The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Saints and Angels
'Haiti, of all places!' muses Professor Twitchin, crumpling the letter in his fist. 'And only two days to get things together!' But anything was better than hanging around this bedsit, brooding - and at least he would be out of the country should that frightful lady journalist decide to publish the Cranks and Crazies piece on him. Cranks and Crazies - the humiliation! How those wilfully ignorant, complacent buffoons in the old faculty would enjoy that - yes, he would go.
Haiti - where men are dead and chickens are nervous. Excellent! Matt Culver sits down to read the SITU brief thoroughly, thoughts of the evening's entertainment driven from his mind by the mention of schizophrenia. Transcultural psychiatry is hardly his speciality, but the names of Mars and Bijoux seem vaguely familiar.
He finds himself greatly looking forward to seeing the other agents again - especially that repressed old cock-tease, Side-step. And Benedict... all this talk of schizophrenia will be a little close to the bone, Culver suspects.
John Henry reads the message from SITU with something less than enthusiasm. It's certainly the less appealing of the two leads he has received today. Still, he reckons, political intrigue and corruption in Haiti might make an interesting story, though it's a bit out of his field these days. And he should be able to save some money by taking a flight to Miami from Haiti after the SITU business is sorted out - killing two birds with one stone, as it were.
He calls to tell Mary Welch that he'll be on his way - shortly.
Opening the envelope, Side-step's face suddenly becomes serious. 'Charlie? I'm off on a little trip. Probably be away for a couple of weeks. Usual drill - if anyone comes around asking for me, especially the police, you haven't seen me, you don't know where I am, and you don't know when I'll be back.'
Charlie nodded solemnly. 'No problem.'
'Oh, and before I go - where's my ten per cent?'
Riggs stumbles around the park for some time before finding a phone which will take cash - he shuns phonecards. He empties a pocket of change into the slot and frantically taps out a number. 'Culver!... thank God... I thought that they might have... might have... it's happening again, Culver!... we have to face them again... like we did in that village... shouldn't have done it, Culver... we shouldn't have done it... like ripples in a pond... the date is set now... shit, didn't time myself!... they might be listening... got to go... see you soon... be good to see the old gang again... but lock all your doors, Culver... they've been breeding!'
Somewhere in Highgate, a retired postmistress whose phone number is only slightly similar to Matt Culver's looks nervously at her receiver before warily replacing it.
John Henry makes a trip to London to visit the BBC libraries. He finds a number of news reports on Haiti, going back over a long period. Digesting them down, he learns that it occupies about half of the island of Hispaniola, the land onto which Columbus stepped in 1492: the other half is the republic of Santo Domingo. The whole island was a Spanish possession until the early eighteenth century, when the French conquered the part that is now Haiti. At the time of the French Revolution the slaves of Haiti rebelled, under the leadership of a former coachman named Toussaint-Louverture. The British took advantage of this insurrection to attack, but were fought off by Toussaint-Louverture's troops: France rewarded them with independence. Napoleon attempted to re-impose colonial rule, but he was also fought off. Haiti then enjoyed a succession of more or less despotic rulers up to modern times. The most recent were François 'Papa Doc' Duvalier, and his son Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc', whose dictatorships were universally condemned by the international community for gross abuses of human rights (apart from the US, which supported them as bulwarks against communism). The Duvalier regime was toppled by a popular rising known as the déchoukaj, and in 1990 Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president - the first free election Haiti had ever experienced. Aristide was toppled in 1991 by a military coup, but reinstated three years later with US help after the refugee crisis the coup had sparked started to bite on the region.
Henry searches for references to Borasme or Professor Hurbon, but is unable to find any. Presumably they are figures of only local renown. The BBC's treatment of Haiti has been patchy, to say the least.
On his way home from Charlie's, Side-step passes a novelty and costume shop. Suddenly a mischievous grin appears across his face and he stops dead in his tracks, turns and enters the shop. Ten minutes later he reappears on the street holding a carrier bag, and continues on his way.
Back at the flat, 'Hi Mike - how's it going? Side-step here.' The trans-Atlantic line is crackly. 'Listen, when you were in the Marines, did you have any business on Haiti? I know you guys were up to your arses over there when they had that coup. Right. So this new guy Aristide's a bit of a Commie is he? And the police pretty much run the countryside - I guess that means plenty of corruption, eh? Smuggling! Yeah, that makes sense - it's on the way from Colombia to Florida, isn't it?'
