The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Las Cabezas de Muerte – Chapter 7
'Like a viirgin, fu- err... touched for the very first tiiime... like a vi-iiirgin...' Maddy's less than wonderful voice drifts out the Madonna classic as she lies back and the tape chanting continues. Damien leans over, not sure if he has her attention, 'the last place any of us saw George was in his hotel room, I think. If you can be of any assistance in helping us find him, we'd really appreciate it. He's got a burn on his hand and...'
'Okay,' her shaky voice cuts in. 'Midday. Festival of the Sun and all the skulls glowy, like, maybe they're there to focus the light and that's how George got burnt; Black-Madonna mother-goddess from the sea...'
Diana has grabbed a pad from her bag and is scribbling down the incoherent thoughts.
'...moon, tides maybe Damien double doppelganger should, like, check for tides by the cliff...'
Ben looks at the others, and whispers, 'I'll stay here and listen in with Diana.'
'...skulls Ed owners, why 'S' and 'B'? Giles Lovesmith Lovecraft Cthulhu...'
'We'll see you downstairs,' says Red. He, Damien and Corrin go out with varying looks of surprise, scepticism and concern.
'...Skull face. Open eyes, sockets. Spanners screw loose. Talking to yourself. Talking to your skull...' Maddy's voice has grown a little stronger and less unsure, she's smiling idiotically.
'...By the sea, Atlantis. By the sea and tides and cliffs. Diving in and under. Grinning skulls and mouth open wide and grinning...'
Diana is scribbling frantically, Ben just looks thoughtful as Maddy goes quiet for a moment before her eyes jolt open, staring at nothing with disconcerting fierceness.
'...Moon and Sun and burning his hand. Hurting and sun glaring and someone waiting and the waiter waits and the sun glares...'
Maddy's head is arched back and she seems to choke a little. Ben moves over to help her get vertical but steps back as she rolls over and throws up. Both he and Diana think 'Peanuts,' before looking away and gagging slightly.
'Ooops.' Maddy's voice has returned to it's more natural tone and she feels dreadful. She goes over to the sink and starts the taps running.
'Are you OK?' asks Ben.
'Yeah. Just low blood sugar, y'know?' Maddy splashes water on her face, and looks at the bedraggled mess of hair and smeared sun-block looking back from the mirror. She shrugs and starts giggling. 'Oh well, at least I've tried it now.' She turns back to the slightly shocked looks of the others and the mess of her bed, 'Yeuch.'
Damien leans over the table of the restaurant. 'I think we ought to stakeout Chichen Itza again tonight - see if anything shows up.'
'Yeah,' agrees Red, 'It's our best link to George.'
'We ought to be careful though,' says Corrin.
'Well, Red and I need to talk about this plan to get the Willoughbys' skulls, we could check out Chichen Itza and try to get a good story together.'
'OK. But maybe you ought to drive,' says Red with a smile, 'that way I can have another drink.' He heads off to the bar. Damien looks back to Corrin - 'No sign of the skulls or anything like a trunk or lockbox?'
She shakes her head. 'Wonder where they could be keeping them?' he continues. 'You said the Willoughbys' place was a bit of a mess, didn't you? I wonder if that hotel employee I saw in the open room next to theirs had anything to do with that? I'd sure like to get a look in that room he was in. Something just doesn't seem quite right to me about the whole thing.'
'Does sound odd. I'm getting less sure about the hotel as we go on. Arsenio might be keeping an eye on us and reporting back to the people behind the symbols. I've decided to keep an eye on him in future - see what he's up to. Ben was talking about a couple of us moving to the Sheraton - to be closer to the action. Might be nice to get out of this place as well.'
'It'll look a bit suspicious. But it could work. Oh, just a thought on the 'S' and 'B' markings in the Willoughby's records book. Do you suppose they could be for 'sell' and 'buy', respectively? My impression of Jouke was that she wouldn't let go of her skull for any reason... but maybe she's experiencing financial difficulties and needs the money?'
Red has returned, and sits down heavily, 'Might be possible. I suppose we could ask if she might sell. I mean, if we outbid the Willoughbys we could buy Ed, and SITU would be happy.'
