The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Las Cabezas de Muerte – Chapter 3
Damien pulls his wallet out and hands the business card back to Diana. 'I think that it's going to be a big help to us to have access to their electronic mail. Well done!'. She smiles at the nods from everyone, and looks down at her coffee to hide her embarrassment. 'Well, it wouldn't have been much good without your computer stuff. How's it all going?'
'Well, currently I have monitors on Ghost in the Machine's mail, and access to the Sheraton. I'm going to have to crack this place, which should be OK, and then I guess I'll get back to the Xerox PARC research place, though that's a biggie. Anyone got any ideas for other lines of enquiry?'
Ben nods slowly. 'Have you thought about general searches for skull info. You know, what they were used for, why they were made, any modern stuff involved with them.'
'Well, yeah. I could, but I don't know where to look really. There are all sorts of history sites I can check out, but we might as well go to a library for that. As for modern stuff - it could crop up anywhere - that kind of pseudo-mystical stuff ends up splattered far and wide over the net.'
'Hmm, yeah,' agrees Diana.
Damien sips some more coffee. 'Did you see anything interesting in your trip to the Sheraton this morning? Did you get a chance to look at the site of the skull ceremony?'
'Well, I just saw the outside really. I didn't want to leave Mahmoud hanging around, and I couldn't think of any reason to go in.'
'Okay. They have two major function rooms, at least according to their computers. We'd better find out which they plan to use, and get a good look at it as soon as possible. Presumably security's going to tighten up closer to the ceremony.'
Corrin glances round, and picks up her small bag. 'I'm just going to see if I can get a word with Tony, OK? I'll see you at 1.'
'Good luck,' says George as she leaves.
Tony is in the lobby, talking to the receptionist. 'Yes. I need to speak to Arsenio. The manager. Yes, that's the one.'
'Is it the room, sir?'
'No, no, no - I need to get some things out of the safe, TV equipment, you see?'
'He'll be back soon. Would you wait over there, please?'
'Okay, okay.' Tony turns and walks over to the seat in the large bay window, sitting next to Corrin. She turns from rooting round in her bag, 'Oh, hello. You're one of those film people aren't you? I'm Corrin.'
He returns her smile. 'Oh, jolly good. Tony Martin, at your service.'
'Well, I was wondering about the ceremony I heard you were filming. All about those Zapotec skulls wasn't it?'
'Oh yes, that's right. Carved crystal skulls from the ancient civilisations. Half of them fake probably.'
'Yes, always a problem. I'm a history student, which is why my ears pricked up when I heard about this skull reunion. The people involved must be very interesting.'
'You'd be surprised,' he says bitterly. 'Sorry, I'm always stressed before a shoot. And it's starting to look like there's no chance of getting my cameras out of the damn safe. Another hold up probably. Damn country.'
'You're filming this afternoon? Where?'
'Oh, Chichen Itza - the big ruins thing. Supposed to be dramatic backdrops, and all that. I guess it's OK if you like that sort of thing. We're doing interviews with the owners all afternoon. In the heat of the day.'
'Chichen Itza? I'm off there a bit later. Guess I might bump into you guys?'
'Yeah, maybe. We're at some Temple of the Jaguar or something. I'll look out for you.'
'OK. See you later.'
'So how on earth are we going to get hold of one of these skulls then?' asks George with a mock frown, as Corrin leaves.
'We could always try and buy one,' suggests Red.
'Fat chance,' George mutters back.
'Yeah, it wouldn't work. Might be interesting though - see how much they're worth, where people got them from, that kind of thing.'
'Well, it could be worth a go, I suppose. Try it on someone?'
'But who? The Willoughbys?', says Ben.
'I think stealing theirs would give a lot more satisfaction,' says Diana.
She laughs as does Ben, but Damien looks serious. 'Well, I don't think we should upset everything by making a move for skulls yet, but a look round the Willoughbys' would be interesting. It'd be quite easy to distract them, take them to dinner or something, and then have a look round their place. Just paperwork, see where they keep the skulls, that kind of thing.'