He hangs up, considering. The image Mike has given him is of a frontier state, where order may tentatively reign in the capital but might is definitely right elsewhere. Tapping his fingers on the handset, he rings Culver.
'Side-step! Well, this is a surprise. Business, I suppose, eh? Ah well, I can but dream...' The two men have a brief discussion about medical and other supplies that will be necessary, and agree to meet in the airport bar before the flight.
Professor Twitchin runs the borrowed photocopier card through the slot rather nervously, as though worrying that one of his old departmental colleagues will burst in on him. Unlikely, since this is the Anthropological and Cultural Studies Department, across campus from the Faculty of Physical Sciences. He has been pointed to a number of interesting papers.
It seems that the relationship between voodoo and society in Haiti has a complex history. Originally a secret religion of the slaves, based on cultural elements they had brought with them from different parts of West Africa, it was instrumental in the success of the original revolt. But as Haiti became 'civilized' rulers were keen to put it aside and encourage the growth of Christianity, periodically persecuting voodoo worshippers. 'Papa Doc' Duvalier was an exception to this, adopting voodoo as national religion: Aristide has proclaimed a secular state but is known to be in favour of voodoo as reinforcing an authentically Haitian cultural identity, although he stresses the positive aspects rather than those inducing terror, as Duvalier did.
Later, Twitchin calls in on his son Theo. As he explains that he is travelling abroad on research, Theo's young son Luke puts 'Live and Let Die' on the video. Twitchin shivers slightly.
Riggs packs his collection of X-Files comics, clothes (four black T-shirts and fading black jeans), four padlocks, and two copies of Jerry Fletcher's Conspiracy Theory newsletter. He also packs a framed picture of a young woman, which he looks at for several seconds before placing it in the backpack.
Matt Culver has rescheduled his appointments for the week ('Yes, another aunt dropped dead - bloody unlucky lot, Clan Culver!') In the Maudsley's library, he searches Medline for Mars and Bijoux's papers, then makes another search cross-referencing 'Voodoo' and 'Zombie' with 'Schizophrenia' and 'Virus'. On impulse, he also scans the vast amount of literature on HIV and AIDS, hesitating before typing in 'Vampire' to narrow the search down. He is surprised to see that in fact it narrows it down to precisely zero - according to Medline, none of the HIV / AIDS articles published in the last ten years has talked of vampirism. Surely that can't be right?
Henry has also been attempting to research SITU. Apart from the many advertisements, which continue to appear in various genre press titles, he can find no reference at all to the shadowy organization - in itself a cause for suspicion?
Arriving at Heathrow, he observes Culver heading into the airport, but is careful to avoid him.
Side-step got to he airport early and has already had a couple of drinks by the time Culver appears. By his feet is a battered Army holdall, on which can still be seen a few faded digits from his serial number. Culver is in black cut-off jeans, wearing a black Hawaiian shirt printed with grinning white skulls: he has recently bleached and cropped his hair. He is carrying a huge bag of duty-free goods, and Side-step notices that he is distinctly chubbier about the face than when they last met.
'So the A-Team has been called upon to come up with the goods again eh?' says Side-step by way of greeting. 'I hear Darius lost his bottle.'
Culver nods. 'Never quite got into the swing of it, did he?'
'Was that info I gave you any good? Did you get the stuff I suggested?'
'Tree-frog venom antidote's a little difficult to come by in London, but I did what I could,' says Culver, swinging onto a stool.
The two are hailed by Professor Twitchin, who has marched into the bar with his customary air of detachment. He is wearing a Panama hat, Baden-Powell shorts from circa 1930, and sandals with knee-length woollen socks: the whole ensemble rounded off with a tweed jacket. 'Good morning gentlemen! So delighted to be working with you again... zombies eh? Well, well, well... calls for a drink, I think!'
Once on the aircraft John Henry maintains his separation from the others of the group. Riggs, who appeared at the last minute and made a considerable fuss refusing to go under the X-ray machine, was eventually forced to hand over the large knife he had hidden in his shirt, and is undertaking the flight under the supervision of a burly steward. He mutters, looks nervously out of the window, inspects the passengers for sings of themness and intermittently reads Conspiracy Theory.