Corrin looks sceptical, 'I can't see it. And we are relying on the 'S' being sell, and the Willoughbys' guess being right. Better off approaching them first.'
At this point Ben and Diana come downstairs, followed soon after by a very white Maddy. They relate her words which she explains as 'stream of consciousness stuff, sometimes turns something up.' A few minutes are spent poring over Diana's hastily scribbled transcript, decorated with little arrows, question marks and underlining. The last line is 'Vomit. Blood sugar? Yeuch.'
Damien and Red head off to Chichen Itza, and the others go to bed after Maddy has had someone change her covers.
The ancient site is impressive at night, and the two operatives marvel again at the number of stars visible in the Mexican night sky. There is no sign of the truck, or any of the Black Madonna worshippers, and a quick check around the odd little passage and room where they were seen before shows up nothing new. After a few hours sitting in the 4x4 sorting out titles of address, convincing accents and suitable deference they think they sound as good as they're going to. The skulls turned up in a small antiques auction, and their history was traced up to the point they left a Spanish household in the thirties. Aware of Ben's advice that their story tie in with the Willoughby's account they weave a tale of intrigue through the noble houses of Europe and stolen artifacts being smuggled away by unscrupulous valuers.
As Red puts it, 'If they don't believe us, we'll just have to act upset. We can manage that.'
Maddy wakes up bright and early, enthusiasm undimmed. Her quick shower is an excuse for another bad rendition of 'Like a Virgin' and her sunblock application even more like warpaint. She glares at the clock she forgot to set to local time, and decides to see if any of the others are awake yet. She knocks on Damien's door who answers, looking shattered but alert in about a minute. She barges in, and wanders round the room as he straightens his dressing gown.
'What're you gonna do about that other Damien who's wandering around the Sheraton, eh?'
'I think you should go along there today and pretend to be him! Clever, eh?'
Damien goes through to the en-suite bathroom to get dressed, leaving Maddy in his room. She notices the chair propped under the balcony door handle, and a piece of rope tying it - 'Why's this here? The rope I mean. It means you can't get out so easy.' She pauses for a second 'Aha! It's so people can't get in, isn't it? Cool idea! Think I should do it?'
She looks at the stack of computer equipment and shoves a few of the cables into prettier shapes on the floor. 'Wow! cool computer and stuff! What does this button do?'
Damien sticks his head round the door at this, but Maddy doesn't look like she's going to break anything so he goes back to shave. A few minutes later he's hurried into going downstairs, and they order breakfast.
Plans are formed, and Diana and Ben decide to speak to Mahmoud if they can. Maddy is invited along and accepts enthusiastically. Damien heads upstairs to do some computer work, including Maddy's suggestion of checking the tides. Red decides to have a game of tennis with Maria 'in the interests of cover,' and Corrin is keen to watch Arsenio.
Mahmoud is easily found; he seems to have worked out when the group have their breakfast and is waiting outside. He looks very startled to see Maddy, resplendent in her bright Raybans and clashing colours, but returns her grin as she steps forward.
'Uh, hi Mahmoud!' Diana smiles encouragingly from behind her shoulder. 'I'm Maddy. D'you want a Big Issue? Or some tequila?' She pulls a crumpled copy of the magazine from her bag, and
Mahmoud takes it cautiously. He fans himself with it and grins at her. Then Diana walks up and looks a little more serious. Mahmoud is given the tape and listens to it carefully, translating as he goes.
'It sounds like telephone,' Ben nods. 'Hello. Hello. How is he? He, errr, nervous umm staying in. Well, stay there, we want Arsenio kept nervous, or scared, or something like.' Mahmoud looks confused and a little scared, after a pause he says simply, 'then they stop.'
Ben leans forward, 'what was that later stuff?' He takes the tape and rewinds it to just before Mahmoud stopped. It plays again, 'Cuervo Cojaente' says Mahmoud, echoing two of the words.
'Curvo Cojay Entay,' mutters Maddy, 'What does it mean?'
'Umm, Bird, broken bird. Black bird, broken. But Cuervo Cojaente is gang. Bad people. Who is saying this?'
Diana looks at Ben, who shrugs. She breathes in deeply., 'It's the man with the gun, Mahmoud. Is he one of the Cuervo Cojaente?'
