The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Las Cabezas de Muerte – Chapter 1
Everyone is led up to the rooms - six together on the 2nd floor. The three men carrying the luggage are keen to point out the air conditioning, the balconies with views across the old town of Merida and over the sea in Corrin's case, and the other nice touches that come with a expensive hotel in a poor area. After hanging around a little longer than was strictly necessary to be considered welcoming they gratefully accept a few notes from Damien as a tip, and disappear downstairs.
'I don't know about you but I need a little rest after that flight to get my mind in order' says Corrin.
'Lets meet in the bar downstairs when we've had a chance to freshen up', suggests Ben.
'Could you join us too, Maria?' asks Red, with a smile.
'Oh, of course. When?', she replies, looking round with a swish of hair. 'Shall we say a couple of hours?', says Diana.
'OK' says Damien as he looks at his watch - '2 o'clock local.'
'Oh, what's that in real?' asks George -'Ah midnight right?' He beams, and chuckles as he goes to his room.
With smiles, five pairs of weary feet are picked up and soon the sounds of unpacking can be heard gently from through the hotel walls. The rooms are reasonably large, and well furnished. Everyone unpacks and the odd beep from Damien's room shows he's got his computer running already.
Red is the first downstairs and, after directions, goes 'through the dining hall, out onto the patio', where an assortment of people are lounging round the large oval pool. Most of them look Western, but there are a few, rather vocal, Mexicans in one corner of the walled terrace. The bar, and its row of high stools, are under the cover of a large awning and he makes his way over to where Maria is sitting. The barman gestures at the large range of drinks, but Red just gets a coke, sits and turns towards Maria.
'So when do we get to see you and the others in action?' he asks.
'Well, there's always some going on, we could go over and look at it when your friends join us, perhaps?'
'Well, yeah. Maybe - some of the others might be a bit tired, but I'd definitely be up for it. I'll see how they feel. Do you want to meet us in the lobby in a half an hour or something. I'll sound the others out.'
'Yes, of course. Thank you. I'll see you in a half hour then.' She picks her drink up and walks down towards the pool. She waves at a couple of people, and then sits with them, talking and taking the opportunity to sun herself. Red turns back to his Coke, and jumps to see Corrin. 'Oh, sorry', she says.
'No bother. Do you fancy going out cliff diving later? I thought I'd go,' Red says.
'Yeah, that'd be good - we should keep with our cover.' She glances up towards the barman, rinsing a glass and picking his teeth with a cocktail stick. She asks for a glass of water, and it is brought over.
'We have purified water here. It's always best to check; just ask for 'agua purificada', wherever you go', advises the barman. The two words of Spanish highlight the strong accent accompanying his English.
'Your English is good', Red says 'Do most people round here at least speak some?'
'Most people in this area will know a little. And anyone, ah, involved in tourists will be OK. I hope.'
Diana is the next to get downstairs, her auburn hair is set off against a terracotta vest top, and her long white skirt flaps in the breeze. She sees Maria and walks over, talking for a minute about possible visits before being directed over to where the others are now all together round a table. She gets a drink and joins them.
'Right, we've got to sort out what we're going to do, otherwise we'll end up running round like headless chickens,' says Ben 'Lets go round and say what each of us can do. Okay? I'm a freelance journalist, and I guess I'm good with people.' He gestures a hand at Corrin, sitting next to him.
'Well, I'm a researcher - post-grad work. Mainly into ancient texts, mostly Latin. Nothing Pre-Columbian I'm afraid. Oh, and I'm probably tougher than I look.' She smiles weakly and takes a sip. 'Oh, I'm Corrin, yeah?'
'Okay. My name's George, and I'm going to die of lung cancer.' George grins, leans back and lights another cigarette. 'I don't kinda have a job at the moment, but I'm looking at several. I hope I can be useful.' His winning smile flashes again.
'Right. Well aside from being pretty much as tough as I look,' Red starts with a grin at Corrin 'I'm probably better at looking like a cliff-diver than most of us.'
'Yes, good point Dmitri,' Damien says, 'we need to establish our cover before we try too much. Well, I'm Damien, and I guess I'm the only US here. I'm a systems analyst back home, but here I'll be more useful with computer stuff, and the odd gizmo I brought along. I have binoculars, radio scanner, tape recorders - feel free to borrow them if you think they might be helpful.'
'Phew, all sounds rather organised,' says Diana 'I'm a designer, I hope I'm going to be of some use. I'm probably less tough than I look, but I'm sure you'll all look after me.'
