The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Las Cabezas de Muerte – Chapter 4
Ben is the first down and decides a drink is in order, while waiting. Before the barman returns with it, George is there, and also orders a beer. They take them to a table to wait, George carrying his glass in his left hand.
'How's the hand going?' asks Ben.
'Oh, it'll be all right.'
'When was the last time you dropped cigarette ash on your hand? While sober I mean? Are you sure it wasn't the skull taking a dislike to you?'
'Well, I thought we were getting on OK. Ah, skulls are such fickle things.' George shakes his right hand a little, and then shrugs. 'Yeah, I guess it was pretty stupid but the risk is worth taking.'
With this he pulls another cigarette out and lights it. Ben notes that again he is favouring his left hand.
'What do you fancy for tonight?' Ben asks.
'Relaxation. A meal out, perhaps.'
'Sounds good,' says Diana from behind him. 'And it would start to look a little odd if we never left the hotel.'
'Well, I think we're doing all right for SITU - the first objective's down. Jaime was the one with the idea for the meeting, and Jason's been organising it.' says Ben.
Damien walks over while he's talking, and responds. 'That was a good trip for us. We worked hard and we discovered a lot of good leads. But we still have quite a bit of work to do.'
'Looks like we're going for a meal somewhere in town, that okay with you,' says Diana to Damien.
He nods. 'Before we go out I think we ought to talk about Chichen Itza, and maybe a stakeout. But we need Corrin and Red for that.'
Right on cue both come in, the Russian looking at least twice the size of the Diana.
Ben takes a swig while they walk over, and then addresses them both. 'Hi, I think we ought to talk about Chichen Itza a bit more, that was a really weird place you found. Those red stains could be blood. Perhaps they're performing human sacrifices in there.'
'Steady on,' says George. 'I think that's getting a little bit tabloid isn't it?'
'Well, it's certainly worth checking out further.' says Corrin. I want to go back out there under the cover of darkness. Red says he'll come along - anyone else particularly keen?'
'Probably better to save our energy,' says Damien. 'I think we ought to stake out the place each evening, starting tonight. One operative at a time, in four hour shifts. If they see anything, they can alert the rest of us.'
'A full stake-out?' says Red. 'Well, OK. I'll tell you what - Corrin and I can go out there and check round the place carefully, then someone else can just sit out the rest of the night.'
'Any volunteers?' says George eyeing the bottom of his drink. 'I guess I could do it tonight if no-one else is keen. If I take a bottle of scotch it shouldn't get too boring.'
'I think it's important,' says Damien. 'I'm no expert on the occult but what little I have read indicates that occult rituals often have strong ties to some specific location; a 'place of power' if you will. Where better to have an occult ceremony with Zapotec artifacts than at an authentic ceremonial site in genuine Zapotec ruins? Anyone have any more reliable information along those lines?'
'Well, places are always important,' says George, with a shrug.
'But anyway. Let's do dinner first, I'm starving' says Red as Maria walks over, 'then we can go over there.'
'Maria, good to see you.' says Ben finishing his drink.
'Right then,' she responds with a smile, 'What kind of place do you want, I know a lovely seafood place for example.'
It is agreed that trying the local seafood would be ideal, and the group move off. As they do Damien asks Maria about hire car possibilities, and then says he'll catch them up as he goes to reception.
He picks up his headphones, tipping generously, and asks Arsenio to organise a couple of cars immediately. The manager looks flustered, but says he'll do what he can, and have the keys to the cars left at reception. Damien leaves some money for the driver, and heads off into the warm night air.
The restaurant is only a few minutes away, so the group decides not to get taxis. As they leave Diana notices Mahmoud at the end of the street, peering round the far corner. She walks on past with the others, but when she sees the Mexican still watching the side of the hotel, she freezes, whispers 'Back in a mo,' to Ben, and turns back.
Mahmoud had noticed her, and when she turns he walks forward as she goes over.
'He still there, Miss. Like I told you, yes'
'That's right. Listen Mahmoud, be careful OK? Thanks for keeping an eye out for us, but just stick with that OK?'
'OK Miss. You're the boss. I'll just watch him 'til he goes away. OK?'
'Yes, thanks. I have to go.'
'OK Miss, have a nice evening.'
She swiftly catches the others up and nods to Ben's 'everything OK?'