Professor Twitchin is extremely nervous, even after the large quantities of alcohol with which he primed himself. He clutches the arms of his seat as though pulling upwards on them will keep the aeroplane in the sky. What right has a large lump of metal to fly through the air? Clearly it is only the collective will of the passengers that holds it up - but what if they were all to fall asleep, as might well happen on a long flight? He keeps his eyes open until they are uncomfortably dry.
Culver has put on a Walkman to dissuade conversation, and he ploughs through his stack of articles, occasionally making notes. He finds the work of Laurent Mars and Louise Bijoux interesting: they have made a number of studies of schizophrenic voodoo followers. The condition is much more common in Haiti than anywhere else in the world, representing up to two-thirds of psychiatric in-patient and out-patient cases, and the cultural group most affected are those who have put voodoo behind them, or are attempting to do so, adopting either Christianity or secular lives. The authors wisely do not hypothesize as to why this might be.
Eventually the aeroplane descends towards Port-au-Prince, a sprawling town surrounded by shanties which stretch a tendril out towards the airport - which must have been modern in the 1960s, but is now extremely faded. The moist heat is rather oppressive, although the friendly Immigration official who greets gasping new arrivals assures them that the island's coastal regions are very pleasant. Although the official language is Creole, it is so close to French as to be readily understood, and most people with even a trace of education also speak English.
'Our first priority is to find somewhere to stay in Port-au-Prince,' says Culver after the group have met up. He thumbs his Lonely Planet guide meaningly and waves for a taxi. There is still no sign of John Henry.
The hotel they choose, the Gros Horloge. is a little seedy, but probably less conspicuous than one o the international chains: and it has bags of character. Professor Twitchin makes a swift detour into the toilet to unpick the lining of his jacket and stash a wad of travellers' cheques therein, and from the desk buys a number of envelopes and stamps to send to a contact of his in Florida.
Late that afternoon John Henry appears. He has taken a room at the Sheraton, and managed to find the others by phoning round. He is dressed exactly as normal. Over a drink, he confides in Culver his reservations about SITU. 'All this talk of worldwide conspiracies is rather disturbing, don't you agree?' he mutters. 'I'm not an expert, but it sounds to me like the entire organization is in the advanced stages of some paranoid delusion. And they send us to Haiti to look for nutcases...!'
Riggs has been greatly relieved to see Henry, and sticks to him like glue. 'These zombies, don't you see... they've been implanted! Only it's gone wrong! Faulty implants... that's what we have to deal with here!' He regards his new surroundings with a blend of wonder and fear.
'Oh Christ, he's at it already,' says Side-step with a look of disgust. 'Riggs? If bullshit was music you'd be the whole bloody orchestra. Culver, have you got any tranquillizers in that medi-kit of yours, or shall I just bloody snot him?' Riggs shies away from him in terror.
'Let's try and contact Professor Hurbon, shall we?' says Twitchin hastily.
By the time Hurbon arrives, the whole group are feeling a little culture-shocked. Although the Haitian staff at the hotel seem to be uniformly cheerful and friendly, and all speak English fluently, they talk amongst themselves in Creole, a fast patois which needs a definite shift of the brain to register it as being basically French. Dinner was curried goat with plantains, which while deliciously flavoured was more than a little stringy. And the local beer is a very sweet stout, dark and treacly, which must be something like eight per cent alcohol.
'Aha! Gentlemen! How pleased I am to see you!' A middle-aged man, rather round, with wild springy grey-black hair and thick glasses, approaches their table, directed by the waiter. 'Laënnec Hurbon, at your service.'
One by one the agents shake his hand, apart from John Henry, who makes a small bow before doing so and then proffers Hurbon a bottle of Chivas Regal. The look of delight on the professor's face is too transparent to be assumed for politeness. 'Have you been to Haiti before?' he asks Henry, who merely smiles smugly.
Hurbon draws up a chair to the table, and perches across it, his arms gesticulating freely. 'At last! How delighted I am to meet you - the famed field operatives of SITU! Mr Henry, I was privileged to read your tales of your doings in SITUation Report - fascinating! As an anthropologist, your account of the role witchcraft played among those village folk was of great interest. Sadly, it is a subject British anthropologists have been none too keen to investigate in recent years - for fear of ridicule no doubt! We are fortunate here that there are no such barriers. Just because one writes about occult practices and beliefs does not make one a votary - eh? But I get ahead of myself. What are your plans?'
