The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Saints and Angels
'Why thank you Professor - I'd be honoured to accept!' John Henry declares.
'Sounds good,' adds Culver cautiously. 'Makes a change for SITU to send us somewhere with a night-life. Middlechase wasn't exactly Vegas.'
'A night-club eh?' puts in Professor Twitchin, ruminatively. 'I thought my night-club days were over long ago... will I be expected to do the "mashed potato"? I do hope not...' He smiles, a little nervously.
'I think you are all in for a treat!' says Hurbon, striking his hands together. 'Haitian night-life is like nothing else on Earth!'
Side-step resignedly puffs out a large plume of blue smoke, and leans over to Culver. He whispers 'This sounds as big a load of bollocks as the Bamworth farce. Though, if nothing else, we should get some entertainment out of it.'
As they leave the hotel bar, Riggs quickly approaches Hurbon. 'Mr Hurbon, I just wanted to... wanted to ask if there is anything distinctive - no matter how small or insignificant - about... about... about these borcor people... such as ways of telling them apart, like tattoos or special makeup or marks on their necks, to show their power, perhaps cuts as if something might have been, perhaps, inserted into their neck. Perhaps. Anything at all I mean. Anything...'
Having reached a pitch of excitement around the middle of this speech, he tails off rather lamely as Hurbon gazes at him in wonder and concern. 'Ah, er, Mr Riggs, you speak of the bocor? Alas, no, there is no way of telling them apart from other people. They look just as you and I. One could be among us now, and we would not know it. As for marks on their necks... not as far as I know.' He pauses, 'I think perhaps you should have a talk with Laurent, Mr Riggs. He would be very interested in you.'
A short cab ride later, the operatives spill out into a dingy cellar entrance. Above the door flashes the pink neon sign 'Club Racing'. Hurbon seems very much at home, greeting the bouncers amiably and introducing the operatives as his friends. He escorts the party through the doors into the darkness within.
The noise is considerable - a six-piece band are thumping out some sort of salsa-like music, sweat pouring from them as the sound bounces around the low concrete walls. A long bar occupies one wall of the room: the rest of the floor is filled with a heaving mass of people, shaking their bodies in ecstasy. 'Let's all chill out, relax and take a well-deserved night off, eh?' says Culver, who earlier changed into leather jeans ('my pulling trousers') and seems relatively at home: the press of hot jigging bodies is not unfamiliar to him.
Almost everyone in the club is black, but the atmosphere is not hostile or threatening: merely curious as to what might have brought these new visitors.
'Drinks, my friends?' offers Hurbon.
'No, no, let me, I insist,' says Culver, fumbling with a roll of the unfamiliar currency.
'OK, thanks,' says Side-step, 'but don't get me any of that vomit they laughingly call beer around here. Better make mine a Southern Comfort, a double please.' He is inspecting the other clubgoers keenly.
Riggs draws Culver aside before he heads to the bar. 'You look like the type of guy who... who drinks his Bud straight from the bottle... me too... I mean, you can... can never be too safe, right? Poison is a bad way to die... body just fucks up completely...' When Culver returns with a tray of drinks, he takes his politely, but goes and sits away from the rest of the group, staring at it suspiciously.
After a little shouted conversation Hurbon excuses himself, and Culver hands each member of the group a small packet of white powder.
Each takes it, and he says 'It's heroin.'
Professor Twitchin jerks, almost dropping the packet, as though it had burnt him, and Culver grins. 'No, it's salt. Some hocus-pocus shite I read somewhere: you're s'posed to chuck it in the zombie's eyes and he "remembers he's dead" or something.'
Side-step snorts contemptuously.
Culver shrugs. 'I'm not saying it works, but I've seen belief do some strange things. You can always put it on your kebab, after the club.'
Professor Twitchin, who is sitting with Henry, says to him 'Good thinking to stay apart from the rest of us. Gives us a little flexibility of action.' He nods at the hunched form of Riggs. 'I reckon Riggs could infiltrate any bunch of zombies without a whole lot of effort, and the way things are going so will I - he really is driving me crazy!'
As they watch, Riggs pretends to take a sip out of his drink, but in reality pours it on the floor.
Culver has been prancing about the dance floor, but returns after a few minutes, looking pale. 'I tire easily,' he explains, 'medical condition.
Hurbon returns and joins the group. 'Professor...' asks Culver.
'Oh, Laënnec, please, we are all friends now!'
'Laënnec, then... these lwa spirits. Can they manifest themselves through earthly means?'
Hurbon frowns. 'I don't quite understand... what do you mean?'