The restaurant is set back from the road slightly, and has a nice handpainted sign saying 'Carbanos'. Maria walks up, 'It looks a bit small, but it has this wonderful roof garden, lovely views, and very pleasant in an evening like this.'
The group get seated round an oval table, with views across Merida. The town isn't built up to any large extent, so row upon row of roofs are visible, with the odd spire or tower breaking the skyline. White wine aperitifs are brought for everyone, as Damien appears. 'Found you!' he exclaims, and sits down.
The food is great, and the SITU operatives find Maria's presence, and hence the impossibility of talking about their mission, pleasantly relaxing, rather than frustrating. Maria tells them more about Merida, and modern Mexican culture, speaking with more enthusiasm and cynicism than she has as a tour guide.
After a little, almost subconscious, conversation directing from Ben, she starts talking about the influence of the Zapotecs on modern culture. 'You see, the people here took Christianity, and made it Mexican. They added ritual, and mystery, and a load of good old-fashioned peyote, and made it an excuse for a party. They have their own churches, and celebrations, which are almost nothing like the Christian ones they replaced. I've known some totally weird people about it though, it seems to take over some people's lives.'
'I guess religion anywhere's like that though.' suggests Damien.
'Well, maybe so. But Mexicans have a way of doing things to extremes.' Maria empties her half-filled glass of wine and grins.
'To extremes,' says George, and swings his glass forward in a toast.
Maria notices his burn, and looks concerned, 'I didn't realise you were hurt, are you OK?'
'Oh yeah, just my pride, well, my hand actually, but never mind.'
Damien looks over at the large red mark, 'Are you sure that's all right? Maybe you should have Arsenio direct you to a clinic to have a doctor check it out. You wouldn't want to get an infection.'
'Ah, it'll be fine. I've seen worse,' says George refilling Maria's glass, and then his own.
As the meal draws to a close, Red glances at his watch, and then at Corrin. They both push away their dessert plates; hers still with half a slice of torte, his clean.
'Are you off?' asks Maria with a touch of concern.
'Oh yeah,' says Red, 'we have some stuff to do.'
In consolation Damien says, 'I don't know about the rest of you, but I want to check out night life!'
'Do you still want to go dancing?' asks Maria.
George looks indifferent, Ben and Damien nod and Diana gives a slight wince before saying 'Dancing? Well it's been a while...'. She shakes her head slightly, but then smiles 'Oh, what the hell - OK, sure.'
George grins again, 'Hey, I can't give you an excuse to call me a spoilsport. I'm in.'
Red and Corrin make their excuses and head off back to hotel. Damien tells them quickly of his arrangements for transport.
Back at the hotel, they find that Arsenio has indeed hired two high power 4-wheel drives for them. Red picks up the keys as they go up to their rooms to get equipment. They each take a bag, and put in the binoculars, torches, a camera and mobile phones. She asks Red if he has any ideas on digging equipment, he produces a Swiss-army knife and a shrug. Damien has prepared a couple of maps, sketched onto the hotel's free tourist guides showing the tyre-tracks, strange chamber, cordoned off areas and a few of the potentially related temples. Corrin got the tape recorder from Diana, and puts this in her bag too.
The drive along is bouncy because Red's testing the car out. It performs reasonably, but the top speed is a little low. The roads also leave a lot to be desired, and several pot-holes unseat Corrin before she starts bracing her feet against the back of the footwell. At length the Chichen Itza site road is reached, and the headlights pick out the chain link fence surrounding it. The main gate is locked, so they decide to park, while they look for a way in. Corrin suggests putting the car a little out of sight, and so it lurks under the shade of several trees as they walk away.
The powerful Maglite beams sweep ahead of them, and occasionally flick back to the map Damien drew. 'I guess we ought to head right,' says Red '- see if we can get in near where these tracks are.
'Yeah, there must be some way through.'
'The main gate's pretty secure though. But I guess they're trying to impress people with that.'
At length they work their way round to the side nearest the tyre marks, and see a dip in the fence. As they approach they see it's a gate, padlocked with the chain running through both sides of the gate.
'Damn, locked out,' says Red, but Corrin keeps her light on the gate as she approaches. About 5 metres away she stops, and quickly flicks her light off, 'Turn the torch off,' she hisses, and Red does so. 'Why?' he stage- whispers back.
Corrin walks up to the lock, going slowly in the starlight. She picks up the padlock, and the chain falls away. Red looks stunned, 'I didn't know you could pick locks. Do you need it to be dark or something?'
