words and images by mk swanson
The Marrakesh Split Decision

The Marrakesh Split Decision

Our friend Jolene offered to GM a one shot RPG based on the Hitman online game. The gameplay was fast, funny, and went fairly far off the rails. I had so much fun playing, I realized I could probably write a story using my notes and memory. I decided to do it, partly as a thanks to Jolene for bringing the fun for me.

That makes this story a group effort–the Hitman game in which the storyline originated, Jolene’s awesome transformation of it into a stats-light campaign and work as gamemistress, and the players’ words and actions–Pat, David and me.

Jolene’s Hitman RPG Playtest

Starring Pat as “Larry Winston,” David as “Tom Tom Barr,” and MK as “Brett Fandango”

The team met their contact at the Cafe Kasbah, not far from the defunct Marrakesh International School, in the same quarter as the Swedish Consulate, a large and ugly contemporary edifice where a large crowd was shouting and honking horns in protest. 

The streets were filled with locals and tourists from all parts of the globe, in keeping with Marrakesh’s reputation as the Shopping Mall of north Africa, but the crowds were by turns noisy and weirdly silent as the coup slapped together to topple the elected government junketed drunkenly onward. 

The Agency handler was dressed in a deep blue Toureg headdress, with a tan cotton suit that could do with good pressing. He stubbed out an unfiltered Moroccan-made cigarette, barely smoked, on the scarred table beside a crumpled cigarette pack and pushed a newspaper toward the big man across the table. In English, the headline read, Banker Claus Strandberg Escapes, Scampers to Consulate. A subhead added, General Reza Zaydan Demands Government Accountability.

“These are your dance partners,” he said, barely hiding his meaning. After all, no one was watching a quartet of loungers drinking Nescafé. “It needs to be done quickly with as few broken toes on the dance floor as you can manage. The band won’t be able to play for much longer.”

Larry, ex-military, with a young face and calculating eyes, glanced at the paper and pushed it to a woman on his right who wore an enveloping white scarf over her head and shoulders and a pair of sunglasses encrusted with sequins. She passed the paper to the last member of their club, a thin American with a chrome briefcase at his feet. He looked the longest, eyes flashing down the columns, then said, “Our dance card is full, then. Did you bring us some party clothes?”

The man rolled his shoulders in a shrug and raised one hand gracefully. “You’ll have to work with your street clothes. The bazaar didn’t have anything in your size.” 

The woman laughed, a harsh cackle, and said, “It’s a good thing I never travel without my dancing shoes!”

Larry frowned. “Really, Brett? You’re playing along with this Carmen Sandiego foolishness?”

Brett tapped the ICA man’s cigarettes. “Mind if I take these, Arthur Murray?”

The man glanced at the pack, confused. “No…”

“And your lighter?”

He pushed it over.

She picked up both and they disappeared under the scarf. 

The American rolled his eyes. “She’s already collecting.”

Larry pushed back his chair. “That’s our signal, then, Tom.”

The three paid their bill in a leisurely way and began strolling along the busy market street that led toward the old school. 

“Is this a plan, Brett, or are you just shopping?”

Brett stopped at a tiny market stall reeking of spices. Producing a white cloth napkin from the cafe, she asked in serviceable Arabic for some finely powdered red pepper. The shopkeeper gave it to her in a paper wrapper, which she covered with the napkin and hid away. “Both?”

“Good grief, Tom, she’s doing what she always does. Going in with one wing and no prayers!”

The next market stall grabbed Larry’s attention, though, and he bought a very good second-hand camera for a discretely haggled price. Seeing his cohorts watching him, he said, “What? It’s a good deal, and you never know when you need to cover your face.” He held it up and mimed snapping the shutter. 

They proceeded down the road casually, talking to shopkeepers and sending looks toward the school’s gate. Two guards, reasonably alert, stood on either side. When someone wandered too close, they poked them with the butt of their assault rifles and sent them away. They wore new camouflage uniforms, one in forest green and the other in desert beige. 

Tom murmured, “I wonder who’s funding the General?” 

Neither of his companions answered. 

