The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Las Cabezas de Muerte – Chapter 5
Diana slips outside, looking self-consciously back into the foyer as she ducks out of the large entrance. She looks quickly up and down, and then leans down to knock on the sheet of plywood propped against the wall. 'Mahmoud,' she whispers and then glances round as if feeling watched before repeating 'Mahmoud?' rather louder. There is no response so she turns to go back to the foyer, and once inside sees Ben. She goes to join him, 'If you really don't mind having dinner with the Willoughbys, do you fancy making it tonight? I know it's a bit short notice, but the sooner we get a chance to check out their room the better.'
'Well, OK. If you think the others can get organised I'm sure I can handle dinner.'
'Okay, I'll ask Maria where we can find this restaurant she mentioned.' She glances back into the foyer, and sees Red, leaning nonchalantly against a pillar. 'Speaking of which, I'd best get back. See you later.' She turns as he murmurs goodbye, and walks quickly over to Red.
The film crew have taken over a couple of joined rooms in the bottom of the hotel. One is full of equipment Tony dismisses as 'Technical' and the other the more comprehensible kit of screen, projector, camera equipment and reels of developed film. Jason has a traditional style Director's chair, and smiles briefly as they get shown in. He looks tired, as does Tony; only Paula seems completely awake.
'So, coming to see the professionals at work?' says Jason.
'Yeah, it's always good to see someone else in your line of work,' says Ben, perching behind Jason on a solid looking box.
'Especially when you're on holiday, eh?' says Paula.
Corrin smiles, and turns to Tony, 'So this is where it all goes on, yeah?'
'That's right, editing proper is through there - the cutting and developing stuff. This is where we look at what we've got, and so it can be kinda stressful.'
As he says this Jason clicks his fingers and says 'There. What the hell were you playing at Tony? Fade loss? Over glare? For Christ's sake, we can't afford to have lost tape here - the interviews are boring enough as it is.'
'Let's have another look, it might have been over developed or something.'
Ben looks thoughtful as the tape is reeled back. 'Do you know what time this happened? I mean the time of day.'
Paula nods, scrabbling for a film tin, she reads from the top, 'Jouke and Ed. Two thirty-five, Three twelve.'
The tape has been rewound, and now plays again. The picture is a head and shoulders shot of Jouke, with Ed held up, looking almost like a parrot or second head on her right shoulder. After a second the sound cuts in, she is speaking. '...just happens really, no conscious effort. He doesn't nee.' But then the sound cuts out, as does the picture.
'OK, go back,' instructs Paula, and it is done. They watch again the sudden change from picture to static. Paula sits back, 'No way it's over developing. Too sudden, no fogginess before, then blank. That's on the site equipment trouble, and that's your job Tony.'
'Hey, don't blame me, probably a loose cable or something. It's the only glitch isn't it Jason?'
'Yeah, but that isn't the point is it? There was only one glitch in the design of the Death Star, it got blown up.'
'Don't be melodramatic,' says Paula.
'Never underestimate the power of the Force,' says Jason with a laugh.
Tony looks stressed and scrabbles in a pocket. 'Gonna go have a smoke. OK?'
Jason and Paula shrug. Corrin decides she'll take the opportunity to talk to him. 'I might just pop out for a breath of fresh air, if you don't mind?'
He smiles, 'Of course not, you can have fresh and I'll have polluted.'
George wakes woozily at about 12:00, realising he fell asleep without meaning to. He winces to lift his hand; the burn seems to have spread slightly across the back of his hand, covering three knuckles and making it painful to move even his little finger. He slips downstairs for a snack and to find the others. None of the other SITU operatives are around downstairs, and in an effort to wake up, coffee having failed, he decides to go for a wander round Merida.
After Corrin and Tony walk out, Ben leans forward, trying to discern anything through the static. His brain keeps half seeing pictures, but as they include a giraffe, his mother and a mini he decides he's just imagining them. The hiss of the sound is a distinctive one however, and gets higher pitched at regular, approximately half second intervals. Jason loses interest after they've seen the cut-in point at the end. Paula confirms it was a camera error, and Jason agrees, muttering something about incompetents.
