The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Saints and Angels
"Woah... shit," exclaims Matt Culver, grimacing in distaste.
"Jesus," adds Side-step, "these people don't fuck around, do they? One thing's for sure, there are some bloody unsociable people around in this town." He springs to his feet and races out after the delivery boy.
"Don't touch it," Culver warns Hurbon, whose hands are almost unwittingly stealing out towards the severed head of his friend. "There might be fingerprints - that's if we're reporting this to the authorities."
"I think there's little point in us doing that," says John Henry darkly. He has preserved a remarkable sang-froid.
Professor Twitchin, by contrast, is somewhat overcome. He staggers weakly backwards, muttering "My oh my!", and sits down hard. "Gentlemen, it seems that events have taken a turn for the serious... we are more than one British Airways flight away from sleepy Oxfordshire villages now. Oh dear..." He mops his brow, then pulls out a Polaroid camera and starts taking pictures of the grisly object from all angles. "For the records," he explains to the surprised Culver, who has pulled out a pair of disposable latex gloves.
A chattering noise from the corner causes all eyes to turn to Riggs. He is shaking violently, and his right arm keeps trying to make a salute, but failing to complete it. His teeth rattle against each other and he clenches them firmly shut, the muscles on his jaw standing out, saying "Yes Sir! We saw the sniper on the roof at zero two hundred hours, Sir! Unit four moved into position and intercepted the hostile immediately, Sir! Hostile resisted and offensive action adopted, Sir! Casualties oc... casualties occurred... oh my God... everyone is dying. Everyone is dying!" His eyes flicker unseeingly from side to side. "Help me! Got to get out! Got to get out before everyone dies!" He staggers to his feet and towards the door. "Got to get ou..."
The sound of violent retching can be heard.
"Pull yourself together!" calls Henry callously after Riggs. "You should be grateful it isn't your head in that box - though maybe it will be, if they ever catch up with you!"
None of the team have given a great deal of thought to comforting Louise Bijoux, but fortunately Hurbon seems to have taken on that role: he wears a grim expression.
Culver bends over the head, muttering "Okay, let's have a look at you, Laurent." He turns it gently in his gloved hands.
"What do we do with... it?" asks Twitchin bemusedly. "I suppose we could always 'return to sender' - that would surely annoy Mr Borasme, presuming it was him."
Bijoux bursts into a fresh bout of weeping, and Hurbon glares at the surprised Professor Twitchin. The other drinkers in the bar are making a very good pretence of not having seen anything out of the ordinary at all.
"Hey, you - hang on a minute!" shouts Side-step after the messenger boy, who is returning to the little cabin where the porters are based. He turns round slightly warily, and Side-step runs up, brandishing a couple of ten-dollar bills.
At the sight of these the boy's face brightens somewhat.
"That package you just delivered, the contents were... er, incomplete. I was wondering if you could tell me who gave it to you?"
The lad considers. "Tall man, sir, dark glasses. He not here now. He tell me wait five, ten, minute before give you package."
Side-step curses under his breath. "Can you give me a description? I mean, what did he look like, what was he wearing, which way did he go? Did you know him?"
"Not know him, sir. Never see before. Tall, thin man, wearing black suit, white shirt. Black man, not white man like you, sir." He pauses for a minute, his face screwed up with concentration. "Walked with limp, sir, left leg. Went that way." He points out into the crowded street, but it is clear to Side-step that the party's mysterious benefactor is long gone.
Culver washes his hands. "That all looks pretty straightforward. He was strangled with a thin cord - a garrotte. Then the head was hacked off with a machete or something like that. There's no foreign substances in the mouth or throat: might be something in the blood, of course, but I can't tell that from here." He starts to bag the head up in polythene.
Henry meanwhile has started to interrogate the slightly dazed Hurbon and Bijoux. "Where was his last known whereabouts? Who saw him leave? Was anyone with him?"
"The last time I saw him was just before you all arrived," says Bijoux. "He was just out in the town to buy supplies for the trip to Jean-Rabel - food and some gifts for the Michel family. He was alone - it was just a shopping trip."
She begins to cry again, so Henry turns to Hurbon. "What's the significance of the black feather and red silk fillet, Laënnec? Do they indicate a ritual killing?"
"Yes... the red silk indicates the forces of voodoo... and the black feather is for Baron Samdi, the leader of the Gédé, the spirits of death. We are to understand that Laurent was killed by Baron Samdi's agents. The smell you smell, that is an incense oungans use when dealing with the Gédé."
