly sheepish looking George and says 'Well done, well done,' to the others. Damien didn't seem to sure about what had happened, but Maddy's hair is dripping, and the others' looks damp.
'I made it back,' says George.
'Just in time,' replies Diana.
'Is all the fun about to start then?' says Maddy excitedly.
Location: Merida Sheraton, Ben's room and Lobby Time: 11:49 AM 28th November
Damien: Lawrence greets you but then seems rather more sinister as he suggests that as 'leader' of the group you should help him to exert control over the others. If you agree to his requests, when he puts them in front of the group, he'll reward you. If not, he threatens a 'living tragedy.' Then he suggests a cup of tea and seems to ignore the entire episode.
Lawrence: You tell Damien your plans to take over. He seems a little shocked, but hardly scared.