'Well, I vaguely remember reading somewhere...' Culver looks embarrassed '...about them possessing animals, or artefacts... like computers perhaps...'
'Animals, certainly. This is not unusual. Although they usually possess humans only, animals is possible. I do not think they could manifest in non-living matter, though.' He thinks about it for a moment. 'An interesting question! Like the entity Enki in Snowcrash, perhaps?' He laughs at Culver's surprise. 'Oh, we have Neal Stephenson here, too. His model of the virtual society is an interesting one.'
'I dare say that here, where actual political organization has been so oppressive in the past, utopian models must have held out some prospect of hope,' says Henry thoughtfully. 'The tyranny of the Duvaliers... what a blessing the déchoukaj was for the people!'
'Very true,' nods Hurbon, looking at Henry with respect. 'I can see you have done your work thoroughly, Mr Henry...'
'...much as I would expect from an employee of your famous BBC. Yes, but we carry some of the legacies of the Duvalier days with us still.'
'Like this man Borasme? What are the powers of his position in Port-de-Paix, exactly? How much power does he actually wield? I mean,' Henry adds, darkly, 'if someone was to upset him, could he make that person disappear without trace and no questions asked?'
'Certainly. He has done so many times, according to Louise Bijoux. He is all but all-powerful in that city, and ruthless with it. He is a stern opponent, that much is certain. You will have your work cut out to deal with him - but I have every confidence in you SITU field operatives! Your courage and capability is legend!'
While the others digest this, Henry asks 'How did you get involved in SITU, Laënnec? Is there a large branch in Haiti?'
He sighs. 'No, indeed, as far as I know I am the only member here. I joined postally, in fact. I joined because of my observations of history.'
Henry looks attentive.
'You'll be familiar with the various cyclical models of history - Spengler's is the most famous. It observes cycles in the growth and decline of empires, and so forth. This is what we have observed time and again: one empire rises to replace the previous. But this is completely at variance with Marx's demonstration of the way a society should naturally evolve. Marx shows incontrovertibly that a plateau should be reached - the Workers' State - and that this should spread around the globe. There is no natural societal force that can topple the worker's state, Marx shows. So why has this not taken place? In fact we see workers' states crumbling, or else never arising in the first place. The answer can only be that some extra-historical force is meddling.' Hurbon's hair is standing even more on end than usual in his excitement. 'What could that force be? SITU may have the answers.'
John Henry nods encouragingly, while Side-step stares into his Southern Comfort, wondering what sort of a loon this is he has to work with now.
After an hour or so the salsa band clear themselves away, to rapturous applause, and the dancing stops. 'Now, my friends, we shall see something!' says Hurbon with satisfaction.
Three men come out onto the stage each with a set of drums, like bongos, and start to set up a complex, steady, insistent rhythm. The crowd is quiet, anticipatory. Each man, listening, feels the sound of the drums, given almost tangible form by the heat and dampness of the air, slap from the walls and resonate through his body. The three musicians start a low humming, wordless, that gradually builds in volume and is picked up by the dancers, who are all now facing the stage and have more the appearance of an audience - or congregation.
There is the loud rattle of a maraca, and a woman comes out from the door at the back of the stage - tall and statuesque, with greying hair, wearing a long red-and-orange robe decorated with huge flowers, she is carrying the maraca in one hand and a live snake, about three feet long, in the other. It writhes about trying to turn back on itself and bite her, but she has it gripped just behind the head and it cannot reach. At her appearance, a low groan runs through the audience.
She approaches the centre of the stage with a stiff, jerky gait, and, shaking the maraca in time to the beat behind her, brandishes the snake at the crowd, waving it out over the heads of those at the front. As the drums continue, she starts to chant in a low, rolling voice, words of Creole mixed with what must be African dialect.
Hurbon claps along, nodding his head, clearly enjoying himself. Twitchin leans across, and whispers in his ear 'So what exactly is happening here? Is this a voodoo ritual?'
'Oh no, this is a celebratory dance, based on an old Dahomeyan ceremony - the mambo, the priestess would give thanks for the tribe's protection from the evils of the jungle. It still has meaning today, although our evils are different - eh?'
Suddenly the woman gives an unearthly shriek, her arms stiffen, her eyes roll up in her head and she collapses to the stage. Hurbon gasps, together with the rest of the crowd, and as the three drums die away in confusion it becomes apparent that this is not part of the act. There are cries of fear from the front of the crowd and people start pushing away, as the snake, now free, quests its way along the lip of the stage. With considerable presence of mind one of the drummers darts forward and seizes it behind the head, while his colleagues tend to the fallen woman.
