The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Las Cabezas de Muerte – Chapter 12
Diana waves to Mahmoud as he peeks into the lobby, safe in the knowledge that Arsenio is busy. Then she joins Ben waiting for the lift. Corrin walks over startling them both. They mention their worries about Arsenio and she says she'll head over and have a look, or more importantly a listen. They head on upstairs with the tray of drinks. Lawrence's strident voice is coming from George's room and they catch the end of his speech as they go in.
'...a resplendent evince of their power! The rumours are true! The potential of the skulls must be virtually unlimited..! In fact, the few remaining artefacts would sit splendidly with my collection...'
The investigators look up, and various nod at Diana and Ben. He raises an eyebrow at Lawrence who is pacing, self-absorbed, and still speaking, though more quietly. Diana indicates the bag she's carrying and everyone breathes a quiet sigh that they have one of the few remaining crystal skulls.
'So little time,' murmurs Lawrence for the third time. 'What was it that H. R. Colborn said?... Strain to see the days pass by for time moves faster than the fastest eye...' He sighs dramatically and sits down. Maddy gives a few quiet and sarcastic claps. 'Um, talking of time and stuff, I think it'd be, like, a really good idea to go to the airport early, so we're not about when the people dancing through the walls finish their ceremony.'
'We still have some work to do,' says Lawrence. 'The Sheraton should be thoroughly checked over.'
'And I have to pay off the people for the bomb scare,' says Diana.
'I'd feel happier if we were at the airport tonight, y'know, nice and safe,' adds Maddy.
Ben speaks, 'This place is a little unsafe, I'd say. I'm rather worried about what's happening downstairs.'
'Hmm?' Maddy looks interested.
Diana flicks her hair away from her face. 'It looks like the Cuervo Cojaente are giving Arsenio a hard time and Mahmoud says the gunman from outside has come inside.'
Maddy gives a look of concentration. 'ArseyNo's in trouble.' She pauses, her look's intensity fading a little, 'Maybe we should, like, see what we can do to help.'
Damien half shrugs, Diana bites her lip, Maddy continues with a shrug, 'Like, everybody's scared of those Curvy Cojaente guys. If they just want, y'know, money...'
She trails off and looks straight at Lawrence. He peers back, 'Well while Arsenio could have been a potential ally for us in our attempts to find further of the skulls, I would have agreed. But I think things have been taken rather out of his hands, don't you?'
'Well anyway. If we give the Curvys enough money, maybe they'll go round and kick the Madonnas' bottoms an' then we can take all the skulls we want!' Maddy finishes breathlessly.
'Whatever action we take, it is always wise to be abreast of the facts before commencement. It would, I suggest, be fruitful to our cause to establish what happened at the Sheraton, and indeed to confirm the existential status of the various remaining skulls.'
'Well,' Ben nods, 'I reckon there were about four of them left. Jaime's one. Darling's one. Ed and one of the Willoughbys' ones.'
Diana adds 'But we don't know if the Black Madonnas got them out of the building or what? Has anyone seen Jouke, or the Willoughbys? I can't see them giving up their precious things without a hell of a fuss.'
'And as for twenty-five grand,' says George.
'OK then,' says Damien. 'I'll head back to the Sheraton and check things out. At least someone ought to come with me,' Diana nods, 'We should stick together in pairs.' Damien continues, 'We can phone in with the details, and the rest of you can see about dealing with people here.'
'Oh, we'll also pay off the kids who did the bomb scare for us,' says Diana.
'Don't get into trouble,' George says with a slight smile.
'We'll be really careful.'
The two head off and the remaining operatives phone back to SITU HQ, to give a brief report. After this they head downstairs, to try to talk to some skull owners and check on Corrin.
She is currently crouched under a window sill, in a less than comfortable pose. After a quick check of Arsenio's office - the door was closed, some Spanish was filtering out - she checked the area for the gunman. She found him easily enough in the bar, drinking a beer from the bottle and obviously waiting around. He glanced a couple of times at the office door in the minute she watched him for. Moving on round the pool she made her way to the kitchen area of the hotel and beyond that the small internal garden, onto which Arsenio's window looks.
Arsenio is literally squirming in his seat and wringing his hands uncomfortably. The man opposite looks implacable with a worrying indifference to Arsenio's discomfort. Arsenio begins another impassioned speech, shaking his head, waving his arms and moving the man not a bit. It is interrupted by a knock at the door at which Arsenio looks thankfully but his visitor gives a look of irritation and says something curt.