'Getting them out the way isn't the problem, how would you get in?' asks Diana.
'Well, I don't know, to be honest. Oh, look I'd better go get changed. See you at one.'
Damien gets up, and wanders out towards the lobby. He sees Arsenio coming through from his office, and steps towards him. 'Good afternoon Sir.'
'Oh yes. Good afternoon.'
After asking where it is best to change money Damien asks that one of the hotel staff pick up some headphones for him. Arsenio confirms, 'small, light and for radio, yes? I'll have them at the desk here, OK?'. Jouke walks past and Arsenio smiles at her. As he turns back Damien says 'Looks like half the people in this hotel own crystal skulls. Que paso?'
'Well. There are a few, aren't there. There's some reunion going on. Not here unfortunately, but we are putting up several of the owners, as you've noticed.' Tony is walking towards them purposefully and Arsenio finishes 'And of course the television people. Can I help you sir?'
'Yes. I hope so anyway. I need to get some things from the safe. I was told only you have the key, so could I get them now, please?'
Arsenio says a quick 'Goodbye' to Damien and then turns back to Tony with a hunted look. Damien strolls off upstairs.
Ben glances up to hotel clock again. 'It's 5 past' he mutters and looks round at the 4 SITU operatives and Maria.
'Aha,' says Diana, and everyone turns to see George ambling down the stairs fumbling his lighter out of his pocket. A cigarette hangs from his mouth which he removes to say 'Well, best get a move on, don't want to be late,' before replacing and lighting it. He waves the battered packet around at people, but no-one else seems to want one. 'OK,' says Maria. 'Chichen Itza is about 20 minutes away by taxi. Shall we go?' Two of the taxis waiting outside pull up to the steps as they walk down and the 7 people get in - George looking a little sheepish as he leans out of the window to smoke.
After Maria has shown them the major buildings and answered their questions, the team thank her and head off together. The area of the site is large, and there are a good many people wandering round and being sold water, soft drinks and a variety of souvenirs, from the tacky to the dramatic, by small store holders and wandering children with cool boxes. 'I reckon we ought to split up,' says Red, to which everyone nods.
'Yeah, that way we can cover more ground,' says Diana. 'We can speak to more of the skull owners, and I think the more of them we get to know, the better.'
'Okay,' says Corrin. 'I'm going to go and see the TV people - Tony said he'd show me around.'
'Right, well I'll take over from you after a while,' says Ben. 'I want a chance to chat to a couple of the owners, if they're around. Care to join me in that George?'
'Yeah, sure. I've got some grasp of French, so maybe I should go after this Rogier guy.'
'Probably best that we don't all intrude on the filming,' says Damien, 'but I'd like to know about the funding for this project, anyone else got questions they want putting?'
'I was planning on taping stuff,' says Ben. 'If I can get near enough.'
'Hang on' says Diana. 'I was going to try and set up a sketch near to them, so I could listen in.' She pulls her pad out from her bag and smooths it down. 'What's the range on that thing?'
'Pretty much as good as your hearing.' says Damien. 'Probably worth a go.'
'Okay, I'll show you how it works,' says Ben.
'All right, let's just see how things go, and meet up in a bit.' says Red, and the group splits up.
Corrin wanders over to the slightly cordoned off area, where the members of the TV company have set up to stop too many people looking over their shoulders. Strangely none of the boys selling drinks have gone through either. She steps over the low barrier and smiles as Tony and Paula look up, Jason is still peering through a lens and muttering.
'Hello, you made it then?' says Tony, wiping his forehead with a handkerchief.
'Yeah, great place. How's things going here?'
'We'll be filming fairly soon,' says Paula.
'Hmm,' says Jason without straightening up. 'Not until we've got this angle right - why on earth couldn't they have built this temple in 4 to 3 ratio? No consideration some civilisations.'