'Yes. He must be. I think you better stay out of his way. It is Arsenio he's here for, not you. Stay out of his way.'
'Well. Perhaps. Listen, is there any link between this Cuervo Cojaente and the Black Madonnas?' asks Ben, looking concerned and glancing around.
Mahmoud shakes his head firmly. 'No, they don't like Church.'
Diana tries to look untroubled, 'Well, I think we can avoid them. Would you like to go shopping Mahmoud? Show us around town?'
He grins and nods, 'Yes. All of you?' He looks especially at Maddy who nods almost as vigorously as he did.
Ben still looks thoughtful - 'I've got other things to do. I'll see you for lunch, Okay. Take care, oh and don't forget to get some things for Corrin.'
Corrin hangs around the hotel pool after breakfast. Arsenio has taken up his usual post in the foyer and is chatting genially to people as they leave for the day. Every now and then he pops off upstairs, or to his little office, at which points Corrin enjoys the sun.
As she begins to wonder what she's waiting for she notices a scruffy looking Mexican striding in through the restaurant and out towards her. His striding boots make a hard sound on the tiles, and the smell of his cheroot is noticeable as the fairly old, but fit, man goes past her. He leans against the bar, gazing round the pool, lustfully eyeing up sunbathers and playing idly with a long black feather. After a pause he wordlessly steps behind the bar, and pours a large tequila. The barman looks slightly intimidated and doesn't react until he sees, with relief, that Arsenio is bustling up. Corrin can't hear what he says, but he leads the man away with agitation and they disappear into his office. The barman shrugs as she looks at him, and studiously repolishes a glass.
Ten minutes later the ponchoed man leaves the office, Arsenio walking quickly behind him, and with a swirl of his poncho leaves the hotel through a staff exit. Arsenio is left with the feather, now bent in the middle, and a look of extreme stress. He speaks sharply to the receptionists before returning to his office, wiping his brow with a handkerchief. Corrin sees Ben approaching, and she tells him what she just saw.
'That figures, maybe,' he says, and explains what the phone conversation was about.
Damien has a quick check of his computer system when he returns to his room, but it seems Maddy left well alone what she didn't understand. He sets to work decrypting the E-mail to the Sheraton, and makes very quick progress. It concerns the arrival of a US congressman - Brett Darling, in charge of the skull called Tezcatlipoca. It seems he'll be at the reunion and several photoshoots, and the FBI on the scene are reporting that the area and hotel seem safe. He will arrive this afternoon, and will be accompanied by two plain-clothes FBI. Another two are already in the Sheraton. Damien curses a little under his breath - it's going to be a lot harder to disrupt them than ordinary hotel security.
He then settles down to the harder object - Xerox PARC. He approaches in the usual circuitous way and devotes most of an hour to establishing a link that shouldn't be easily traced. It goes from Merida, to Mexico City, to Sidney, to Frankfurt, to Minnesota and finally to Colorado. He then begins to prod at the Xerox PARC network, working first on the systems for transferring files around.
Maddy and Mahmoud are happily discussing the underneath of various hotels, particularly the Esplendido's. 'What about the Sheraton?' she asks innocently, avoiding a wink at Diana.
'Oh. People stay there. One of them's a friend of mine. But it's their, err, place. I don't go there, like they don't go to Esplendido.' He looks slightly shifty at this mention of the parasitic nature of his lifestyle. Diana looks at the shop they're passing, 'Oh, they're nice. Aren't they?'
'The bracelets?' asks Maddy.
'Very good place for jewellery here,' grins Mahmoud. 'But better one along here? My uncle works there. He'll give you nice price.'
They spend a happy hour or two shopping and showing the driving license photo of George to stall holders and other locals. With Mahmoud's assistance they describe the burn and his build to a huge number of people, but with no success. A couple of people say they may have seen him, but no-one seems to be able to be able to offer more than a guess as to where he might be.
As they wander around the town, they are looking for anything odd, and asking Mahmoud many questions. Evidence of the Zapatista march is obvious, and there is a feeling of tension throughout the town. Mahmoud advises strongly that the two women aren't around during the march, which starts at 2:30, as it could be dangerous.