'Right then,' says Ben, 'I think we need a co-ordinator. Any ideas?'
A collection of shrugs starts, and ends with Diana's 'Yeah. We do, but we don't know each other yet. How about you for now, Ben?'
'Umm, really not a good idea. Organisation is hardly my forte.' He shrugs and looks at Damien.
He responds. 'Look. I don't want to be organising us long-term, but for starters we need to maintain our cover - at least half of us should stay with Maria Tengue during the first couple of days, acting like tourists, taking in the sights - especially the cliff diving competition.'
Corrin chips in 'Red and I were talking about going along. Anyone else interested? We said we'd meet Maria in about 20 minutes.'
George shrugs - 'I don't mind doing the tourist thing for a while. Let's watch some dives.'
'Okay - I'm going to try and have a chat to a few people, see what I can sniff out, think I'll try Enright and co.' says Ben.
'I thought I might hang around and see which skull owners have arrived. They're the people we need to be talking to.' Karen looks round the bar/pool complex and adds 'Looks like the Willoughbys have arrived.'
Indeed it does. They carry matching towels and are both dressed in khaki shorts and a T-shirt. They are the palest people round the pool and look rather out of place, sat primly on the end of sun-loungers, in the otherwise relaxed atmosphere.
'I guess I'll go and chat to them then.' she adds.
'Mind if I join you?' asks Ben 'I don't see the TV guys round here anywhere yet.' Diana nods to his company, the Willoughbys don't look a complete barrel of laughs.
'I need to spend some time working with my computer. I know a few tricks that may help us with our investigations. I'll keep everyone updated on my progress with that.' says Damien, sounding slightly mysterious, but very professional. 'I'll be in my room - pop up if anything happens.' He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a portable phone, 'and I always carry the phone with me. Call anytime.' He then gives out a number which Ben, Corrin and, after a little fumbling, Diana all scribble down.
'I'll get it off you later' says Red to Corrin, George also looks across. She nods, and smiles at the both of them.
Damien gets up, stretches and then raises a hand goodbye. With mumbled 'see-you-later's everyone gets up, and head off in various directions - George, Red and Corrin follow Damien into the hotel, Ben and Diana turn to the Willoughbys, who have got out a small plastic 'travel' game.
Ben speaks quietly 'Lets just see how things go, OK?'
'Yeah, no point pushing things, but they don't look the sort of people who'd come all this way without knowing what for.'
'True. Hopefully they can at least tell us about that woman with the skull on the plane.'
'Oh yeah, "Ed". I guess there must be other of the owners here already as well. We can see what they know.'
'OK, lets go.' Ben smiles and leads off down into the fierce heat, wincing slightly from the glare of the pool.
The cliff diving trip turns out to be very pleasant. Progreso is only about ten minutes' taxi away and the sight of the rocky cliffs against the deep blue water is stunning. Maria takes the party along the stretch of high steep cliffs the divers use in competition, and then along to where a group are practising. Corrin seems interested, asking Maria about different techniques and the set up of the competition. Red also asks a few questions, and talks Maria into a few demonstration jumps. Her departure gives the opportunity for a little chat between the three SITU members.
'Very impressive isn't it?' opens Red as they see Maria hit the water after a very crisp, graceful dive.
'Yeah, when it comes to jumping off big rocks, these guys have got it', says George slightly sardonically.
'Must be a great buzz though', says Corrin, 'I wouldn't mind a go maybe.'
'Yeah. Reckon it can't be too hard', adds Red with a nod.
'I'm afraid I never jump off anything I can't see the bottom of.' George says, and takes off his prescription sunglasses to wipe them. 'But feel free.'
'Maybe tomorrow.' closes Corrin. 'Is there any information you think we might get from Maria, by the way?'
'Can't think of much. I mean she doesn't have any connection with the skulls or the ceremony does she?', says Red.
'Nah, she's just a random SITU found.' says George.
'But a very nice random,' Red says quickly, swinging an arm forward. George looks confused, but Corrin catches his eye and then looks pointedly behind him, Maria is approaching, and smiling at Red's comment.
'Very graceful. How do you pluck up the courage?' Red continues now getting into his stride 'I mean, when you're on the edge and there's nothing between you and the water, what do you do?'
'Fall' comes George's well timed comic interjection.
Maria grins, Corrin laughs, Red smiles, then Maria takes them over to meet some of the competitors who are around. It seems she's pretty well known by all of them, and certainly popular.
