The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Saints and Angels
'Maybe Mars upset his lwa-met-tet,' John Henry says to Wirkus, slowly, giving him a cold smile. Wirkus raises his eyebrows in surprise. 'Yes - I'm not just another ignorant tourist,' Henry continues. 'And I'm not a gullible local, either. I'm not frightened by feathers, or threats of woe in the afterlife. Your Baron Samdi -' he points at the top hat '- and his Gédé... they're not safely tucked away in some spirit world - they are here on Earth, among us, and some of us have seen their faces. Some of us have seen them many times...'
Wirkus nods in acknowledgement. 'You have my respect, m'sieu. I had not thought this was known in the lands of les blancs.'
Henry strolls across the room, studying the chalk designs and the shrine. 'I'm a journalist by trade. I watch, and what I see I report. I've spend most of my life watching, but there are times when watching is not enough. There are times when, to truly understand, you have to experience - and I'm talking of extreme experience here, Mr Wirkus.'
He turns back to face the houngan. 'Since I arrived in your country I've heard nothing but supposition and foolishness and plain lies about your religion. Now I want to know the truth. Will you be the one to enlighten me?'
Wirkus strokes his chin. 'To me it sounds as though you already know the most of it, m'sieu Henry. What more can I say? The lwa are real - very real. They move among us, yes. Le Baron Samdi, he is just one. Ezili, the Queen of Love; Papa Legba, the Protector; all the others - those who know how to reach them and converse with them can do so. They call us wise men and women, oungans, manbos. Perhaps we are blessed, perhaps we are cursed. But it is through us that the lwa can reach humanity. We can converse with them, and we can call down their essence into worshippers - the "possession" of which you have heard. This is the central mystery of our vodou religion.''
'Will you allow me to observe one of your ceremonies? I would like very much to witness your abilities in action.' While speaking Henry sniffs the air, and he thinks he catches a scent of the incense whose odour hung around Laurent Mars's head. There are a variety of smells here, though.
Wirkus nods slowly. 'If this is your true wish, I could not deny you it, even if I wished to. All who come with an open mind and the knowledge of belief are welcome. The day after tomorrow is the feast of St James, who we know is truly Ogou Feray the uplifter of the oppressed. Tomorrow evening we hold here a ceremony of welcoming him and preparing his ground. Attend if you wish.'
Side-step notes the arrival of Rose-Marie Desruisseaux, and waits until she has gone and the desk clerk has gone into the office. He nips across and peeps into the register: she is signed in to Room 23, just across the corridor from Culver.
'Not strictly delusional,' Culver corrects himself, adding wryly, '"within cultural boundaries" and all that. Religion - the socially acceptable face of madness...' Bizarre as the concept appears to him, those who believe in zombies and voodoo spirits cannot be called deluded in the pathological sense, if those are the beliefs of their prevailing host culture. He turns back to Bijoux. 'I'd like to take samples anyway, maybe get the labs back home to take a look.'
Johnny's mother agrees, and Culver busies himself taking samples of blood, urine and hair. Johnny makes no resistance, his limbs having taken on the curious 'waxy plasticity' characteristic of his supposed illness: they move freely but remain in the positions in which they are left, however uncomfortable-seeming.
'I suppose you've considered a trial of Chlorpromazine?' he asks Bijoux. 'If he's catatonic schizophrenic, he should respond quickly to antipsychotic - if his folks can be persuaded, that is.'
'I'd like to try it,' she replies. 'Would you like to speak with them now? They would probably take the suggestion better from a foreign doctor, and a man.' She grimaces.
Talking to Mme Michel via Bijoux, Culver learns that Johnny's poisoning set on three days before his death. He became rapidly weak and listless, staggered about clumsily, had greyish lips and a deathly chill. The smell of rotting meat came from his breath, his skin was greasy, and his fingernails became ridged.
From Bijoux's tone in translation it is clear that she suspects some of these symptoms may have become exaggerated in the months since Johnny's death.
Mme Michel is happy for the doctors to carry out 'an important clinical trial' on her son: all she wants is him back to his old bouncy self.