Hurbon scratches his head in puzzlement as a large set of fire doors is flung open at the back of the club, and the bouncers start ushering customers out into the night. 'That was very strange,' he says slowly.
'What was all that about?' demands Side-step, annoyed at having to relinquish his unfinished drink.
'I don't know... it looked as though she suddenly had an attack of some sort.' He glances back into the club, where the woman has now been borne off, together with her snake. 'Very disturbing! One would almost think... but no.'
'What?' asks Culver. 'Don't go coy on us, Laënnec!'
'I was going to say, as though she had been struck by some evil spirit... but no, such talk is foolish!'
The next morning demonstrates that Side-step has other plans for getting to Port-de-Paix. 'I have my pilots licence,' he says to Hurbon when he arrives to collect the group, 'so I was wondering if you would have any objections to me hiring an aircraft and flying everyone up there myself. I'd like to take the opportunity to put some more flying time in the old log-book.'
Hurbon agrees, pleasantly surprised. 'To be honest, internal flights are not the most comfortable. Truly, SITU's expense budgets are generous!'
'I have other plans,' says Professor Twitchin firmly. He gestures outside, where the others see a taxi-cab waiting. 'I've hired this gentleman to be my driver - really, you saw me on British Airways. Air Haiti? Not a chance. And Air Side-step even less so. No, it's the roads for me. Anyone fancy a lift? Perhaps we could take in some sights on the way... always better to keep close to the ground, in my opinion.'
There are no takers, and so he rides off by himself, after pressing a couple of twenty-dollar bills into the hand of the driver.
Everyone else rides back to the airport, where they are greeted by the sight of Side-step wearing his flying jacket and aviator sunglasses. He is completing his pre-flight checks on the outside of a veteran Hawker-Siddeley HS125, which is all that was available. He is whistling the tune to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines as the group arrives, and with a wave of his hand says 'Hello men, glad you could make it. Hop in, your chariot awaits.'
Matt Culver is a little concerned. The plane looks barely airworthy to his eyes, and is not much larger than a minibus. He starts talking nervously. 'Laënnec, these bocors and oungans - what sort of powers do they have? What can they actually do?'
Hurbon frowns, climbing aboard. 'As an anthropologist it is not really for me to make this sort of judgement. I can tell you what people believe of them - that they can compel spirits to their will, for good or evil. There are such a number of spirits about, according to these beliefs, and they could be set to almost any purpose given the opportunity. Granting health, wealth, sexual potency - or, at the other end of the scale, sickness, blight, even death. You will have to form your own opinion as to the reality of these beliefs.'
The engines start up with a grinding roar, and everyone straps themselves in, eyeing each other nervously across the narrow aisle. Henry is next to Culver and, as Side-step starts to taxi, asks 'In your professional opinion, what do you make of Bijoux's theory that zombies are not the living dead at all, but actually mental cases? It sounds convincing to me! A journalist colleague of mine is working on a article on just that subject,' he adds, wandering off the point. 'Hopes to sell it to The Guardian. Maybe I could really write a piece while and here and scoop him... or maybe not...'
'I've read their published work, and it all looks good,' says Culver. 'Not really my area, of course - I'll have to make an assessment myself when we've seen some cases.'
'This poisoning theory has a lot going for it too, mind you,' says Henry. 'Remember our last mission - I've yet to be convinced that heavy metal contamination didn't have something to do with that business. Didn't someone write that schizophrenia is most likely to develop in those who have dropped voodooism? Maybe it's a kind of withdrawal effect of some substance they take in their ceremonies?'
The plane lifts fairly smoothly into the air, and the undercarriage retracts with a snap. Side-step looks over his shoulder and says, with more than a little satisfaction, 'Ah, there's nothing quite like getting your arse off the deck occasionally to forget all the troubles you've left on the ground. Course, you can't have as much fun in one of these babies as you can in a helicopter, but we'll give it a try, eh?'
A veil will be drawn over the rest of the flight, which represents nothing more than purgatory for most of the passengers, as Side-step puts the plane through a series of terrifying dives, sharp turns and ground-hugging manoeuvres, all the while looking casually out at the countryside and whistling. The landing at Port-de-Paix cannot come too soon.
The operatives and Hurbon stagger, wobbly-legged, towards the airport building, as Side-step saunters off to deal with the paperwork, calling 'Can't wait for the return trip!'
Port-de-Paix is a small city, of around 50,000 inhabitants, clustered around a natural harbour, looking northwards towards the island of La Tortue, explains Hurbon as the SITU team heads into town. It is clear that it is much poorer than Port-au-Prince. The buildings are rickety, roads unsurfaced, lights and power cables all but absent. Hurbon tuts. 'All the revenue of the port is going straight into that swine Borasme's pockets, I'll be bound.' He calms down with an effort of will. 'We must be careful what we say here - not give ourselves away too early. Be careful of the police - and there will be plain-clothes police as well, secret police.'