© MK Swanson

In front of the last shop on the street, a rug merchant stood nervously in his doorway, talking to an older woman swathed head to heel in black wool. They ignored the soldiers in a way that spoke volumes. 

Over Brett’s comm, they all heard the rug merchant speaking.

The three split up without discussion, Brett to the rug merchant’s, Tom to the shop next door, and Larry across the road. Unobtrusively, the three tapped their ear pieces. 

“My revered father,” he said, with a hint of both sarcasm and respect, “has left me to handle all the business, as he has retreated to his ‘office’ to write what he’s calling ‘a political thriller steeped in the mystery of Morocco.” 

The woman made low clucking sounds in sympathy.

The man continued, “He’s just so unhappy about the school closing. He blames himself for their money troubles. Do you know, he keeps the master key to it on his person, even now?” He nodded toward the school gate at the end of the road without making eye contact with the soldiers. “I hope his book will draw him out of this depression.”

Brett turned around from her examination of the carpets and joined the shopkeeper’s conversation. In a broad Midwestern American accent, she exclaimed, “Your father is writing a book about the Marrakesh School next door? With all that’s happening with the general using it as Army headquarters, my readers would be fascinated. Do you think your father would honor me with an interview?” 

The man, who at first drew back in irritation, said, “You are a reporter?” 

Brett held out a friendly American-style hand, which the man shook after a moment. “Linda Luego, blogger! I have hundreds of thousands of followers in the States who would be thrilled to learn of a modern, up-to-date novel written about Marrakesh.”

Over the comms, Larry said, “Tell him you have a cameraman!”

The man bowed slightly. “I think my father would be amenable to that. Follow me.” He turned away and hurried through the shop to narrow stairs that climbed up two flights. Brett made a show of waving Larry over, and called up, “My cameraman is right behind me,” and then followed the rug merchant. 

At the top of the stairs, the only door opened up onto a roof overlooking the old school and the alley that ran behind the row of shops. An old man sat at a battered desk, papers weighted down all around him, typing on a vintage electric typewriter plugged into a long extension cord snaking across the roof. 

Facing the old man, looking indescribably bored, was a soldier dressed in a colorful woven tight-fitting cap and Arctic weather camouflage. He leaned on an assault rifle. When Brett and Larry came up the stairs, he stood up and cradled the rifle in his arms. 

“Father?” the merchant said, “An American woman, Linda, is here to interview you about your book. This is my father, Yussef.”

Yussef looked up. Soon, introductions were made, and the rug merchant returned to his store.

Brett asked the traditional who, what, and when. After Yussef answered some of her questions in a long and rambling fashion, Brett stood up and gestured to Larry, who had been standing unobtrusively near the stairs. “Let’s get some pictures!”

The old man stood up, eager even though he didn’t crack a smile when Larry began shooting. Brett pointed to the other side of the roof. “Let’s get one over there!” As the man walked over, Larry followed him, angling his body so that his back was toward the soldier and the school was in the background of the shot. “Perfect!” said Brett. “The school in the background will really tell the story.”

The soldier finally came to attention and strode over to jab the butt of his rifle into Larry’s side. “No pictures!” 

Taking the opportunity, Brett yanked out a collapsible baton and struck the soldier sharply on the side of the head—enough to knock him out for the rest of the day. 

Larry swore audibly. 

Yussef’s eyes went wide, and he stumbled toward the stairs. “What are you doing?”

“We need your key to the school, honored sir. We are tasked with stopping General Zaydan.” 

Yussef turned away, and Larry tried to grab his arm. He missed, and the old man began calling out to his son in a quavery voice.

Sighing deeply, Larry said, “Now we’ve done it.” 

“Larry! Why’d you try to grab him. He’s a poor old man. I could have convinced him.” 

“Well, I wouldn’t have had to if you hadn’t put Cap-guy to sleep over there. Why won’t you ever stick to a plan?”

“We had a plan?”

Over the comms, Tom said, “What happened now?”

Larry growled, “The Queen of Chaos just set our timetable for us!”

“The rug merchant hears something. I’ll distract him.” His language changed to halting Arabic. “Hi, there. I’d like to see a rug. Oh, that’s nice, but do you have it in blue? My wife loves blue!” There was a noise, as of a body hitting the rug-covered dirt of the stall, and Tom swore artistically. 