'Oh, I'm Paula by the way,' she offers a hand.
'Oh, right. Pleased to meet you. Corrin; I met Tony at the hotel.' 'Yeah, she's a history student, knows all about these skull things.'
'Well I wouldn't go that far. I had heard of them before, which is what grabbed my attention. You're interviewing the owners, yeah?'
'Yup,' says Paula, 'the loonies, collectors, mystics and frauds who believe this kind of stuff.'
'Do you want to see the rushes?' says Tony. 'You know, the first prints, when we're editing? You could tell us what's rubbish and what's worth it, maybe.'
'Well, yeah. Sounds really interesting, a proper film being made.'
Jason turns round. 'It's a cheap, two-bit documentary, but thanks anyway. Let's get going guys.' Paula strides off purposefully, and Jason turns back to the pile of electrical gear.
'Oh, I expect I'm getting in the way. I'll see you sometime.'
'Yeah, at the hotel I guess,' says Tony. 'We're stuck out here in this heat all afternoon, spare us a thought.' He looks up at the clear blue sky with ferocious sun, 'and I swear, if Paula talks about this wonderful light once more - I'll steal her hat and see how she likes sunstroke.'
Ben strolls over to the Willoughbys, as they position each other for photographs. 'Like me to take one of the both of you?'
'Oh, yes, that would be nice, wouldn't it dear,' says Elsa, straightening her hat, and then her husband's.
Ben lines up the shot, trying to avoid smiling at the matching T-shirts, shorts and hats the Willoughbys are wearing.
He snaps the shot. 'What do you think of the place?'
'Well, rather too hot, and bit too grand for our liking,' says Martin, dismissing some of the highest achievements of a civilisation in one phrase.
'So you're disappointed with the sights then?'
'Well, they're all right, but it's not really our sort of thing, is it dear?' Martin nods, 'We're actually here for some television interviews. About the crystal skulls.'
Ben eyes them up, 'But they're not here, are they?'
'Well of course not. We wouldn't take such valuable objects out here, there are all sorts around,' Elsa looks suspiciously at the couple of Mexicans in view. 'Can't be too careful.'
'So they're back at the hotel safe?' says Ben.
Martin lowers his voice, for no particular reason, 'Well, no. I mean you never quite know with these foreign places. Do you?'
'No dear, you can't really trust them can you? We've left the skulls safely locked up.'
Ben changes tack, 'Have you had them long?'
Martin answers 'About 10 years. Picked them up in an auction actually.'
'Quite a bargain, for what they are,' says Elsa.
'We were so lucky to get two, as well.'
'Yes, indeed. Well I won't keep you.'
'Thanks for the photography.'
They both wave as he strides off, towards the Pyramid of the Moon.
George found Jouke without much trouble, hanging about near the TV crew.
'Hello again,' he says enthusiastically, walking up.
She puts her hand up to shade her eyes, and peers up at him.
'Oh, hello George. Fancy meeting you here. It's so exciting, isn't it Ed?' She reaches into the bag she's carrying, and takes out the finely crafted crystal skull.
'He is, isn't he? Well, now you've met Ed you should meet all his friends.' She starts waving in an animated way and a small wiry man walks over. He smiles which animates his thick moustache and speaks, his French accent overlaying the unfamiliar words.
'Ah Jouke, someone I should meet?'
'Ooh yes. This is George, he's staying at the Esplendido with me.' She gestures one way, and then the other, 'and this is Rogier. George is interested in our skulls, Rogier.'
'Oh really, they are most powerful objects wouldn't you say? Has Jouke told you about their power and strength?'
George shrugs to make the Frenchman continue.
'They are imbued with the essences, "l'ésprit" as we say in France, of powerful spirits. Once understood, communication with them is possible, and their knowledge can be known to us.'