"What kind of mood had Mars been in? Had he been behaving strangely recently? Did he ever say he thought he was being followed? Did he have any enemies?"
Hurbon sighs. "Mr Henry, I respect your rigour - asking all these questions is right, we should not leap to assumptions. But I think this is a clear-cut case. Laurent must have been taken and killed by Borasme's people. He had no enemies, and he was behaving quite normally up till this morning, Louise will tell you that."
Henry would prefer to hear it from her own lips, but she is in no state to answer at the moment and he does not press the issue.
"Should the police be informed?" asks Culver.
Hurbon sighs. "I suppose so."
"What about the Embassy?"
"We can probably avoid that, and keep you people out of the matter. The box was addressed to Louise. No doubt when it was sent Borasme had no idea that you were even involved in the case. Perhaps he still does not know - unless he has agents in here, now." Hurbon glances around the bar nervously. "You should probably wait upstairs in your rooms while Louise and I deal with the police."
Side-step walks back in, shaking his head. "Well, I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm not wandering around this place unarmed. I'm going out to see if I can buy myself a little protection."
"Be careful," warns Hurbon.
Riggs starts to stagger back towards the group, his face even paler than usual, saying "We must go to Jean-Rabel immediately... no time to lose... no time to lose."
"We will, we will," soothes Hurbon.
"We have to question the hotel staff and so on first, though," says Henry.
Riggs's face contorts with anger and he storms off out of the hotel.
Culver, whose hand had just emerged from his medical bag with a small bottle of tablets, sighs and returns them.
"You'll have to excuse our... er, friend," says Side-step quietly in Hurbon's ear. "He was once part of an experiment in artificial stupidity, and as you can see, the results were far better than anyone dared hope." He too heads off into the town.
As the remainder of the SITU team waits in Culver's room for Hurbon and Bijoux to finish with the police, Professor Twitchin gets an even more serious expression on his face. "It seems to me, gentlemen, that this is no longer just a hobby enquiry. I don't think anyone would think the worse if one or all of us decide to call it a day and go home - think about it, in the back of beyond, unarmed, can't even speak the bloody language, and at the mercy of a local strongman."
He looks around inquiringly, but Culver is mixing a vodka and tonic, raw materials provided by the management, and Henry is studiously examining the pattern of the bedspread.
Twitchin sighs. "Well, I'm offering the services of my driver Léon, if anyone wants to go back to Port-au-Prince. But if we stay here, I think we need to make some sort of contact with Borasme. We are on his patch, and quite visible - clearly he will be suspicious of a gang of gringos turning up in his town asking questions. Do any of you have any ideas? We should avoid anything too aggressive or confrontational, of course."
"There's damn few people knew we were coming," says Culver slowly. "Hurbon, Bijoux, that's all. Sure, Hurbon seems genuine enough, but..." He shrugs. "I guess all that stuff about joining SITU by post doesn't exactly fill me with confidence." He takes a gulp of his drink. "Let's just be careful."
Riggs strides purposefully towards the centre of town, shortly coming across a vegetable market which is in the process of closing down for the day. He walks from pitch to pitch, as the stallholders pack their wares into vans, asking each "Jean-Rabel? Jean-Rabel?"
The traders treat him with kindness and interest, and one burly, smiling farmer indicates that he should hop into the cab of his van. "American?"
"That's right," says Riggs. "I'm an author - a novelist. Writing a book about Haitian culture. I wanted to see what village life is like."
Any of his SITU colleagues, were they present, would be amazed to hear such a connected string of sentences issuing from his lips.
The van's noisy diesel engine roars into life and Riggs and his new friend start to bump off down the road that leads westwards out of Port-de-Paix.
As Hurbon and Twitchin ready their respective cars for the journey to Jean-Rabel, Culver gathers together his copies of the Mars-Bijoux papers mentioning Johnny Michel, and Henry goes the rounds of the hotel staff, asking whether they can add anything to what he has learnt so far. Bijoux's story is confirmed, but the staff seem highly reluctant to talk of the matter, and look around nervously as he interrogates them, clearly fearful of being overheard. There are no other co-workers to quiz, apart from Bijoux herself.
There is no sign of Riggs or Side-step, so a partial group sets off in the two cars for Jean-Rabel in the late afternoon.
The chatty Léon hands Twitchin a bag full of torches and maps which he has purchased on the group's behalf, and Twitchin issues them to the operatives. "There seems to be a lack of electricity about," he says, "and voodoo activities will take place at night."