As Henry leaves Wirkus's house, heading back to the Michels', Riggs leaps up from the shadows and runs over to him, snarling 'I thought you could b...be trusted! Sneaking around behind our b...b...backs and making secret fucking deals! I'm watching you now. Every minute. Every hour. I'm w...w...watching you now. Judas! After everything we've been through together! You bastard! Next time y...you betray us for them... I'll get you...' He stops, takes a short deep breath, and runs away back to his shadows before Henry can respond.
The journalist merely shrugs and walks on down the road.
As Riggs continues to watch the house, a couple more visitors come for treatment, but eventually as darkness becomes absolute lights start to go out. Then two large men emerge (neither of them limping) and the house becomes quiet and still.
Riggs, a shadow moving through darkness, approaches a window.
While Culver and Bijoux have been dealing with Johnny and Mme Michel, Professor Twitchin has with the aid of his faithful translator Léon been befriending the rest of the family. Johnny's small brothers and sisters (or possibly cousins; there seems to be a sizeable extended family present) are shy of him at first, but soon respond to the production of sweets and shiny new US dollar bills from their ears - a trick that always went down well in the Senior Common Room, Twitchin remembers with a slight pang.
He takes a number of instant photographs of various groupings of kiddies with and without parents, and hands them out freely, proffering pictures of his own son Theo and grandson Luke for inspection: all are agreed that Theo's house looks very fine, but not as fine as the Michel residence.
At about this time the paterfamilias returns. Monsieur Michel is a burly, shortish man in late middle age, who looks as though he could crush the breath out of a person with one hug. He works as a manager in a jute mill in Port-de-Paix; a well-paid and well-respected job. His fierce appearance is belied by a cheery demeanour, and he greets the Professor heartily when introduced.
Twitchin asks whether photographs exist of Johnny in his younger days, and a couple are fished out - not brilliant quality - showing him in the school football team. Twitchin really cannot say whether it is the same boy or not - the passage of time would have wrought some changes, and the strange expressions which Johnny's current condition imposes add yet further difficulty. He certainly looks fairly similar, but that is all that can be said. The Professor would like to fax copies of 'then' and 'now' photos to an anthropologist friend of his in Florida, for similarity analysis, but it appears there is no fax machine in the village: the nearest one is Port-de-Paix, and the family are not keen to release their treasured mementoes for the length of time it would take to get there and back.
'It's about time we were getting back,' says Culver, emerging from the inner room. He is slightly surprised to find the Professor draped in small excited children. 'Shall we try and round up the others?'
'No, no, you must stay here, we cannot dream of you leaving us so soon,' says Mme Michel politely.
'That's very kind, but really we couldn't trespass upon your hospitality any longer,' replies Culver.
At the same time Professor Twitchin says 'Why, how delightful! I should very much like to stay, how very kind of you.'
Culver raises his eyebrows but makes no comment. It looks like they will be crushing into one car on the way back.
Side-step has returned to his room and changed into jeans and T-shirt. He then goes out onto the street, and buys a twist of peanuts from the man with the stall, who serves him without a flicker of interest. With his hands in his pockets, he saunters up to the other watcher and says conversationally 'Miami Dolphins eh? I'm a Green Bay Packers man myself.'
The man jumps slightly. Side-step pulls out his cigarettes and offers him one, which he takes slightly warily. 'Packers, eh? You British?' His accent is American and educated.
Side-step nods and offers his hand. 'People call me Side-step... I'm kinda new in town, I don't suppose you could recommend somewhere I can get a decent drink around here, maybe some female company?'
'Willie Creed.' He takes Side-step's hand and shakes it firmly. Close up, Side-step can see that this guy is really built: more like an American Football player than a fan. 'Matter of fact I'm kinda new here myself... still finding my way around, know what I mean? There's a few bars and such but... sheesh... not the kinda place you'd take your worst enemy, most of 'em.'
'Couldn't help noticing you jotting things down in that book of yours, you doing some kind of survey or something?' Side-step asks innocently.
Creed immediately covers the notebook up. 'Oh, just making notes for a book - I'm an author - a novelist. Writing a book about Haitian culture. I wanted to see what town life is like.' He trots this line out as though he has rehearsed it many times.