He is carrying a backpack, and opens it, pulling out a bundle of silk. As he unwraps the skull he mutters a few words in French to it - 'Ah, here you are most hallowed one. Today you shall shine.'
'This is King Jaguar. The Jaguar was a very potent symbol to the Zapotecs and all who have encountered them. Their strength and speed is matched only by their cunning and stealth - it is a powerful object this skull. Do you have an occult interest?'
'A slowly growing one, yes. I'm always willing to listen. Shall we sit in the shade though?'
The two men say goodbye to Jouke, who is being shouted for by a stressed looking Jason and wander off to the shade of a few trees. George gets a coke and lights a cigarette while listening to the strange man. The conversation, aided by George's displays of a little French, carries on for a while, ranging across the properties of spirits in the pre-Columbian world as compared to the similarly-dated Celtic pantheon to the significance of skulls as binding objects in the occult. George's slightly amused smile doesn't seem to deter the man, and his little prompts and questions keep him talking.
Damien has been wandering for a while round the less popular areas of the site. He takes the odd photo of the areas associated with the sacrifices of the era, and checks the odd detail with binoculars. At one edge of the area there are some tracks, probably from some sort of light truck which seem fairly regularly used, even though they end far from the places of interest. He makes a few notes as to the axle distance and tyre tread, just in case. Other than that he seems just like any other tourist in his light clothes, sunglasses and hat. After a while he sees Maria, chatting to a couple of stall holders and meets up with her, asking questions about the sacrifices and distinct areas of the large complex.
Diana spent a few minutes wandering round the area near the TV crew before choosing a spot for her picture. She gets the pencils and pad out, and leaves the tape recorder running in her bag, hoping it will pick up a little more than she can, or that listening to it will reveal more than just the discussions of filters, lenses and other equipment that are currently drifting across to her. As she sketches she keeps an eye on the people passing, and is pleased to see George talking extensively with Rogier. George has a skull sitting on his knee, and Diana can't help laughing as he moves it, as if talking, when Rogier looks away. The sun has been gradually going down, and she's watched the progression of the shadow as it creeps towards the men. She looks away, to see what the film crew are up to, but then turns back when she thinks she sees something, a flash of light, from over by the trees. She looks over and sees George has dropped the skull, much to Rogier's distress, and seems to have hurt his hand, much to his. Her forehead creases with confusion, but after rubbing her tired eyes she gets back to the sketch. Some minutes later she becomes aware of someone behind her. She waits until they're close and turns to see Paula. 'Oh hi.'
'Hello. Mind if I take a peek?'
'Of course not,' Diana holds the sketch up to get the light to catch it. She gestures to the Temple of the Jaguars, 'Impressive isn't it? Especially when you think what it must have looked like when it was actually being used.'
'Yeah, it's a nice place all right. Whole site's impressive in my opinion,' Paula turns, 'Oh, that's Tony. I'd better give him a hand. Like the picture though.'
Ben has been hanging round the filming area for about an hour, but the crew have been too busy to talk much. Eventually Jason calls a break to check a few things and he and Tony sit in the shade for a while. Tony's complaints about the heat are expertly turned towards the matter in hand by Ben.
'So whose idea was all this? Not yours I take it?'
'No. I mean Jason makes all the program decisions really. It's what he'd call his forte, "knowing your audience", "giving the public what the public wants", that kind of thing.'
'And where did the idea come from?'
'Oh, sent to us by this Mexican guy. We get all sorts of stuff sent over, most of it useless, wacky or so minor as to appeal to about a dozen people, but this one looks good.'
'So who's the guy? One of the owners?'
'Yeah. He's got a skull. Jaime de Reconvaco he's called. Really smooth Latin type, can't say I like him but he does look dramatic on TV.'
'And he organised the whole event?'
'Yeah, so it seems, certainly the impression he gives.'
Corrin and Red have been looking round for inaccessible bits of the site, and come up to one part with large 'DANGER' notices. 'What do you think?' says Corrin.