The road leads westward along the coast, a few miles in from the clifftops, and traffic is sparse, fortunately, as the road surface is diabolical - only partly surfaced, rutted and holed, with abandoned corpses of rusty vehicles scattered to either side. To the north can be seen the oval bulk of the island of La Tortue, pushing up out of the water: far beyond it lies, eventually, Florida. The island bears no signs of habitation, although there are docking facilities for small craft visible.
Trees along the sides of the route have been painted white, presumably to help people avoid crashing into them at night - there are no lights - with only limited success, alas. Garish yellow posters have been fixed to most of them for the first few miles out, although it looks as though a not-very-systematic attempt has been made to tear down the ones nearest the city. They say in broad script "Vivent les fils de Boukman! À revenir le Bois-Caïman!"
Henry asks Léon if he knows to what they refer, but he grins and shakes his head. "Zese norzerners... ver' strange peoples!"
Side-step finds himself the object of only a little curiosity as he wanders around Port-de-Paix. There are quite a few white people on the streets, and in his battered combat fatigues he does not give the impression of being a tourist. He finds a shop selling knives, in which two elderly Haitians are lounging on chairs, chewing on some sharp-smelling herb and spitting red phlegm into a distant spittoon. After a little bargaining during which he makes it clear that he knows what he wants, he comes away with a six-inch combat knife with a sturdy guard. It looks very much like an imitation of the US Marine issue.
He straps the knife to his leg and returns to the Galaxie to find the others gone. None too distressed, he takes up a station just inside the door of the bar, where he can see all comings and goings at the front of the hotel, and opens a fresh packet of cigarettes.
Riggs clambers down from the van, stretching his legs: the upholstery in the cab left a great deal to be desired. His new farmer friend, Marius, has invited him to dine with his family tonight, but first he has some inquiries to make around the village.
Jean-Rabel is a settlement of no more than a couple of thousand souls, diffusely scattered along the road. There is no real centre to it. Marius has pointed out Faustin Wirkus's house to Riggs, so he starts a little way from there and starts questioning villagers about the houngan.
He tells each person the same story: that he is a novelist seeking material on Haitian life, wishing to base a character on Wirkus. He finds that Wirkus has lived in the village all his life, forty or more years, and is a generally well-respected man who is reckoned among the foremost citizens. It is not until the sixth house that Riggs finds someone who speaks against Wirkus: a woman beckons him in, glancing around, and tells him that Wirkus is indeed a bocor. He is a greedy man who seeks personal wealth, but rather than waiting for God to provide through the gratitude of those he serves, he has sought to have himself included in the wills of those about to die, on the pretext of praying for special treatment for their spirits after death, or the threat of prayers for special mistreatment. The woman's father died last year, and he left the bulk of his estate to Wirkus for fear of what might happen to his spirit if he refused the bocor, leaving her in poverty. She does not know of any evidence of Wirkus working evil magics, though: presumably that would be rather secret.
Not too long afterwards, Hurbon, Bijoux, Twitchin, Henry and Culver arrive in the village, a journey of no more than ten miles. They head straight for the Michel house, which is a large ranch-type building on the western edge, in expansive grounds. As the cars draw up, family members spill out excitedly, and small children mob Bijoux as she hands out gifts. Culver raises his eyebrows slightly: it does not seem to him as though proper scientific detachment can be strictly maintained under these circumstances.
"Are there any local gringos?" Twitchin whispers to Hurbon. "Perhaps we could get an outside view on this dispute between the Michels and Wirkus."
Hurbon looks at him in surprise. "Do you think that is relevant? We have just been studying their beliefs, and the boy's mental health - Laurent thought that delving into the other background would just confuse matters."
Culver is led by Bijoux into the back room where Johnny is kept. He sits listlessly against the wall, dressed in bright clothes, with a hat perched jauntily on his head, and his arms are drawn up at awkward angles. "He was such an active boy before!" says the mother, in Creole: she does not speak English.
Culver examines Johnny's mucous membranes and tests his reflexes. "So he died fifteen months ago, your paper says?" he asks Bijoux. "Of poisoning? He looks pretty well on it now, zombie or no zombie."
Bijoux smiles. "I said that is what we were told by the family. No doctor examined him at the time. He died, was buried, then this April they found him again, in Port-de-Paix, living on the street, and brought him back here. When we first saw him he was as he is now - withdrawn. Autistic. But if this is chronic schizophrenia we would expect to have seen a steady onset over a period."