'Hi, I saw you two arrive on the plane didn't I?' Diana says as they approach the two loungers on which sit the Willoughbys.
'We have just arrived. Yes', the woman answers as her husband reaches out a hand to Ben.
'Martin and Elsa Willoughby', he introduces, shaking Ben's hand firmly enough for the both of them. 'From England, Surrey actually'
'Ben Macdonald, from Edinburgh. This is Diana, we're here to see some of the cliff diving, but you know, it's nice to see people.'
'Ooh, isn't it', starts Elsa, 'always nice to meet a fellow Brit. We usually do though, don't we Martin', she continues without so much as a glance in his direction, 'Just a couple of months ago we were stuck in the wilds of the Pyrenees when who should walk round the corner of the little path to join us in our sandwiches, but a lovely man from Cheltenham. His wife was with him as well, walkers both of them.'
The flurry is brought to a halt by Martin 'Your move dear.'
Diana addresses him 'You travel a lot then? What brings you to Mexico?'.
'A plane. Ha Ha. Well no, it's quite interesting actually. There are these two artifacts we have, very nicely carved - Zapotec we think - glass probably and there's this reunion. Getting the skulls, they're all skulls, together. Odd mix of people though, between you and me.'
'There you go.' Elsa has put another plastic counter into the Connect-4 game and is looking slightly smug. Ben smiles at Diana as the male half of the Willoughbys turns away - this was going to take a while.
In the quiet and cool atmosphere of his room, Damien is working to find out all he can on the Sheraton. He has called the hotel, and managed to get details of their Internet connections and the procedures are in place for a relatively untraceable poke around, so he asks their server to give him an account with them. After a few checks it accepts his invented authority and he finds himself on the Sheraton terminal network - they are big enough to have a corporate service structure, which gives a little breathing room. He taps a finger on the side of the chair, otherwise he is motionless, thinking his way through the system, and watching its dataflow to see where the opportunities to intercept it lie. After an hour he orders a juice from room service.
Maria takes her tourists down to the beach after a while on the windy clifftops. In the later afternoon sun the sand is turning golden, and the warmth is multiplied by the effect of being out of the wind. They stretch out and Maria asks about their plans as a group.
'Well,' starts Red, 'I'm not sure that all the others on the tour are that into cliff-diving. I guess they like the ruins and stuff more.'
'Yeah, there is that, and I guess a tour like this is also a good way to take a normal holiday out here', adds Corrin.
'Yes, you're right.' Maria says. 'I shall talk to them about anything they want me to arrange for them. Mention it if you see them, yes?'
'Sure. If I do.' smiles George.
The conversation turns round to discussion of the various ancient sites in the area, and their significance. Corrin asks particularly relevant questions, it sounds like she's done her homework. The most interesting historical vein is that concerning the Toltec invasion of the Zapotecs in the 11th century. It sounds a complete bloodbath but it seems that some of the Zapotec culture remained including mention of Ahuantepec - there are references to her in both Aztec and Toltec writings. Maria tells them all a little of the background to the major sites, and suggests the most interesting and spectacular.
Red asks Maria about the facilities nearby for other sports, and enthusiastically arranges an early morning game of tennis with her on one of Merida's dusty courts.
Diana gets up from her seat, a few hours in the sun have made her feel a little bit faint and she decides to get into the shade for a bit. 'Think I'll go in, sun's a bit much I'm afraid', she seems to be apologising to Ben but Elsa responds.
'You should get a hat, perhaps. We never go out without ours, do we dear? Very important.'
'In the tropical clime,' adds Martin.
'No, feel free.' says Ben, answering her implied question at last. 'heck, go buy a hat, see the town. None of us has really looked round yet.'
'Yeah, OK. I'll see you before dinner then.'
Again Elsa takes a comment as directed at her. 'Yes, probably will. Might see you in dinner, or before, perhaps. We always go to dress 15 minutes in advance though. He likes to look smart, don't you dear? And so do I.'
'Yes, well. Goodbye.' With a final shrug to Ben, who grins, she turns to leave.
The cool lobby is very pleasant and wandering through Diana sees Arsenio. 'I trust everything is fine with the rooms?', he asks, walking over.
'Oh yes, lovely.'
'And you have found the bar pleasing?'
'Most delightful, having a few problems with the sun though. Actually, do you know where I can get a sunhat from?'
'Well. For hats, I suggest Halzana's. It has all sorts of kinds. Very nice, and all Mexican made, it's just round the corner from here.'