'Might be worth a look. We ought to be careful though, anything this old must have unstable bits.'
Corrin looks into the small building, but it's too dark to make out more than a few piles of rubble. 'I think I'll give it a go, I'm lighter than you. Keep an eye out will you? Whistle or something.'
'I can't whistle, never been able to - but I'll definitely something. There's no-one around, see what you can see.'
Corrin climbs athletically over the wooden boards and ducks under the low doorway. It leads into a passageway with a number of small windows on one side, giving her enough light to see by, when her eyes get used to it. The passage goes round a ninety degree corner, and on for about 10 metres before another low archway, which she approaches. As she peers into the gloom, Corrin pulls the small Maglite out of her pocket and twists it on. The circle of light pierces the darkness to the far side of the room to light up a face looking straight back at her. She starts - surely no human face is as hollowed as this one looks; skin stretched tight over skeletal features, large eyes staring blankly out of deep sockets. Jerking the torch away she considers running back, but hearing no sound she calms down slowly. She brings the torch beam back on the face and sighs with relief to see it is just a statue staring back at her. Quickly, she checks the rest of the room, but the surprisingly well carved face on stylised body is the only decoration. The style of the face is very realistic and quite unlike the carvings in the ruins elsewhere. Next to it is a small square archway, and Corrin gathers herself and walks on.
Her heart is pounding loudly as she flicks the torch from side to side to make sure nothing escapes her attention. The hall she steps into is about 8 metres wide, and 20 deep but the low ceiling takes away any sense of space, and it is very claustrophobic. Looking down, the floor is worn, but not dusty. There are small spots of red on it - stains of something. Around the walls are black soot marks about two metres apart all the way round and there are splashes of wax on the floor beneath them. At the far end is a low, flat table, bare of ornament or decoration, save a tattered piece of cloth laid over it. Corrin walks over, every few steps irrationally looking back at the entrance. This place makes her feel she isn't welcome, and all she wants to do is leave.
The cloth is black, with a crude design bleached into it: two circles, and below them an isosceles triangle. The fabric looks old, and very worn, Corrin shrinks back from touching it, and decides she's seen enough. Turning, she walks quickly to the archway, faintly grey from the penetrating sunlight and through it without a backward glance. Soon she's back outside, blinking in the sunlight, and looking round for Red as she fumbles her sunglasses on.
'How did it go?' a large blob with Red's voice says.
'Oh, kinda interesting. The place is, well, weird. Really weird.
I don't know what goes on there, but it's definitely...'
'Weird?', finishes Red.
'Yeah.' Corrin starts to tell him of the strange room as they walk back to find the others.
The team regroup fairly swiftly, and Diana turns to George, 'How did things go with that guy, Rogier I assume.'
'Oh, pretty well - I got to sit down on the job at least. The guy's a bit nuts, full of theories about the mystic powers of his skulls, not to mention other stuff. He's got these two skulls, King Jaguar, really nice crystal piece, Rogier nearly killed me when I dropped it.'
Diana interrupts, 'I saw that, why did you drop it?'
'Oh, I must have dropped a bit of my ciggy on my hand, burnt myself and dropped it. Look,' he shows her a nasty burn on his right hand. She looks at it uneasily.
'Looks worse than it is. Hurt like buggery when it happened though. The other skull's black, he calls it "Running Bear". It's supposed to have another spirit bound into it. Spirits like skulls apparently.'
'Okay, let's get back to Merida. I don't think there's much more to do here.' says Damien. 'Maria's back that way.'
When they get back to the hotel bar at about 5:00 they order drinks and Maria asks what they'd like to do that evening; a meal somewhere, dancing, a quiet night in?
They agree to think about it while they all get freshened up, and to meet Maria at the bar at 6:00.
As Diana gets up, having finished her drink, Ben says 'Hang on - How would you feel about having a chat with Mahmoud?'