Corrin turns, 'It wasn't locked - someone must be here already, lets go on, quietly.'
Red nods, and they slip through the gate, replacing the chain.
Maria faithfully informs George, Ben, Diana and Damien that the best place for dancing is 'Club Tip-Top', as she explains, 'the name is terrible, but it makes it more exclusive.'
'Well, OK,' says George, 'I'll believe you.'
They settle up and walk out, Damien thanking the restaurant owner as they leave.
'Maria, do you know of any local restaurants of the supposedly "authentic Mexican" type that cater virtually exclusively to tourists?' asks Diana.
Maria pauses, unsure whether Diana wanted to go to one, or is just looking for somewhere to sneer at. Diana explains; it's a mix of the two, 'It's just that we were thinking of inviting the Willoughbys to dinner and that seems to be more their sort of place, you know?'
Maria smiles, 'Yes, I've met them. Oh there are dozens of them, Arsenio could recommend twenty without even thinking. But since you'll be there, I guess 'Mexicanos, Mexicanos' would be OK. The food's actually OK, if you go for one of the chef's specialities, but it's got all the tackiness they'd want.'
George looks puzzled, 'Doesn't "Mexicanos, Mexicanos" mean something like "Mexicans, Mexicans"? I mean that's a really silly name.'
Maria laughs, 'Well, actually it's a game they play, mostly in America, but it came from Mexico. It involves dice, gambling and bluffing.'
'America's three staple foods,' says George, lighting up again. The club is reached in about half a cigarette's length, and the wide impressive steps greet them. Maria smiles at one of the bouncers, who seems to know her, and they are soon in the hot, brightly lit club they've been promised.
Damien dances a lot, he's keen to learn and actually not too bad. Maria dances, with the group, and others - she seems to know almost everyone there. George, Ben and Diana are more keen to soak up the atmosphere, and a few of the cocktails. Eventually though, Diana starts to dance, and is glad of the exercise. Ben pleads 'heat exhaustion, just from sitting here,' and stays chatting.
Red and Corrin walk up the slight incline, heads down to watch the ground. Without torches the going is tough, and Red stumbles a couple of times, taking the skin off his leg. Corrin's sharp eyes cope much better, and it is she who puts out an arm and says 'hang on' before crouching down. Red also kneels down, to be less prominent than a 6'6" silhouette usually is. Corrin scrabbles around for the binoculars, and raises them to her eyes as she peers ahead.
'Thought so, there's a truck up there, we'd better go round,'
'Okay, lead the way,' says Red, rubbing his shin.
She does, and they work their way round. Seeing no-one near the flatbed truck they walk over to check it out. The open back area has a few ropes, a couple of beer bottles, some straw and a discarded shirt in it. It's fairly dirty, but could hold quite a lot of stuff, or about eight people. The cab's windows are open, and by reaching in Red opens the door. 'Who's picking locks now?' comments Diana. The cab is a mess, but there is little of interest or identification. Scrumpled in the passenger footwell is a leaflet in Mexican, proclaiming "Viva Zapatista!" Red stuffs it in his pocket as Corrin opens the glove compartment. There is a large, worn knife in there, which makes her uneasy, but otherwise just the general junk that accumulates in any car. There is a small leather pouch containing some dried-up plant matter. A couple of the round brownish lumps are also taken.
'There's not much to see here, I reckon we need to find out where the people who drove this in are,' says Red. Corrin agrees, and they head off again, both slightly nervous. The ancient temples have a habit of catching the moonlight, and reminding them of the traditions which kept a civilisation going for centuries. The place is very quiet, but it's not hard to imagine there are people inside each temple, and each building. Eventually Red speaks up, 'I feel like an intruder, I really do.'
'Yeah, but the people we're looking for broke in first, we're just following them.'
'Maybe, but at least they know a bit about this place,'
'Well let's head over to that weird place, see if it's the same people. OK?'
At about one o'clock the club starts to wind down, and people start leaving. Damien and Maria return from the dance floor, followed by Diana, and they flop onto chairs wearily. George smiles, 'Flagging? I feel I could do a whole night's work y'know.'
Ben nods, 'We'd better get back.'
'OK,' says Maria. 'I hope you all had a nice evening, I know I have.'
'Yeah, thanks.' says Damien. 'We must do this again.'
Drinks are finished and things collected and at length they leave the club. The starry night is nicely cool after the warm club, and everyone feels better for the walk back.