Larry disappeared into the stairwell. 

Ignoring the others, Brett removed the soldier’s clothes and put them on over her own, leaving on her thin white slippers and stuffing them into the soldier’s boots. She eyed the electrical cord. 

Downstairs in the rug stall, Larry laid Yussef down on a rug and pulled off the key that hung around his neck. Coming around, the old man mumbled something about thieves, and Larry said, “Plausible deniability, Yussef. Never say I never gave you anything.”

Tom pulled down the heavy gate that closed the stall and stepped back out of sight quickly. “That rug merchant is a lot wilier than he looks. I almost missed him.” 

The two men rolled up Yussef and his son in matching rugs and stood them in the back. They took the stairs at a run. At the top, they found a small soldier wearing winter camouflage in a Toureg headdress carrying an assault rifle slung over the back. The clothes were lumpy in the wrong places, but overall the impression was convincing. 

Tom glanced at the rug rolled up and tied with electrical cord behind the desk, then back at Brett. “So now what?” 

Brett grinned and pointed along the building. “There’s a ledge here that gets me to a building closer to the schoolyard. I’m going to see if I can find us an opportunity.” 

Larry rolled his eyes, but then held out the key. “You might need this.” 

“Thanks!” Brett hung the key around her neck under her headdress, and then clambered over the side to the ledge. The two men stayed out of sight and talked to her on comms. 

Shortly, she reported. “There’s a drain pipe that comes down in the corner of the yard, a little out of sight. I see three recruits drilling, their sergeant, a guy taking a smoke break, and one walking the yard. He’s the one I’ll have to watch out for.” 

Tom said, “What do you mean?”

There was a scuffling sound, then a muffled “Oof!” 

“She’s off the rails,” said Larry, fatalistically. 

They got another report every minute or two, spoken softly in French. “Windows… inner balcony… um, printing press… oh, what, a hostage?… here’s the back stairs. Oh look, storage!” There was silence for a while, then they heard, “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, boys. I’m going to make a distraction.”

“What did you find?” said Tom.

“Four explosive charges. I’ll throw them out in the yard, and you guys can get in in the confusion.”

“No!” said Larry authoritatively. “As long as you’re in there, and your disguise is holding, you go after Zaydan. Tom and I will head to the Consulate for Strandberg.” 

There was a long silence, then she said, “I’ll keep the explosives until you’re ready, then. It’ll draw fire.” 

Tom shrugged. It wasn’t good to break up the group, things could go sideways, but handling two targets at different locations, heavily guarded and watched by thousands of onlookers in the bazaar, was a challenge. He tapped off his comms and said, “She can probably handle this. Let’s go get diplomatic.”

Not bothering to turn off his comms, Larry said, “She’ll handle it, or she’ll die. Nothing we can do about it now.”

The two men climbed down the back side of the building and walked up the alley toward the bazaar. 

On the way, they heard occasional updates from inside Zaydan’s headquarters. “Heading upstairs… good, windows… what are all these guys doing, it’s no wonder they don’t notice me… oh, found the general, but not in his office… talking on the phone about how ‘it won’t work without a passcode.’ Maybe Strandberg?… In a closet, now. Zaydan’s got a personal guard, makes it hard to get close. Let me know when you’re ready.”

On the way, Larry and Tom passed soldiers guarding closed shop fronts. Tom noticed a small alley blocked up a few feet in. Several decrepit boxes stood inside. 

They crossed the main road, barricaded on both ends by the general’s forces, and mingled with the protesters, drifting closer to the front as the shouting continued. “Give him up! Give him up! He’s a thief!” Off to the left, a car had crashed into an empty storefront, and three teenagers hovered around it, shouting. 

Near the concrete steps to the Consulate stood a good-looking woman dressed in bold primary colors, a headscarf in one hand and a mic in the other, talking to a local fixer. Her eyes roamed over the crowd, and as the two got closer, they could hear her speaking in a well-modulated voice.

“Ahmed, you promised me a cameraman for my interview with Strandberg. Where is he?”