'I can show you the way, miss', pipes up a little voice. With Arsenio away from his usual spot at the entrance a small kid, probably best placed at about ten years old, has crept in, and is now addressing Diana.
'Mahmoud', this is the first time Arsenio has raised his voice in your presence, and it has a slight edge to it. His rally of Spanish, accompanied with a couple of flailing hand gestures drives the child down the steps and out of view. He turns back to Diana 'I'm so sorry. I'm afraid that tourists with money will always be bothered by his sort. If he annoys you again, please tell me, and I will make sure he gets the message. Halzana's is just round to the left as you leave. Is there anything else I can do for you?'
'Err no, I'll be fine', and Diana walks out into the warm air of the street.
Damien is tapping away patiently on his computer, making a few enquiries of the US's Xerox PARC institute which is, unsurprisingly, a little tougher than the Mexican hotel. His work hasn't got much further than a lot of work to make himself undetectable and untraceable, followed with a look at what security they have in place, but not how to get round it, or through it.
A promising linked system in Colorado has his attention, before his phone goes.
'Hello. Damien Knight speaking.'
'Hi, it's Red. I'm in the lobby. We're back from Progreso, had a nice time, but not much on the investigation front. We're all going to meet up for dinner in 5 minutes. Diana's out, but we thought we'd have a drink before hand.'
'OK, I'll be down.'
'Seeya in the bar.'
He sighs, and turns back to the terminal. He closes down the Xerox PARC chain, and sets a routine job running. Then he rubs his eyes and changes before going down for a well earned drink.
Diana is returning after a pleasant look around for a nice straw hat, and a slightly hassled payment procedure. Visa was shrugged at, and she still hasn't quite worked out what Peso's are 'in real', as George would say.
'Nice hat miss', says a voice Diana vaguely recognises, and Mahmoud crawls out from under a large sheet of plywood resting against the wall outside the hotel.
'Do you need a guide? For you, nice price. I speak good American.'
'I'm English, thank you'
'I speak good English too. You want anything, just ask Mahmoud. That's what everyone say.'
'Well, not now. OK?'
'OK miss, you know where to find me.' With this he crawls back under his plywood and out of sight.
Diana shakes her head, and goes inside, where Arsenio notices her. She decides against mentioning Mahmoud, he doesn't deserve a hard time, and smiles at him.
'Nice hat, Miss Knight.'
'Thank you, everyone seems to like it.'
'Your friends, the tour party, are in the bar. They asked me to ask you to join with them. When you could.'
She wanders through to find the others round the same table as earlier.
The conversation over dinner is mostly inconsequential but as the tables are being cleared and people are leaving Ben leans forward.
'OK, I guess we ought to talk about what we've all found out, yeah?'
'Shall we start?' says Diana.
'Sure', is the consensus.
'OK. We spent an afternoon in the wonderful world of the Willoughbys', she continues.
'AKA, the poolside bar', George suggests.
Ben laughs 'Hey have you tried talking to them? It's no picnic. They are so dull, a constant catalogue of their achievements and what they'd recently bought to decorate their house with. We did get some stuff from them though - they've got two skulls, called Troilus and Cressida. I got the impression they might be looking for more, though. Oh and apparently they're being interviewed by Enright tomorrow, at Chichen Itza - that's a ruined temple complex. I said we might be going over there, so we might see them. I thought it was a good opportunity to see the crew at work, and some of the other owners, maybe.'
'Maria was talking about Chichen Itza. Sounds fantastic', says Red.
Diana continues 'and we asked about the woman with the skull, from the plane. Apparently she's Jouke van der Weide. They remember her, and the skull, Ed. And they're staying here. Along with some of the other owners, I think. They didn't mention any names.'
The other tales of the day are related, and Damien says how things are going at the Sheraton. 'I think I can get access to most of the information coming in or out. But I need to know what to look for. The radio scanner I brought is picking up all kinds of stuff, but nothing English, so I'm ignoring it.'
He stops and glances over to the bar, slowly people look round to see Jason and his crew walking into the bar.
'Oh good, I've been meaning to have a chat to them.' says Ben.
'Yes, we need people to look into who's behind the planned skull ceremony. Jason Enright and his TV production company seem like a logical place to start', says Damien.
Ben looks round at the tired eyes looking at him. He blinks, 'Well I'm going to go and have a chat with them, anyone want to join me? Or any ideas what I ought to be asking about?'
The bar of the Hotel Esplendido
10.50 pm 24 November 1997
Corrin: You phone Mace just after getting back from Progreso. He says 'Keep in touch'.