He is also asked, by Maddy, about the provenance of illegal psychoactive substances in the area; 'Um, can you get hold of other,' with a slight wink, 'stuff apart from skulls..? Cannabis? Acid?'
Diana looks shocked, so Maddy whispers in her ear, 'We could spike the ceremony water supply or something, yeah?'
Mahmoud looks equally surprised and says he could maybe ask someone and arrange for Maddy to meet him.
'Oh, and, like, that Black Madonna thing - where do those guys hang out? Apart from Itza Chicken, I mean?'
At this Mahmoud raises a finger to his lips, and then points at the building opposite, a fairly classic, slightly crumbling Spanish style church. 'They meet in there, sometimes.'
The three approach the door, but all is quiet inside. Maddy pushes it open, and they let their eyes accustom to the gloom within. There is little inside, besides a musty smell of smoke and an elaborate stone altar. The altar cloth has the familiar two circles over a triangle motif. Mahmoud nods slowly and says 'Black Madonna here. Bad place.'
He turns and walks away, followed by the other two. They head back to the hotel.
Ben and Corrin leave the hotel bar to get a couple of rooms in the Sheraton. Ben also thinks it would be a good idea to hang around there a bit more, perhaps have lunch. The walk across town is notable for the pro-Zapatista rabble-rousers seen on street corners. Ben makes a few notes as to the situation shaping up, and decides it might be interesting to see how it goes, from a distance.
Tony is outside the hotel, smoking in a stressed manner. Ben approaches, 'Hello, how are things shaping up in there?'
'Busy as hell. Security don't like the cables, the hotel won't let us use the lobby entrance, so it's all going round the back, Jason's refusing to help us set up - he's got a couple of things to run through with Jaime, Paula's going nuts and blaming me for every hold-up, and their fag machine doesn't have Marlboro.'
Ben shrugs slightly, 'Guess you don't want to hear about our relaxed holiday then?'
'Oh listen. Didn't mean to whinge at you like that. Really.'
'Is there anything we could do to help,' says Corrin with a smile. 'I mean, I'm no professional like Ben, but I'd be happy to do what I could. It's always fascinated me - setting up a TV programme, and it's such a strange thing you're filming.'
'Yeah, that's not the half of it. Look, we'll be OK. Just me being stressed. Pop through though - if you're around.'
'Might be,' says Ben, thinking of a cover story, 'We've got some friends staying here, and we'll be round here more than the Esplendido I expect, in the next few days.'
'Probably see you around then,' Tony stubs the fag out on the wall, and flicks it through the air. 'I'd better get back or Paula'll have a fit about doing all the work. Seeya.'
'OK, let's get some rooms sorted,' says Ben, leading the way in. 'Oh.'
'What?' asks Corrin looking round the cool, spacious lobby.
'You know that guy? The one I reckoned was wearing what Damien was?'
'Yeah, the doppelganger.'
'Well, he's over there.'
'Which one - and don't say the one who looks like Damien...'
'No, he doesn't much - now he's changed. The guy with the FT, in the black slacks and jacket.'
'Oh, right. Umm, well, let's not stare, we'll only confuse the chap.'
Damien gets network access to Xerox PARC file transfer in about an hour, but this is just the first step. He tentatively asks the system about accessing records, but it freezes him out instantly. Instead he decides to try to get to the general internal mail service, and then to look from there to get access to an individual terminal inside the network. It's nothing like the superuser privilege he'd like, but a good start, and a solid base to work from. He gets himself to a machine, affectionately named Weasel, which is in the publicity department, an admittedly small concern.
Interrogations of records show up a little better here, and Damien begins to download details from that period and about Brett Darling. The key records are those from 1974, and Damien manages to locate the arrival of the skull then. Interestingly a small note has been appended to these details about the reunion and a number of interested parties mentioned. There are some tagged records referred to which the computer can't find, however, and without a much greater access potential, or further enmeshed position there's no way Damien can get to them. Having downloaded all that seem relevant and leaving a backdoor for quick remote login to Weasel Damien begins his clear up operation. He hides records of the transferred files to Weasel, then from Weasel. After logging back out to the file transfer system he wipes logs of receiving and pushing on the data he has stolen, and then backs out, closing down the intricate chain of computer links.