Back at the hotel, George nips upstairs with Ben, while the others head to the bar for a last drink. Once out of earshot George looks across - 'Do you think they'll be back yet?'
'Well, they reckoned 2:00 didn't they, so probably not. Better check though.'
Banging on the room doors reveals they are still out, and so the two return to the bar. George remembers to pick up the keys on the way past reception, and decides to have a coffee to sober himself up fairly completely.
They get drinks and join the others, looking over the juke box and throwing round suggestions.
The small set of buildings look eerily different at night, with the huge triangular silhouette of the Pyramid of the Magicians looming behind. As they approach, as close to silently as they can manage, Corrin and Red see a flickering of light from within, down the passage way with the statue.
'I don't reckon we ought to disturb them,' says Red.
'Let's just wait outside and listen in...'
The sounds from within become audible as they sit with their backs to the wall of windows for the thin corridor. There is a low chanting, occasionally punctuated with higher shrieks. A drum can be heard, steadily beating, and is occasionally joined with clapping. Then a female voice rises above the others, which quieten down as she starts to speak. Red leans over, 'Did you bring the tape recorder?'
'Oh, yeah.' Corrin fishes it out, and Red places it on the ledge, to get the Spanish on tape.
After about five minutes the chanting restarts, drowning out the strident voice, and rises to a crescendo. It is joined by shrieks and shouts and then a sudden hush descends. Red shivers slightly as he reaches for, and turns off, the tape. The operatives flatten themselves against the wall, as sounds of movement come through. They listen to the footsteps not two metres from their position as they try not to breathe. The flickers of candles come through the windows, until the last is gone, and the group of 10 or so have left.
After a minute Red breaks the silence, 'Phew.'
Corrin just nods, and then slowly gets up, her limbs stiff with immobility and tension. She stretches a few times. 'Shall we go in?'
'OK.' Red nods, and swings his bag onto his shoulder, taking the lead. The sounds of a truck starting are heard, as they move into the darkness, and after a few steps he fumbles his torch on, the wide beam illuminating the way ahead. The statue in the small antechamber is still there and with a sharp breath Red looks into the larger room. It is empty of people and so, ducking to get through the doorway, he goes in, Corrin pushing closely behind.
The room hasn't changed significantly, but the floor is scuffed up, and a smell of smoke and wax permeates. The low table is at the back, again with the simple cloth laid over it. Red walks over, stooping because of the low ceiling, and shifts it slightly with his torch. Shrugging, he reaches down, and lifts it off. The stone below is pitted and scored, but mercifully blood free. Corrin calls him over, 'Look at this.'
She is leant over, looking at the floor and as Red approaches he sees the blob of brown-red she's examining. It is still wet, and looks like a spit mark. Corrin scoops it up with the corner of Damien's map, and folds it into the coated paper.
The room is very bare, and Red suggests they leave, 'This place really gives me the creeps, and it's killing my back.' Corrin replaces the cloth, and notices a small fragment of bone at the edge of the table, she eyes it nervously, and decides not to pick it up.
'OK, let's go,' she says authoritatively, and they do.
They have to climb the fence to get back out, but after that, and a quick drive, they get back to the hotel.
Maria says her goodbyes after a drink as she has to be up early for the diving competition. Diana asks if she can go along, and Maria looks pleased to say 'Yes, meet me at nine o'clock at the foyer.'
Ben goes over to the film people, and chats to them about the day's work. They seem quite pleased, and he talks them into letting him see the first rushes of the interviews the following morning.
Diana also heads off, and George goes to Chichen Itza, to keep watch outside the gates. Damien says he'll wait up for Red and Corrin and do a little hacking. He says he'll phone George with their news. Damien heads up, and loads up his net programs. His first target is the Hotel Esplendido, which proves surprisingly easy. He sets up a link to the rooms database, and also the E-mail routes. Traffic is fairly low, but mostly Spanish. He notes also that the accounts section is having extensive time devoted to it, mostly by Arsenio in person. He checks the Sheraton, and the Esplendido's lists for Jaime de Reconvaco, but with no success. The fire systems in the Sheraton are linked to the computers, but triggering them from just the computer angle is unlikely to be effective, as a manual cut- out switch will cancel it.
Soon after this he hears a knock on his door, and opens it to Red and Corrin. The encounter is related, and the samples looked over. They head off to sleep, and after a quick call to George, Damien also turns in. Red says he'd like to talk to everyone at breakfast, and they agree to meet at 8:30.