'Is that right? Fascinating. While you've been out here, I don't suppose you noticed a guy with a limp, wearing a black suit and dark glasses, leave the hotel, did you? Only I was supposed to meet him in the lobby, but I was late.'
The effect of this question on Creed is remarkable. First his jaw drops and he loses his cigarette. Then he gulps and pales. Then he takes two swift steps backwards. 'You were supposed to meet him? Sheeit.' He recovers slightly, plastering an unconvincing smile over the look of frustrated annoyance that has now taken up residence on his face. 'No, sorry, buster - I ain't seen no-one of that description round here. I'll be sure to keep my eyes open from now on, you betcha.' His accent has changed considerably, sounding much more 'Brooklyn street' than it did before.
Side-step thanks him and turns away, musing on this, then turns back as though with an afterthought. 'Oh, by the way, I don't know if you're interested, but you see that guy over there selling peanuts? He hasn't took his eyes off you for the last ten minutes.'
Now Creed looks really worried, his eyes dart nervously from side to side. With a hastily muttered 'Be seein' ya, buddy,' he starts to walk away quickly, weaving through the crowds, occasionally darting a glance behind him. Unfortunately his height means that he is very conspicuous. The peanut man swiftly folds up his stall and sets off after him, at a judicious distance.
Side-step returns to the hotel bar.
'Léon, about those posters we saw,' says Professor Twitchin. 'Can you give me an exact translation?'
Léon looks evasive. 'Is very foolish talk.'
'Anyway - I'm interested. What did they say?'
He rolls his eyes. 'Zese norzerners - mad. Zey say "ze children of Boukman live! Bois-Caïman will come again!" Mad!'
'What does that mean? Who is Boukman? What is Bois-Caïman?'
Léon looks at him amazed by his ignorance. 'Is ver' famous! Boukman Dutty, 'e was ze father of our revolution! Before even Toussaint-Louverture, was Boukman, 'e was escaped slave an' 'e lead slave army to throw out ze French. Was more zan two 'undred year ago.'
'Bois-Caïman was big voodoo ceremony 'eld by Boukman - wiz all escaped slaves, all army. 'E swear, zey all swear, that Haiti will be voodoo land, all believe voodoo. Ze lwa, zey come down and zey say, we give you our protection, we give you Ogou Feray to watch over you, we make sure your revolution it succeed - bang! Was a big dedication, Bois-Caïman.'
'So what can these posters mean?'
Léon spreads his hands wide. '"Fils de Boukman", zat sound to me like people 'oo make trouble for ze government, no? Freedom fighters. But ze "à revenir le Bois-Caïman", I not know what zis means - sounds crazy to me.'
John Henry saunters into the house just as Culver is starting to think about going. 'There you are, John!'
They update each other on what has been learnt. 'It's a shame there seems to be no possibility of you running blood tests here, Matt,' says Henry. 'As I said earlier, I think the poisoning theory is worth consideration. We could compare the blood of active voodoo followers with lapsed worshippers - and even use ourselves as controls!' he adds, with the air of one who is familiar with scientific procedure.
'Maybe, maybe: we could always send it off for analysis later.'
'Have you tried flinging salt in Johnny's face? I think we should.'
Culver looks at him doubtfully.
'I'm not going to try it myself, though,' continues Henry. 'Dr Bijoux says the police won't give her an exhumation order to dig up Johnny Michel's body - but do we need one...?'
'Grave robbing? That's a bit extreme, isn't it?' Culver frowns. 'I was hoping to wander out and have a look at the site myself later, though - care to join me?'
Henry turns to Professor Twitchin, and says 'You say we should contact Borasme. In what way, exactly?'
Twitchin, who together with Léon is now working through the local newspaper, merely blinks in surprise.
Riggs moves quietly through the darkness, his sharp vision guiding him around the house. He finds all manner of voodoo paraphernalia, most of which means little enough to him - chalk markings, straw dolls, metalwork figurines, bits of coloured cloth and so forth. In one room he finds a set half a dozen small shrine-like affairs, in each of which scented candles - the smell is the same as that around Laurent Mars's severed head - burn around a photograph. The whole assembly is watched over by another top-hatted cross. None of the photos are those of Mars or Johnny Michel: Riggs does not recognize any of them, but he commits them all to memory.