'Well, OK, what about? I mean in particular.'
'Anything suspicious,' says Damien. 'See what he knows about the skull owners. Or the TV people.'
'We could ask him about translating some of the radio things Damien can pick up.' says Corrin. 'Oh and it might be an idea if we can find a tourist shop selling souvenir skulls, in case we can find a match for any of the real ones.'
'I guess he could work the scanner, but it'd need one of us around to tell him what to look for.' says Damien.
'Not to mention stopping him walking off with it,' adds George.
'Well let's just think about that, OK? Meanwhile find out what you can about the people we know about.'
'George, how do you fancy distracting Arsenio?', suggests Corrin.
'I think it a most fitting use of my talents,' he says with as much of a bow as a bar stool allows.
'Okay then,' says Diana. 'Shall we go?'
They get up and wander out to the lobby, George can be glimpsed talking energetically with a tired Arsenio.
Damien heads upstairs to check on his email message intercepts. Nothing of any very great note seems to be going on at Ghost in the Machine: it looks like the team here in Merida are probably most of the company's personnel. All he sees are a handful of chatty messages from other far-flung journalists, and a request to discuss a documentary about execution methods used in the USA.
After a little perseverance he puts a similar log into the Sheraton's system. Email traffic here is much heavier but also very routine: mostly messages back and forth from the hotel group's HQ about administrative matters, and business communications from guests.
Diana leaves the hotel and walks about 20 metres along the road. There is no sign of Mahmoud, but his plywood seems undisturbed. 'Mahmoud?' she says quietly. She raises her voice, 'Are you around? I have a job for you.'
There is a rustling from slightly further down the road, and then a tangled mass of dusty black hair pokes up from what Diana took to be the gutter.
'Hello,' he says beaming. 'I was under the hotel. Very good place to see what's going on.'
'Well,' Diana reaches for her purse as Mahmoud squirms out. 'I was wondering if you could tell me some things. Things you might have seen?'
'I see good, very good. I see much. What you want to know?'
'Umm, anything unusual for a start.'
Diana self-consciously pulls out a 50 peso note, muttering '5 pounds' and hands it over feeling very seedy.
Mahmoud takes it with a grin, 'I show you very unusual. Come with me.'
He starts to move off, and for a moment Diana thinks, with horror, that he expects her to follow him "under the hotel", but he sticks to the street.
He stops at the corner of the hotel and pokes his head round for a few seconds before turning back. 'Okay, there's a man, over the street, next to sign.'
'Okay,' says Diana slowly. 'Who is he?'
'He is bad man, he has gun.'
'What? Why? How do you know?' Diana is beginning to suspect she's being wound up, and Mahmoud senses it.
'No really, I see it when he bend over one time, it's here.' He pats the position of a right shoulder holster. 'I don't know who he is, but he's been here most of the day. Look.'
Diana pokes her head round the corner, and sees a small Mexican leaning against the wall. She shrugs and turns back to Mahmoud. 'All right. Thanks. Now then, do you know the Willoughbys, or Jouke van der Weide, or the TV people: Jason, Paula and Tony?'
'Who was the middle one?'
'No, the other one, Juki...'
'Oh, Jouke van der Weide, she's Dutch, quite large, this tall?'
'I know her, I seen her two times. She gave me 30 pesos, said that Ed liked me. But I didn't see Ed.'
'Okay, thanks Mahmoud. Keep an eye out for her OK?'
'Because I'm interested, and I can give you a job, Okay?'
'One more thing, do you know any tourist shops which sell carved skulls, from glass?'
'I don't know, but I look tomorrow? I look all over Merida for shops selling skulls, for you?'
'OK, thanks.' Diana turns and goes back inside deciding a bath is the perfect antidote to the stress of paying for information on the streets about armed men. She thinks she has time before meeting the others to discuss what to do in the evening.
Various locations, Hotel Esplendido
5:45 pm 25 November 1997