They move on to more questions of Jouke, which she smiles at happily. Jason mutters away, 'Jeez, it would be so hard to make a shot of her and that silly skull look serious wouldn't it? I mean as a challenge what would you do?.. ..Ah, that's gonna be useful, yeah. Shit, lens flare. Hey Paula, d'you reckon we could animate the skull, have it talking instead of her?'
Ben shakes his head. 'How's the cutting together going?' he asks of Paula.
'Oh, about a ten minute chunk of their chatting, which is useful enough. Nothing insightful, but all good background.'
'And what else have you shot, in advance?'
'A bit of Mexico background. The Zapotec stuff we've farmed out, so we have to wait for that. And a chat with Mister Reconvaco which looks great.'
'He set it up, yeah?'
'Yeah, he's on some spiritual trip about wanting to meet up the skulls, and get them together again.'
'Bollocks,' chips in Jason. 'He's either after their cash, or a preety Inglish Lady. Probably watched Shirley Valentine and thought, I'll have a bit of that. He's after you, you know?'
'Well, who isn't?' says Paula flashing a grin.
'Seriously, do you think he's just doing this for a scam? I got the impression he really believed in these things.'
'Maybe, Maybe no. I mean he seems genuine, but kind of uninterested in the other people. He's after something more than spirituality and forefather appeasement. And what else could it be than our lovely Paula?'
'Whatever, get back to work.'
Tony coughs slightly as he takes the second drag on his cigarette. 'Worn out?' asks Corrin sympathetically.
'Absolutely shattered. Haven't been this knackered on a shoot since we were doing silly stuff - dashing round just ten miles from the firing line, hitching lifts with UN tanks, that kind of fun.'
He walks out, further along the little street at the front of the hotel. Corrin half expects Mahmoud to appear, but there are no sounds from his plywood. Tony recoils with a gasp, holding his head, and rocking back, as he winces 'Shit. Fucking sun. I always walk into it.'
He pulls out sunglasses, they are very black, and too large for his face, giving an insectoid look. Corrin shrugs inwardly and gets back to questioning, 'So, how many people have you got through? and how many more to go?'
'We did 5 yesterday. Oh and Jaime's down, but we'll have to talk to him again. That leaves about 4 I guess; good old Darling, Hein, Lovesmith and Gibbon, or whatever she was called.'
'Are they all skull owners?'
'Yeah, some of them have two even. Strikes me as greedy, but then I wouldn't want the scary little things.'
'I dunno, just creepy isn't it?'
'Yeah, kinda. So when are the other interviews?'
'We're doing some today, this afternoon, and then some touching up and reshooting before the ceremony, which is the day after tomorrow. Tomorrow we get to go to the Sheraton, and set up all the gear. Annoying really, I hate studio stuff - Paula goes on and on about the perfect shot, the perfect lighting, the perfect angle. There's no such thing and it just winds me up.'
He takes a final drag from his Marlboro and chucks it down, 'Better get back.'
'Yeah. Be good to see the finished stuff.'
'In this company, nothing's ever finished - Paula's a perfectionist, and Jason can't make up his mind. Never mind.' He sighs expressively, and walks back in, Corrin follows.
As Diana walks towards the edge of the cliffs, watching people left and right hurl themselves off with whoops of bravado she can't help being a little tense. She glances down curiously to the crashing waves, and then steps back - 'Think I'll leave it to the professionals.'
After she and Red have watched a few dives, she comments to Maria about the impressiveness, and then asks a little about the history of cliff diving, which is a little shady since jumping off tall things has been popular since time immemorial. The sport was first officially organised about twenty years ago, but these championships are just four years old. Maria won them in the second year, which impresses both the operatives. After this Maria goes off to dive some more, and Diana turns to Red, 'about your plan - the one thing that bothers me is that the Willoughbys might ask for some sort of reimbursement before they hand the skulls over, especially if they paid a lot for them. You plan to give them a fake cheque or something?'