The door opens and Ben takes half a step in. It takes a moment for Corrin to register English after the torrents of Spanish, but Arsenio says 'Ah, I was just talking about you, as it happens.'
He says something in Spanish but his visitor seems unimpressed. Ben catches Corrin's eye and she grins slightly, thankful the Mexican's aren't so sharp-sighted. Arsenio speaks again, 'Five minutes, I can speak to you then, yes?'
Ben ducks out and the Spanish continues. Corrin wriggles herself free and finds the others in the bar. Ben is ordering a drink while Maddy talks at Lawrence.
'Oh go on, Saint!' she pleads, 'You've got squillions of money, and ArseyNo and the Curvys might be able to help us. Besides,' she adds darkly, 'it was me that found George and the skull and everything - all you've done since you arrived is be crusty and horrible and sniffy with people. It'd make a nice change if you did something useful...'
'I don't really see that you can take credit for all of the groups successes, madam. I would also dispute your assessment of my own comparative usefulness. It seems to me this is but a crude and unsubtle attack. Do not distress yourself with the fate of the simpleton, if he has been building up debts he must pay them, and if he has been defrauding the hotel, then things will go badly with him.'
The mobile phone rings and Ben responds, cutting into the argument between Lawrence and Maddy. 'OK. OK, right. See you then,' he looks up and turns the phone off. 'Bad news from the Sheraton - the skulls are all missing, and presumed destroyed or taken by the Black Madonna cult. The building is apparently still standing and the crowd dispersing. The Black Madonna went off, presumably to their large church and Diana and Damien are going to check that out in a bit.'
'They have my skulls? Preposterous fate.'
'See,' says Maddy triumphantly, 'If you want a skull we need to get the Curvys to get it. Anyway, why didn't you, like, offer them a hundred thousand if they'd give you them before the ceremony? Then all those men wouldn't have danced through the walls and given me a headache.'
'I think we're probably wise to talk to Arsenio about it,' says Corrin. 'He's in really bad shape and if we can persuade him that we're his only hope of financial salvation, he'll do everything he can.'
'I suppose it can do no great harm to deal with these ruffians, although it would seem to be stooping to a shameful level. Still, the ends justifies in extremis the means.'
Diana and Damien walk back into the damp, slightly smoke blackened lobby of the Merida Sheraton. Staff are still dashing around and there are several shocked people sitting on the sofas, gently drying in the sun that streams through the windows. Jason hangs up the phone in one of the booths next to the one Diana used. 'Shit!' he says. 'Useless...' struggles for words as he stomps over to the receptionist. She seems to recognise him and starts to cower. He begins a checklist: 'All footage - ruined, unwatchable. Three cameras - ruined. Lighting rig - ruined. Months of work - ruined. You guys - sued. I told you "delicate electronic gear" and you spray water into it, you fill the room with smoke and whatever you were using for that flash has apparently blanked about 30 centimetres of tape. Key footage.'
'I assure you sir, the hotel will do all it can to make reparation, but we can accept no responsibility for the activities that occurred. The room and events were out of our control.'
Diana shrugs at Damien. 'We have things to do. I told the others we'd go and check out the church.'
They head out into the light and Diana leads the way round the side. Soon they hear the sound of a football being kicked against a wall and young voices. They are hailed before they see anyone, and a boy disentangles himself from the trolley he was using as a sun lounger. 'Hey!'
'Hello,' says Diana, feeling awkward already.
'Very good,' the boy grins and points at the hotel. 'Very good.'
He starts to clap, and several others join in as they emerge from behind things and around corners. Damien checks around that no-one is watching the scene and walks forward. 'Quiet, quiet.'
Diana bites her lip, then spots the boy she dealt with before and approaches, 'Thank you for your help. Would you like your money?'
'Yes, two hundred pesos.' He holds out his hand and smiles.
The agreed price was half that but Diana shrugs and hands over four crisp blue notes. Damien says 'Let's go,' quickly and they do, Diana's 'goodbye' largely ignored by the cluster of boys around money.
They take a taxi into town, and stop within a hundred yards of the Black Madonna church. There are people outside the front, obviously in charge of security and lights at the windows. A slow chant can be heard, echoing around the small square. Several Mexicans are looking reverentially at the church and the SITU pair overhear the word Sheraton more than once. They decide not to enquire further, and not to get involved - as Maddy said earlier, 'We've got nothing to lose. Um, except maybe our lives.'