The agents look vaguely at each other. 'We are somewhat in your hands, Professor,' says Twitchin. 'As the man on the ground, have you formulated a plan of action?'
Hurbon pulls on his beer and considers. 'I think we should travel to Port-de-Paix as soon as possible, and meet with Laurent and Louise there. They are working on a particularly interesting case there - a young zombie lad called Johnny Michel - and it is from there that they have made these observations about Borasme. They have a file on him now, detailing his bocor practices.' Now he looks angry. 'To think that this man is perverting the belief system of our people in order to gain power over them - it sickens me! Voodoo is what makes us Haitian - the President, that great man, has said so many times. It was with much suffering and hardship, in the déchoukaj, that it was reclaimed for the people, from the monster Duvaliers. We cannot allow it to be stolen from them once more. This Borasme must be stopped!'
Side-step, who has remained quiet up till now, says 'I guess I have to own up, I don't know too much about this voodoo outside what you see in films - I Walked with a Zombie and all that. Can you give us a bit of background?'
Hurbon sighs. 'Unfortunately, that is all most of the world knows of our country - that and our poverty. These films portray a very distorted picture of voodoo. It is all the fault of the Americans - they seize upon the sensational! That is an aspect of their culture which is most unappealing, and I speak professionally.' Riggs ignores this slur on his nation - he is studying a large red fly which is circling the group. 'Voodoo is like any other sophisticated belief system, it can be used for good or for bad. It teaches that there is a supreme deity, a creator, and that between that being and humanity are a range of spirits known as lwa.
'I am sure you have heard of Baron Samdi - he is one of these lwa, the foremost of the group of them known as the Gédé, the spirits of the dead. But most of the spirits are to do with health, protection, love, childbirth, crops and so forth - they can be invoked and their aid sought. Each person has a guardian spirit, the lwa-mèt-tèt, and when they die this spirit must also be placated to grant them easy rest. So voodoo priests - they are called oungans, or manbos if they are women - are priests, healers, intermediaries in general. And ninety-nine of them do nothing but good for their communities. But then there are the dark ones - those who serve with both hands, as it is called. They use the power of the lwa for sorcery as well. They are called bocors.
'It is these people who create zombies. 'Papa Doc' Duvalier was said to be a bocor, and he created many zombies. The victim is seen to die, is mourned and buried - then is found later serving the bocor as a slave.'
It has gone very quiet in the bar, and Hurbon's voice has dropped to a deep rumble. Then he smiles. 'At least, that is what people say. Louise Bijoux has a theory that zombieism is a mental condition. Others have said it is the result of a poisoning. But it is very real - and the fear of it even more so, which is how people like Borasme are able to retain power. His police force will back up his every order, and no-one will dare speak against him for fear of being turned into a zombie.'
'This all sounds rather dangerous,' says John Henry slowly. 'Won't we be putting ourselves into this Borasme's hands by going to Port-de-Paix?'
'Very possibly - but you have no reason to fear, he does not even know of your existence! I doubt very much if such a man has heard of SITU. And you have your cover stories, do you not? SITU cover stories are famed.'
'I'm posing as researching a story,' says Henry.
'I'm here looking for a friend of mine, who disappeared on holiday last year,' says Side-step, lighting another cigarette.
'I am an independent gentleman with an interest in culture and comparative religion,' says Twitchin.
Hurbon nods approvingly. 'Dr Culver? Mr Riggs? Well, not to worry, you are all white, and white people are always assumed to be innocent until proven otherwise - eh? I suggest we leave for Port-de-Paix in the morning - it will mean a short flight - but tonight, if you wish it, I would be very pleased if you were to accept my hospitality at a local cultural night-club.'
'Why, I should be delighted,' says Henry warmly, and from the smile on Hurbon's face it is clear that he has made a new friend.
Henry: You confide your concerns to Culver.
Culver: When speaking to you out of earshot of the others, Henry says 'Riggs strikes me as a prime example of the kind of borderline dangerous people SITU attracts. He sent me a very strange letter claiming Darius McGregor is dead and that he wishes he could take Darius's place. Do you think there's any truth in it? Darius's death, I mean? And do you think Riggs might have had something to do with it...?'