'Yeah, if need be. We aren't going to be hanging round much after the ceremony after all, disappearing will be easy enough.'
Diana nods, and goes back to watching the divers. After a few hours of lying in the sun, they head back again, Red driving the car and she and Maria clinging on as best they can. Outside the hotel the watching man catches Diana's eye and she turns to Maria, 'Do you know who that guy is?' nodding at him. Maria looks blank and shrugs, 'should I?'
'Oh no, I just noticed him earlier and wondered if he was hotel security or something, that's all.' She then changes the subject, asking about bookings at 'Mexicanos, Mexicanos'. Before lunch she manages to find the Willoughby's and they agree to a meal at 7:30 with Ben and Diana.
Ben and Corrin are finished with the crew after looking through the interviews. Corrin also got a telephone number from a letter lying around. It could be Jaime's, or if not, a contact of his.
Ben decides to keep an eye on the guy standing around outside the Esplendido. Corrin decides to do a little delving into the things brought back from Chichen Itza. The leaflet and tape will need Mahmoud to decipher, the former being much easier than the latter, but the strange plant lumps are tricky. She sits in her room, making a few calls, and prods around the wad of goo. At least one constituent is blood, but it is a minor one, the texture is stringy and fibrous. After a while she sighs, and after washing her hands carefully she goes next door to see how Damien is proceeding with his morning's hacking.
His answer is 'Tolerably well. The Sheraton's fire system is pretty complex, which is good. I think I can jam a few things, but it will need at least one person to stop the over-ride being tripped. It's in the lobby, so fairly accessible. If they do that the sprinklers and alarms get turned off; not a lot I can do about it, except to cause so much hassle when they come on that the damage will already have been done. I need Ben to get over there though, to check out the room in detail.'
Corrin nods. 'Oh, hang on, three, four-five-seven, sixty-two.' Damien looks confused. 'Write it down,' Corrin says. 'three four, five seven, sixty-two.'
Damien taps it and then Corrin continues. 'Sorry about that, just didn't want to forget. It's a phone number, possibly Jaime's. Know any way to find out? other than calling, obviously.'
'Well, I was going to call directory enquiries. Maybe I could tell them there's a fault with this number, get them to check it for me?'
'OK. If you think your Spanish can handle it, go right ahead.'
'Ah, they'll speak English, at least a little. Jaime's important. We have enough information to give SITU to satisfy the first priority for our mission. But since we have some time left here, I think we should continue to investigate this Jaime de Reconvaco to the best of our ability.'
'Yeah, we still haven't even met him - though Ben and I saw him on film. Oh yeah, you told us to look out for the flash from the skull George was holding, well we need to check it out, but Ben reckons it coincides with a weird fuzzy static patch in the film.'
'Where is Ben?'
'Checking out the guy with the gun I think.'
'Yeah, I'm a little concerned too. That's why I'm staying round the hotel. I can get more work done with the computer, and keep an eye on things around here.'
'Yeah. Sounds good. Fancy lunch?'
'OK. Hang on a sec.' Damien shuts down a couple of processes, but leaves one running, 'Routine stuff,' he says, in a manner reminiscent of Tony's 'Technical'.
Lunch is a subdued affair, with reports of the morning's activities primarily dominating conversation. Damien's plan for the Willoughby break-in is gone over - Corrin is to go in, let down from the roof by Red. Damien and George will look out, Diana and Ben will entertain the tiresome couple. Red talks about his Moldovan plan, Damien says faking paperwork is quite easy, but will take a little while as it'll have to be professionally printed. Ben is concerned that the skulls aren't European, and suggests possibly Damien pretends to be from some obscure US agency like the Bureau of Occult Artifacts or something.
Damien tells the others he has got some black nylon gloves for handling skulls, and has set up the RF scanner for their mobile phones.