"These catatonic phenomena - mutism, stupor - we hardly ever see these associated with schizophrenia in Britain these days," says Culver thoughtfully. He sits back on his heels to allow Twitchin to film Johnny with his camcorder, then turns to Bijoux. "This may sound like a stupid question, but... are they sure this is the same guy?"
She grins without humour. "That's the problem, Dr Culver. The family will all swear blind this is their dead brother brought back as a zombie. But how are we to know he's not just some schizophrenic street kid they've unwittingly adopted? We can't DNA-test him, and we can't get an exhumation order - not without the police. And they won't help us: it's in their interest to have these problems dealt with inside the family."
"Perhaps it's the 'family' we should be examining, then," says Culver, rising to his feet. "That's one serious delusion it looks like they could be under."
Riggs has made his way to Wirkus's home, which is notable for its size and state of decoration, and also for the symbols of various lwa (he presumes) painted on its outside wall. Throughout the evening, as Riggs watches the house, villagers come and go to the house, knocking for admittance: they tend to arrive nervous and worried, and leave either reassured or depressed. After about half an hour Riggs sees John Henry arrive, striding purposefully, and go into the house.
Henry blinks as he enters a large, darkened room, at the far end of which the village houngan is sitting in state on a raised chair. The walls and floor of the room are completely covered with coloured chalk designs, weaving in and out o each other to produce a dizzying whole. Wirkus is flanked by two large men wearing white robes: he himself is small, shrewd-looking, wearing a red bandanna and yellow robes loosely belted at the waist. He is lounging across the chair in a sprawled configuration.
Beside him is a curious shrine: flanked by two large lingam stones, it consists of a puzzling confusion of straw figurines, bits of cloth, painted bark, inscribed parchments and unidentifiable string-wrapped objects, with several small metalwork structures standing among them. The whole is surmounted by a cross on the top of which sits a battered black top hat.
As Henry approaches, the two large men look at Wirkus, but he calms them with a motion of his hand, and speaks in a sing-song voice. "So! Visitors! As I was told - they come. From the far North. Bearing gifts for the faithful. Truly, God provides for the faithful. His servants here are rewarded justly for their devotion."
Henry introduces himself. "Did you know Laurent Mars, the psychiatrist, Mr Wirkus? He's dead - strangled, and his head hacked off." His manner is confident, even cocky, as though he knows more than he is letting on.
Wirkus seems genuinely surprised. "Comment? Bon Dieu!" He recovers himself slightly. "Ah, what a sad loss. He meddled in things he did not understand, no doubt. He had turned his back on the ways of his people - the voodoo ways - looking instead to the God of science. What defence then did he have left when his time of need came?"
Side-step is starting to feel hungry and has accumulated quite a pile of cigarette butts beside him. He has established that two separate people are watching the hotel - and that one of them is also watching the other. The first is a well-built man wearing a Miami Dolphins shirt and jeans, who is lounging against the wall opposite, picking his teeth, and making notes in a small black book whenever anyone enters or leaves the building. The other, who is slightly further down the road so that he can see the first man, has a stall selling chocolate-covered peanuts: he makes no notes, but he stares carefully at everyone who comes and goes a though committing them to memory.
Neither man is the one described by the messenger boy.
A car draws up outside the hotel, a rare enough occurrence, and Side-step glances over: a large woman dressed in peacock blue gets out with some difficulty, and Side-step is surprised to recognize her as the singer in the Club Racing in Port-au-Prince the previous evening, whose act was so curiously interrupted. She wears an expression of resolution. She comes into the hotel and goes to the desk: Side-step, ears flapping, hears her ask for a room and give her name as Rose-Marie Desruisseaux.
Side-step: when no-one else is looking, Riggs suddenly seizes you and pushes you up against a wall, feeling the side of your neck, muttering "If you can hear me, I'm not going to run any more you bastards. I'll find you and I'll pay you back for everything you've ever done to me." His anger does not seem directed at you, so you restrain the urge to punch his lights out - also, you are surprised at his strength. After a few seconds, he lets you go and walks quickly away.
Riggs: you pin Side-step up against the wall and feel his neck, finding to your slight surprise that he has no implant - or, if he does, it is cunningly concealed. He seems to be restraining the urge to hit you.
Culver: in reply to your question, Henry answers with cheerful evasiveness "I can't let on too much, old chap, but I can say that I've got the measure of this so-called SITU organization. And before I'm finished, the whole outfit will be blown wide apart, I promise you..."
Henry: you deflect Culver's inquiry.