“I paid him. Finley’s very reliable. He’ll be here.” 

Tom narrowed his eyes. Ahmed looked amused, but perhaps a little nervous. He wasn’t sure the cameraman would show, but he didn’t mind inconveniencing the British journalist. 

“There’s our in.”

Larry took the cue and stepped up to the two on the steps. His second-hand camera was slung around his neck. “I hear you’re looking for a cameraman.”

Ahmed frowned, his mustache drooping aggressively. “You’re not Finley.”

“Obviously not, but if you’re paying scale, I’m in.”

“I already paid Finley.” The mustache drooped lower. 

The journalist interjected, “Where’s your gear? That still camera isn’t getting us anywhere.”

Sliding up beside Larry, Tom said, “Back at the jeep. We’ll get it and be back here in a flash.”

Ahmed tried to intervene, but the journalist nodded and the two men sprinted back toward the bazaar. Tom veered off toward the little alley. “I’ve got to stash something. Meet you at the Consulate.”

So, while Larry began a high-speed hunt for a camcorder, Tom headed back to the blocked off alley, carefully avoiding the soldiers. What were they guarding? He thought. Not my business today.

Inside the alley, he opened a box and quickly stashed his .45 automatic. Inside, he found a hammer and a long screwdriver. He put those in his briefcase alongside a small rubber duck, then headed back to the Consulate.

Back at the bazaar, Larry resisted arguing over the price of a very poor camcorder. The shopkeeper didn’t have a boom mike, but they would make do. He paid, wincing, and ran to meet the journalist and Tom. 

The woman wrinkled her surgically-perfect nose when Larry arrived. “That’s your gear? Where’s the mic?”

Tom appeared through the crowd and waved his briefcase humorously. “The airline thought it was an explosive device, apparently, and broke it.” 

Larry frowned, but didn’t comment. 

The journalist surveyed them, took another glance into the crowd, and then said in her professional voice, “Hi, I’m Pam Kingsley of the BBC. And you are?” 

Tom walked up the steps past her, “I’ll get the party started for you, Miss Kingsley.” 

Larry held out his hand. “I’m Wynne Lawver. It’s good to meet you.” 

Pam accepted his hand, but said, “This could be my Orwell prize, Mr. Lawver. Don’t screw it up.” 

Larry looked confused. 

“That’s British for Pulitzer.”

“Hey!” shouted Tom. “He’s ready for you!”

Larry noticed the journalist’s fixer had disappeared into the crowd. 

“Showtime,” said Pam, patting her hair and winding her headscarf, a bright orange color, loosely around her head, covering her neck but leaving her face and cleavage in view. She saw Larry glance at her décolletage. “Got to work whatever works in this business, Lawver.”

“You’re the boss,” he said with a hint of admiration. 

Brett’s voice came over the comms. “What the hey? I think he’s going back to wail on that hostage again. You guys almost ready? This guy’s beginning to steam me.”

Tom said, “Shh!” 

They sailed right though security. Larry was glad he hadn’t brought his shurikens—who knew they’d drag the metal detectors over from the airport? Usually it was just a casual frisk. 

He said, for the benefit of Tom who was behind him in line, “Wow, they’ve really upped security with Strandberg in their pocket!”

Tom acknowledged, but he still had his briefcase. Larry hoped the .45 was out of range.

A few minutes and they were through, into the main hall where lights were set up around two chairs with a leggy coffee table between them. The lights were off. 

Larry said, “Why doesn’t Tom set up your mic there between the chairs? They should be able to clean up the sound in editing.” 

Pam clutched the microphone close, but then handed it to Tom. “Take care of it. It’s my good one.” 

Tom went over to the table, set up the mic, and then opened his briefcase and brought out the rubber duck. Larry looked up. “Hey, get that out of there!”

Tom patted the duck. “It’s for focus, see?” 

Larry shook his head, but said nothing more. These two are a pair of Wile E. Coyotes. I hope they don’t blow it.

One of the consulate workers, looking harried, pointed to the stairs above and behind the little stage. In Arabic, he said, “Someone needs to go turn on the lights. He’s almost here.” 