Over the afternoon Diana is to talk to Mahmoud, and Ben to go to the Sheraton. Damien wants to co-ordinate with Ben, and suggests Red keep an eye on the guy with the gun. George is still out, but his all-night vigil is considered a worthy excuse - 'probably asleep in the shade of a tree,' suggests Ben. Corrin says she'll go up to her room and have a workout, she needs to be in good shape if she's breaking in places later on.
The agents depart, to meet up again at 2 o'clock. Red goes straight outside, and buys a newspaper. He sits on a bench, and glances over occasionally. Ben said he'd seen the man answer a call from the phone box, at 11:00, so Red positions himself nearby. After about half an hour, Red has nothing more to report than the guy smokes far too much to be healthy, at least six cigarettes an hour. But then the phone rings, and the man duly wanders over to answer it.
The box isn't shielded, but Red is too far away to hear so he just notes how long they talk for; less than a minute, and when it was made; 1 o'clock exactly. Red settles down again, but decides he'll stick around to see if a 2 o'clock call comes in. It duly does, and Red smiles to have worked out at least a little. He's also developing a nice tan, and keeping up with the football news. He gets up to go back after a further minute or so.
Mahmoud is found by a simple tap on his makeshift hidey-hole cover. Diana asks about skulls, and he says he can get hold of some which she pays him generously for. He makes as if to go and get them immediately, but Diana says she has something else he could do for her, some translation. Mahmoud grins, showing lots of small white teeth and a little good humour. 'My American very good miss. I translate whatever you want.'
First she shows him the 'Viva Zapatista' leaflet. He says you find them everywhere, there is to be a big march tomorrow which is essentially an anti-government protest from the Zapatista rebels who control some of the areas south and west of here. The authorities do all they can to stop tourists hearing about it, and Mahmoud relates how people putting up posters are arrested and taken away. He concludes with 'It will be fun though, if it stays peaceful. They are like party, but more serious.'
Diana gets the feeling that Mahmoud's English is struggling, but gives him the dictaphone also. 'This is something I recorded. I don't know what it is, but it might be important. Could you tell me?'
'Of course, where's it from?'
'Don't worry about that, just tell me what she says.'
The tape plays, the moaning chants and occasional wail form the steady backdrop to the mystical female voice. Mahmoud goes rather pale, and snatches at the dictaphone. Diana clicks it off and then Mahmoud hisses out, 'Don't play that miss. People listen, you get in big trouble. Big magics.'
'Magic?' says Diana sceptically.
'Religion, Black Madonna. Many Black Madonna here.'
'Who are they?'
'They are religion, have churches. This at a church?'
'Sort of,' says Diana awkwardly. 'What is she saying?'
'It is,' Mahmoud pauses, looking carefully for a word, 'jumbo-mumbo, all scary silly stuff. I don't believe but it's still scary. All about death and blood and skulls and...'
Diana interrupts, 'Skulls?'
'Yes. They talk about group of skulls and people. Ask Madonna to help them. That why you want glass skull? You join Black Madonna?' He shrinks away slightly.
'No, no. Look, thanks Mahmoud. Is this tape all going to be Mumbo-jumbo?'
'It's all the same, religion and Black Madonna.'
'OK. Thanks anyway.'
'That's OK miss. I get you skull, yes?'
'Yes. Thanks. Oh, be careful of the man with the gun, yes?'
'Yes. But I try to find out who he is, yes? You want to know.'
'Of course, but don't take any risks.'
Mahmoud smiles, Diana hopes he'll be careful.
Ben and Damien go up to his room, and go over the floor plans of the Sheraton. After five minutes Ben goes, taking a mobile and a hand-sketched map of layout, showing the fire-alarm cut-off amongst other things. Damien can't find evidence of Jaime staying there, so Ben decides not to ask at reception, or look out for him particularly.
The Sheraton is a little way away and Ben arrives hot and slightly sweating. He sighs to get into the air-conditioned lobby, and quickly establishes the main desk, its lack of barriers and the two Mexican staff. As discussed, he ignores them and goes through to the main conference hall. There are several workmen, and a couple of security people in there, and Ben watches with a little interest until one of the security people approaches.