Then he sits back, has a sip of orange juice and begins to search through the data files. The research of such items as the laser printer, the GUI and Ethernet is well documented, and all occurred in the two-year period after the Tezcatlipoca incident. This surprisingly high yield was remarked upon, but the follow-up articles are missing, though they must have at one stage existed because the log numbers for the files contain gaps at this point. the same is true of the results of experiments into the skull which happened in 74. Planned methods included radiation from subsonic to X-ray, surface testing, sophisticated image scanning and attempts to age the artifact. A fairly clean sweep has been done of the results, though much was written at the time, especially in the week following 15 June. The key question is what the 'Tezcatlipoca incident' actually was.
Psychological evaluations were carried out in the following month, but no details remain. The accredited authorisation for the information is Brett Darling, and his going to the reunion seems well-planned.
Damien doesn't feel like prodding any further at this point, so settles for Maddy's request for a quick check of tide movements in the past week, and tomorrow. It turns out yesterday was one of the lowest tides of the year, and the daily high is at about 10:00. He prints this out for Maddy, still not sure why she wanted to know. It is nearly time for lunch, so he packs up, and goes down, picking up the returned papers from the print shop he sent out earlier. He decides to delay opening them, and going through them with Red, until he has a little privacy.
Lunch at the Esplendido is shared by all but Ben and Corrin, who eat at the Sheraton. Maddy gets very interested in the hushed up Xerox PARC info. and Damien is correspondingly keen to hear about the Cuervo Cojaente. As they finish lunch, and begin to discuss the afternoon's plans they are met by the returning Ben and Corrin, who have secured rooms, checked round and had lunch at the Sheraton.
It is decided that they should go as a group to have a look at Jaime's house, since Corrin and Ben believe him to be with Jason. Red is keen to break in, and it is agreed that they should take most of the surveillance and security gear. Maddy asks Damien if he's 'like, a spy or something?'
Corrin says she wants to check out the hotel safe before they go, and heads off to do that, while the others get things together upstairs.
She takes one of the crystal skulls and a quantity of the jewellery and puts them in a plain bag. She then heads down to the lobby, where Arsenio is pacing.
'I have bought some valuables, and was hoping I might put them in the hotel safe?'
'But of course Madam, this bag?'
'Yes, that's right. Where is the safe?'
'Through here, if you would just fill in this form. Thank you.'
She hurriedly fills in her details, glancing up at the door through to the safe room. Arsenio is standing there, looking impatient, but still smiling. She goes with him into the locked room, with segmented cupboards, each individually locked. He shows her to an open one, which she puts her things in. 'Now, this is your number, see. 131. But we have a record in the office of which is yours. That is satisfactory, I hope?'
'Oh, yes. Fine,' says Corrin, annoyed she couldn't see what else was being stored, but sure that at least one skull is within.
She walks out, and waits in the lobby for the others.
Mahmoud tells them where the street they are looking for is to be found, but Damien turns down his offer to show them.
It lies some way outside the town centre, on a long, dusty road with houses on one side only, next to the river it follows. Only about one in five of the houses has its number legible, but they are steadily counting up towards one hundred and twenty.
As they approach Maddy claps her hands. 'This is the place.'
'Yeah, 120 Via Carabinieri,' says Damien.
'No, I mean THE place.'
'I saw it, with the peyote. By the sea, only it's the river, and the cliff and the skull and everything.'
'You saw this place?' asks Diana, unconsciously sounding slightly incredulous.
'Yeah. Well, not, like, saw, but it's definitely got the right feel.'
'Do you think George is here?' asks Damien seriously. Everyone turns to look at Maddy as she bites her bottom lip.
'I don't know. I saw this place, and I was thinking about him. But... I don't know.'
Location: Near Jaime de Reconvaco's house, Merida
1:30pm, 27th November 1997
Damien: You have done a quick check on Gareth Forest. You suspect it is a false name.
Ben: With the crew being busy, you think you could try to get access to some of their pre-edit film. Maddy is definitely genuine in her claims - she believes them, though with a slight acceptance that the grand unified theory can't be as complicated as everyone being involved, can it?