Corrin is still watching the gunman, and sees him nod and get up. Sure enough his boss has left Arsenio, she says 'let's go,' and leads the way. The four walk towards the office, Maddy starts humming 'Little Green Bag' the theme from Reservoir Dogs.
Arsenio meets them at the door, 'Come in, please come in. How can I help you? Please.'
Corrin begins, 'Problems with a customer?'
Arsenio's strained smile is wiped away almost instantly. He sighs and for a moment looks like bursting into tears, 'Perhaps. Could we talk about the skulls you wished me to obtain for you?'
'Have you any of the artifacts in your possession?'
'Well, no, but I'm sure I could obtain them if you would perhaps provide a little of the payment in advance?'
Ben leans forward. 'Let's face it Arsenio. You have financial problems? You've been borrowing from the hotel and it hasn't worked out, so you need some fast cash. Right?'
'Well, there is something we might want doing, but it is something the Cuervo Cojaente could do for us. Do you think they would be willing to deal with us?'
'Well,' begins Arsenio, seeing perhaps a glimmer of light at the end of his tunnel, 'I could act as a translator and arranger and perhaps take a small cut. Then I think it would be very possible. Please, wait. I'll get Pedro.'
Arsenio leaves the office. Maddy goes 'Cool. He just, like crumbled. Did you used to be a Spanish inquisitor or something?'
'Solid work so far,' says Lawrence. 'But we must deal carefully with these people. They are, remember, criminal types.'
'Let me see,' begins Maddy, 'Forgery, breaking and entering, sabotage, computer hacking, theft, bribery, blackmail and now organised crime...' Arsenio returns and introduces Pedro to the crowded office. The man smells strongly of cigar smoke and dust, looks shiftily out from under a wide hat and frequently scratches his several-day stubble. He smiles thinly and says a few words to Arsenio.
'He asks what you wish to know, or do.'
'What does he know about the cult of the Black Madonna?' asks Lawrence.
As Arsenio translates a look of disgust comes over Pedro's face. He spits loudly to the corner of the room and rattles off some quick Spanish. Arsenio looks flustered and shrugs saying, 'He does not really get along with them, I would say.'
'Would he like a strike at them?' asks Corrin, all of a sudden thinking there might be a chance for Maddy's plan.
'A strike?' asks Arsenio.
'A chance to damage their power structure and perhaps force them to relax their grip on Merida,' suggests Lawrence.
Again Arsenio relates the proposition, pleased when Pedro nods slowly. Pedro then peers at Lawrence, scrutinising carefully his suit, wrinkled face and piercing eyes. Eventually he says something to Arsenio, who replies with a shrug and a smile before turning back to the investigators.
'I think he'd like to know what you'd like in return for setting up such an attack.'
'Well, the Black Madonna cult have some crystal skulls, we'd like to buy them from the Cuervo Cojaente if and when they steal them.'
After a few quick words of Spanish Arsenio is looking much relieved. 'I think we could have a deal, how much would you be willing to pay?' After a second's thought he adds, 'he wants to know.'
The team are looking at Lawrence. 'Money, I can assure you, will not be a problem. I suggest that perhaps we talk terms when you have the items, but a rough figure of say twenty-five thousand US dollars per skull. There is one I particularly wish for.'
Arsenio nods excitedly, 'I can easily organise the sale for you, I'm sure. To mutual satisfaction.'
He then says something, presumably similar, in Spanish. Pedro nods, waves dismissively and asks something else.
'He wants to know when you could tell him about how to get at the Black Madonna?'
'Now, I suppose,' says Corrin. 'They have a reasonably secret area where they ought to be.'
'Probably better not attack for a little while though, they might be feeling fairly powerful at the moment,' adds Ben.
'Wait for the peyote comedown, it's a killer,' advises Maddy shaking her head in mock sadness.
Another few minutes and the details of the underground temple and Jaime's house are given to the mysterious gangster. He says he'll mount an attack in about a week, and Arsenio is more than willing to interpose himself as a broker for the skulls. He is keen to break the meeting as soon as possible, perhaps afraid that his way out will crumble if he waits too long. The SITU team are hustled out and start packing.
Diana and Damien return shortly afterwards and bump into Maria. Diana suggests a last drink together, before they have to return, 'called back a day early I'm afraid.' They hurry up to pack, and surprisingly quickly everyone is ready within half an hour.
A final drink and goodbyes with Maria go OK. She seems not too distraught at the lack of interest in cliff diving, accepting that 'we just got caught up in all the whirl of filming.' By half past three the group are at the airport, Diana clutching the bag with the skull in it, and Red carrying her luggage. A hassled hour later they manage to get their tickets brought forward a day, and upgraded to first class at Lawrence's insistence. 'Absolutely necessary for a man of my disposition. Here's my card.'