George puts down the mobile phone, and tries again to get comfortable in the back seat of the car. He takes another sip of whiskey and whistles idly.
With a start he wakes, not realising he'd fallen asleep, and shakes his head. There is a car approaching, and he turns his head to try to see it. The car is a four-wheel drive, and heads straight past, up to the main gates. On the side is an official looking crest, and 'Touristo Yucatan'. Dawn is approaching, and checking his watch he finds it is nearly 6. He rubs his eyes and decides to wait around for a couple of hours before heading back.
At breakfast the slightly tired Red and Corrin are quizzed about the night before, and various plans are discussed for the day. Primary are those involving the Willoughbys. Red outlines a plan of his pretending to be a diplomatic aide to the Moldovan Royal family investigating the theft of two skulls, Troilus and Cressida. If he can fool the Willoughbys into believing the skulls are stolen, he thinks he should be able to get them back. The plan does need some faked letters, which Damien thinks he could handle, and knowing when and how the Willoughbys got their skulls.
Damien suggests they break in to the Willoughbys, to look round for information. There is access to their balcony either from another balcony, or the roof, via ropes, and a little climbing know-how. A similar procedure could get them into Jason's room, if they wanted. It does need someone to distract the Willoughbys and a lookout. But given these, it should be fairly safe.
'I don't mind having dinner with them,' offers Diana. She grins, 'well, not too much, but if I have to go alone I'll probably die of boredom.' She glances round at the rest of the party as she continues, 'So, is anyone going to volunteer to make it a foursome?'
Red shakes his heads slowly, 'I'd like to know when they got their skulls, but if I go along, the Moldovan thing just won't work.'
Ben shrugs, 'I could do it. We'll work something out.'
As these discussions go on, George shows up looking very dishevelled, not to mention tired. He yawns, reports that he saw little and decides to sleep for the morning. This prompts the others to give their plans for the morning. Red and Diana will go to watch Maria diving. Damien is going to access the Sheraton's computers to see about disruptions to the ceremony, and also to see if Jaime is staying there. Diana mentions that she wants to speak to Mahmoud in the afternoon, and perhaps visit the Sheraton to have a look round. Ben looks keen to do the latter and Corrin suggests Diana ask Mahmoud about the skulls, and also any interesting newspaper reports. They also need someone to translate the Spanish taped at Chichen Itza.
'We still need to find more about Jaime de Reconvaco,' says Damien. Ben agrees, and says he's going to ask the film guys. On hearing he's going to see the rushes Corrin looks up 'Any chance I could come along, do you think?'
'Should be OK - they seemed like they wanted to show off their stuff.'
Damien decides to get in some more computer work, and leaves breakfast early. Once up in his room, he looks through the background checks that were running all-night.
Troilus and Cressida have showed up a lot - in Homer's Iliad Troilus is killed by Achilles during the Trojan war. The story stems from Latin works in the 4th and 5th centuries AD and was developed by medieval writers. Chaucer's (1385) and Shakespeare's (1609) versions are the most famous. It is a story of betrayal by Cressida of their love after she leaves the besieged city.
Ahuantapec was a sea goddess of the Zapotecs, involved with birth / rebirth concepts and sea mother ideals. When the Zapotecs were all but wiped out by the Toltecs in the 11th century worship declined, but references remain in Aztec and Toltec writings. These later worshippers carved skulls, as well as the Zapotecs: they were used as totems for sacrifice.
Chichen Itza is a famous site of ruined temples, used primarily by the Mayan peoples. Its largest building is the Pyramid of the Magicians, which has a number of significances linked with the Mayan calendar.
This last fact reminds Damien of a comment of Corrin's, about the possible significance of the date of the ritual. He tries to check for this, but then gets down to the serious business of cracking the Xerox Parc computer system.
Ben goes out front; the man is standing there, with a cigarette burning in his hand. He's not actively watching the Hotel Esplendido, but from his position he can see, and be seen by, pretty much everyone going in or out.
Various locations, Hotel Esplendido
8:50 am 26 November 1997
Ben: You are preparing work for the documentary - noting conversations and editing suggestions. Basically the crew are going to make the owners look like idiots, and misrepresent them and their opinions. It is more a programme about watching idiots with weird beliefs than occult items and their reunion.
Damien: Hacking British Telecom system is very hard work. Give priority compared with Xerox Parc etc.