The cab pulls up outside a flea-bitten hotel, the Galaxie, which Hurbon inspects with some disfavour. 'This is where Laurent said they were staying.'
'Will we stay here, too, or is there a better hotel?' asks Henry doubtfully.
'This is probably the best there is,' Hurbon apologises.
In the lobby, which has fat, drunken-looking flies spiralling lazily around a sluggish ceiling fan, and a slovenly-looking cleaner leaning on a mop, a dead cigarette butt hanging from his lip, Hurbon books rooms for the whole group.
'Laënnec! C'est vous?' A small, energetic-looking woman probably in her mid-thirties has entered the lobby from the adjacent lounge. She smiles warmly on seeing the rest of the group. 'And our friends from England! Wonderful! How glad I am to see you!'
'Dr Louise Bijoux,' explains Hurbon, introducing the operatives. 'Where is Laurent?'
'He's off getting some supplies right now - should be back soon.' She draws everyone through to the lounge. 'This boy we're studying at the moment - Johnny Michel - he lives in a village near to here, called Jean-Rabel. With his family - if they are his family. Which we are not sure about. They say he has been ensorcelled by the local oungan - a man named Faustin Wirkus. The Michels say he is a bocor, of course. There is some family dispute, I think - we have not been greatly concerned with that. The boy is fascinating - classic zombie symptoms.'
'Are we going to see this Michel boy?' asks Hurbon.
'I suggest visiting him later today, when Laurent has returned with the supplies. It's just an hour's ride.'
She and Hurbon make conversation - it seems they know each other from university days - while John Henry finds a payphone. He dials Mary Welch's number in Miami. 'Mary, have you ever heard of SITU?'
'The Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained? Sure, they were founded by some cryptozoologist guy in the Fifties, weren't they?'
'Not that one - another SITU.'
'Two societies with the same name? That's confusing!' She laughs. 'I can look into it for you, if you like.'
It is several hours before Professor Twitchin appears, looking dapper as ever. 'What a fascinating ride! I really do recommend it: the jungle is quite delightful. And my driver was a charming fellow: I've placed him on a retainer in case we need him again.'
He is introduced to Dr Bijoux.
'Oh,' says Twitchin, with a sudden shock of memory. 'I found this in the newspaper. Didn't have The Times in the hotel shop, unfortunately.' He passes round a clipping from The Guardian [copies enclosed].
Henry's face is a picture of disappointment as he sees his scoop disappear.
Hurbon reads the article with interest. 'This must be drawing on Laurent and Louise's work. I hope they have been credited in this Lancet article! I know what a cavalier attitude these high-status journals have towards Third World researchers!' He scowls. 'I have never heard of this man Douyon - he certainly has no great academic reputation. Does he work at one of the State institutions?'
'Oh, he's not a bad fellow,' says Bijoux. 'A steady worker.'
Twitchin makes for the telephone and rings home. He is relieved to hear that the Cranks and Crazies article has not yet come out. 'I think it's due tomorrow, Father,' says Theo down the crackly line. 'Wednesday's the science supplement day.'
'I'm getting worried about Laurent,' says Louise. 'He should have been back long since - he was only buying some food. I hope something hasn't happened to him.'
'Where was he headed? Shall we cruise round and try and spot him?' asks Culver.
All look up at the sound of Louise's name being called. A uniformed messenger boy is making his way through the lounge towards her, carrying a small cardboard box. She thanks him absently and searches for a knife to cut it open with. Side-step produces his clasp-knife and starts to saw through the string. There is a strange smell about the box - spice, or incense. With a snap the last string parts, and Louise opens the lid, lifting aside the packing material.
She screams in horror, her hands flying to her mouth, and the box drops to the floor. Out of it rolls the severed head of a man, mouth gaping wide and tongue protruding. A black feather is bound around the forehead with a red silk fillet.
'Laurent!' exclaims Hurbon.
Henry: you make notes on everyone and everything for your article. Culver approaches you and says 'Darius? I don't think he's dead, just resting. I got a letter too, but I guess I just assumed it was Riggs... well, being Riggs. I've got some antipsychotic drugs with me, though, and I'm hoping to persuade him to take some.' He peers more closely at you. 'If you don't mind my saying, you've been acting a little strangely yourself, John. Is everything all right?'
Culver: you speak to Henry about Darius, Riggs and his own odd behaviour.