From: Andre Swahn, Debriefing/99
To Operatives: Madeleine Hook, George Kellsal, Damien Knight, Diana Knight, Corrin Muir, Benjamin McDonald, Lawrence Saint-John, Dmitri Redchenko
Subject: Las Cabezas de Muerte
Achievement of aims: all Operatives are to be commended on their actions during this investigation, which has been significantly successful despite some major setbacks. The kidnap and imprisonment of Operative Kellsal was regrettable, but the success of Flying Squad Operatives Hook and Saint-John is a testament to SITU's capability. The success in this instance will add to the list of recommendations for this new system.
Your primary objective; the identification of Jaime de Reconvaco as principal organiser of the event, and a significant co-ordinator of the Merida Black Madonna cult. It is to be noted that this individual's motives are still unclear, but be assured that many lines of enquiry are now underway.
Your secondary objective; the disruption of the ceremony. Your reports, and the other accounts gained from those contacts you maintained - most notably Mr Enright and his company, Ghost in the Machine - have proved most interesting. The power of the ritual is certain to have been lessened by your efforts, which is to be considered fortunate. It seems the skulls were activated by Jaime's and allowed the release of energy to each other, those present and the structure of the building. The main conference hall at the Merida Sheraton is being used as a store-room still; complaints of nausea and headaches persist whenever any worker is there for an extended period. The film of the ceremony was successfully sabotaged, many congratulations for this. As a result the documentary - Las Cabezas de Muerte - has been cut to a half-hour, and the subject is treated extremely sceptically. This will securely smokescreen the actual events and your involvement in them. A pre-release video copy is enclosed. Pleasingly just one of your faces appears, that of Diana Knight, seventeen minutes in. This will not be considered a security breach.
Your tertiary objective; to obtain at least one of the crystal skulls. The success of the follow-up work by the Cuervo Cojaente and Mr Vizcaya of the Hotel Esplendido is to be celebrated. I am aware that not all of you have been kept abreast of the events, so to summarise: A group of the Cuervo Cojaente, heavily armed and reasonably trained attacked the church of the Black Madonna. This caused panic and the members of the cult to flee, down the tunnels and into the underground river. This method of escape was predicted by SITU members and so they were picked up by waiting gunmen as they emerged. Jaime de Reconvaco was not captured, it is suspected he may have had an extra hiding place somewhere. The trade for prisoners gained the Cuervo Cojaente two of the skulls, identified as Troilus and Ed. Operative Saint-John has purchased both, and they have been extensively examined by our team, along with Aleister. The hacking activities of Damien Knight were influential in directing our research; it is to be suggested he continue to work on such a level.
All three have significant power; Ed's very positive, Troilus' greedy and Aleister's domineering. They appear to affect the consciousness of the owner and, when handled correctly, to project that consciousness at another. Jaime's skull would have been of great interest to us, but he has disappeared following the Cuervo Cojaente attack. The fact that he seemed frequently to communicate verbally with it is to be considered significant. As a methodological note however, it is not to be considered standard practice to encourage gangland violence in pursuit of SITU's aims. In view of the success of the operation, no further action will be taken, no further comment will be made.
We have had no luck in establishing the reasons for Operative Saint-John being so extensively searched on his return to this country. Apparently he was suspected of smuggling heroin, but it seems of course likely that the skull was the target.
- Mr and Mrs Willoughby: Both have suffered nervous breakdowns, but are recovering on a South Seas cruise, courtesy of a large insurance payout.
- Arsenio Vizcaya: The Hotel Esplendido is still under his management - Operative Knight confirm that his financial situation has improved with the settling of his debts to the Cuervo Cojaente.
- Mahmoud: Our operative collecting the skulls was questioned by this street-kid. Having heard of him, she asked a few questions - apparently he more frequently visits the Sheraton to talk of the 'super cool' events that occurred. His increase in standing is not considered a security breach.
- Black Madonna: The local cult has been damaged by the gang attack, but the religion as a whole continues to be popular. The links between it and the worship of Ahuantapec are perhaps more significant than generally acknowledged. The use of ancient sites for rituals is unusual but is confirmed elsewhere.
- Congressman Darling: He has returned to the United States, hailed the visit as 'remarkable, and strengthening for the peoples of the Americas.' He has declined to comment further and is currently 'considering his options' on his Texan ranch.