'What's going on?' asks Ben, sounding curiously naïve.
'Setting up a reunion, for Zapotec artifacts.'
'There's some American guy coming, we need to look after him for their government.'
'Oh, I see. All looks very busy, last minute stuff?'
'Two days. I really must get back. Were you looking for something?'
'Oh, yes, the lift up. I was told it was along here.'
'Just back there, off to the right.'
'Oh I see. Well thank you.'
Ben has a glance round at the sprinkler systems, the fire exits and the large, presumably breakable windows around the room before leaving. The work seems mainly cosmetic, so Damien's plans should be OK. There is a raised platform, and variously arranged chairs and tables. He takes the lift up to the third floor, walks over to the other lift shaft, and goes down to the lobby. On the way out he notices something rather odd - a man wearing almost exactly the same clothes as Damien was yesterday at Chichen Itza. His build is different, but the resemblance is striking.
He shrugs and heads back, calling Damien on the way.
Red wanders back inside at 5 past 2, past the lobby, and Arsenio waves at him.
'Yes, What?' he asks bluntly.
'There is a message for you, dropped off by hand. He said it was important. It is for your group, but you are the first one I've seen.'
'Well, all right.' Red gets the letter, little more than a grubby envelope with not more than a folded sheet of A4 in it, and takes it through to the dining room. As he sits down he opens it, and explains what it is. His parody of Arsenio's accent stops suddenly, and he just flaps the two pieces of paper that were inside vaguely over. Diana takes them, and reads aloud, slowly and softly - it's not the sort of message one wants overheard.
'To the group of English and Americans. We do not appreciate your involvement in things you do not and cannot understand. Be careful.' Her voice goes more normal, but still rather shaky, 'then it's got that circles and triangle symbol.'
Red continues, 'and the other thing, it's George's driving license.'
Damien looks thoughtful for about a second, but still reacts quicker than the stunned others. He jumps up, and walks quickly out of the room, 'I'm going upstairs, he might be up there.' Red follows.
They get to George's and hammer on the door for about a minute. Then Corrin shows up, with Diana, Ben and a harried Mexican woman, who it turns out has a key. It is grabbed and used unceremoniously, and the door pushed open. Damien moves in, clutching instinctively for his left shoulder and looks round quickly. He turns back, 'nothing, no sign of anything.'
Ben thanks the desk attendant, and motions her away until they can safely talk. 'Shit,' says Red.
'We'd better tell SITU, and then see what we can do,' says Damien.
He does so, and after a quick conversation he turns back round. No-one has done anything beyond a cursory and fruitless search.
'They say they're sending out a new operative who should be some help with the skulls business, but that finding George becomes a top priority, of course. She's called Maddy, and she'll get in tonight at about 8:00.'
Location: George Kellsal's vacated room, Hotel Esplendido
2:10 PM, 26 November.
Ben: You're collecting quotes, and think you might even be able to get some copies of some pre-edit stuff, to compare with the post-edit, broadcast stuff.
Corrin: You talk to Mace and gave him the details of the samples. He said to send him some but he suspects some sort of herbal drug. You give him the details of the investigation so far. After lunch you went and organised a Fed Ex delivery to him of the samples.
Damien: Getting around on your own will be difficult. You can try stuff, but you will leave ropes dangling fairly obviously, or have to take a fairly long time about it. Balcony to balcony stuff is certainly possible though, particularly in an emergency. BT hacking goes ahead, and you find a contact name, Gareth Forest who it is linked to. Your further attempts to trace this name (E-mail records, other phones, businesses) have been unsuccessful so far, say if you want to continue. Artifex Tours has a very, very minimal net presence. You haven't seen files, but from the file transfer logs, very little is happening. You prop a piece of furniture against the balcony, and secure the doors with a length of rope - not great but better than nothing.