Following the pointing finger, Tom’s jaw dropped, and he hurriedly said, “I’ve got it!” 

Pam went to her chair and arranged her clothes, discretely holding a phone that was no doubt recording for backup. Larry held up the camera and began recording. Might as well, he thought. 

Tom bounded up the stairs two at a time. He had seen a strange sight. Above the chair where Claus Strandberg would be sitting was a massive stuffed moose tied to the rail by a heavily knotted cord. Tom heard a smattering of applause as the banker walked toward the stage. He was barely in time to flip the lights by the time the man sat down, nodding majestically in response to the journalist’s greeting. 

Once the applause faded, Pam said, “We’re here today to talk with Mr. Claus Hugo Strandberg about the serious allegations of theft, international wire fraud, and bank mismanagement leveled at him by the government of Morocco. Mr. Strandberg, you slipped away from custody and took refuge here in your country’s Consulate, does that mean that you admit your guilt? And was General Zaydan instrumental in your so-called ‘release?’”

The small crowd in the room shouted words of mixed disgust and encouragement, and Strandberg bridled. “Miss… Kindle, was it? No, I do not admit guilt of any kind, and my ‘release’ was due to the unremitting, and honestly, courageous work on my behalf by my country’s lawyers… “

The interview went on, getting more and more raucous as the journalist’s questions hit one nerve after another. 

Tom said over comms, “We’d better get this going, or our dancer’s gonna waltz right out of here.” 

Larry groaned. “Well, when’s Brett gonna blow those charges? She knows we’re on the clock, here.”

Just then, a distant boom shook the whole Consulate, making the microphone fall over and the chandeliers—and the moose—quiver. 

From upstairs, Tom shouted, “Duck!” over the comms, and shoved the wedge of the screwdriver into the moose’s tie rope and hit it with the hammer. At that moment, on stage, an explosion rent the table between Claus and Pam, throwing Pam off the stage. 

Claus was invisible in the cloud of smoke, then the moose crashed down onto him, crushing what remained of his chair and poking a leg down into the stage. 

As Larry struggled onto the stage to find the journalist, Brett came on comms. “Sorry, wasn’t where I could talk. Hope that worked for you.” 

In Arabic, she said, “General Zaydan, what can I do for you?”

A muffled voice was followed by her saying, “I’ll be right back with the intel!” 

A minute later, as Larry turned the journalist over gently, Brett said, “They’re saying some government forces broke in the front gate—but it could have been an inside job, too, boss, there’s a—“ 

Automatic gunfire erupted over the comms, the sound overwhelming the background noise filters. When she came back on, Brett was huffing and puffing. “That was close. That guard almost got me, but I’m out, now. The hostage ran off.” 

Tom arrived beside Larry. “She gonna live?” He went over to look at Strandberg, grimaced, and then came back. 

Larry squeezed Pam’s hand. “She’s going to be fine.” He stared at her bloody face, the nose askew and her lips torn. With a lot of plastic surgery. He knelt down beside her and whispered, “You’ve got that Brit Pulitzer.” 

Taking a deep breath, he wiped his prints off the camcorder and put it into her hands. She clutched it to her chest. 

Larry stood up and began running and shouting, “Get an ambulance! Miss Kingsley is hurt!” 

He repeated his performance multiple times on the way out the front door. No one manned security, and the crowd was stampeding out into the plaza. Larry saw Tom run ahead of him and veer right. He followed, blindly. 

In the lee of the building next door, he saw the crashed car again with a small soldier leaning against it, dressed in Arctic camo and a white headscarf, Toureg-style. Tom was already sitting in the back. 

Larry ran over and jumped in. “How’d you get the keys?”

Brett hopped in the driver’s seat and jammed the car in gear. “Those teenagers weren’t ready to defend it in the face of an assault rifle. Besides, I think they were happy to have a good story to tell their dad.”

As Brett made a decorous three-point turn into the road out of Marrakesh, Tom said, “How’d you take out the general? Did you sneak up on him?”

Brett cackled, the laugh a bit shaky at the end. “Full frontal assault, Tom. And pure instinct.”