There is a noise behind him, and a voice calls out angrily 'Quoi? Que faites-vous ici?' Riggs whirls round in a crouch to see Faustin Wirkus, wearing a silk dressing-gown and carrying a torch in one hand and a machete in the other, standing over him.
Riggs shakes his fist. 'I know wha...what you're doing h...here, you bastards! I know who you're working for! Tell those god-damn sons-o-bitches th...that Riggs is back and that I'll stop them ag...again just like I did b...be...before!' As Wirkus stands, puzzled, he darts to one side through the doorway and flees through the house, exiting the way he came in.
There is no sound of pursuit, but he can hear over his shoulder a deep, angry voice intoning what sound like nonsense syllables in a foreign language, as he flees the house.
'Well, this is the grave,' says Culver, shining his torch around it. The headstone is small and rather pathetic, and the grave itself is definitely not a gaping hole. The graveyard as a whole is ill-tended: the sexton seems to be a part-timer at best.
Louise Bijoux shudders. 'Can we go back in now?'
'Just a minute.' Culver bends down, carefully parting the vegetation over the plot. 'I think these are signs of disturbance - see? Not really my field, but I've seen this done once or twice. Someone's been at work here with a spade, I reckon.'
'You think they dug him up?'
'Maybe... or maybe they just wanted to give that impression. I can't really say.' He straightens up, dusting off his hands.
The car is being loaded - Léon is staying here with Twitchin, to act as translator - when Riggs appears, shambling out of the darkness. He at once incoherently spills his news. It is apparent that he is staying well away from John Henry.
Professor Twitchin is using the Michels' telephone - he seems to have his feet well under the table now - and calls Side-step. They exchange news.
Then Twitchin draws Johnny's little sister Marie-Paul aside. 'Is the new Johnny the same Johnny as the old Johnny?' he asks in avuncular tones.
Marie-Paul, her thumb in her mouth, swings from side to side on her heels as she considers this question. Eventually 'No,' she says.
'No?' responds Twitchin excitedly.
'Johnny used to be very brave and exciting. Now all he does is sit there.'
Emboldened, the Professor turns to Michel père. 'I know if my child was missing or dead I would be desperate for him to return to me... you know, sometimes I find myself believing in reincarnation.'
'Reincarnation? The transmigration of souls from one body to another?'
'Ah, m'sieu le profess', when Johnny died we might well have fallen victims to such superstition. But our religion teaches that spirits are gathered to the good God on death?'
'What about zombies, then?'
'When the zombie is raised, the good God releases a portion of the spirit to fill the body. But not enough. To bring it all back, we must pray constantly - yes?'
As the car thunders through the darkness, operatives tightly packed within it, John Henry says, firmly: 'Dr Bijoux, the Professor here mentioned that you and Dr Mars kept a file on Borasme's bocor practices. Do you think your colleague could have been killed as a warning to you, not to pursue the matter further?' He pauses.
Bijoux says slowly and quietly 'Yes, I am sure this was so.'
'You might want to consider how wise it is for you stay on here, then...'
She shudders, and Laënnec Hurbon mutters something pacificatory in Creole. Not for the first time, Culver wonders whether she and Mars were lovers as well as colleagues. If so, she has concealed it well up till now.
'And in the meantime,' continues Henry remorselessly, 'it's vitally important that you let us take a look at that file - it could contain vital information that will help us bring Borasme to justice!'
'You do not understand, m'sieu Henry - he is justice here. This is his empire, just as surely as Napoléon. And we have no evidence - nothing that could stand up in a court of law, even supposing that he did not control all the judges. We are not crusaders, we are just psychi... I am just a psychiatrist, and Laurent is dead.'
Hurbon nudges Henry sharply, but he persists. 'Can we at least see what you have so far? I'm not asking you to commit yourself, just to allow us to act.'
She sighs. 'Oh, very well - this is what Laurent would have wanted, I am sure.'
'So, Léon, is there anything in those papers about Borasme?'
'Lots, m'sieu le profess' - if we are to believe these papers, 'e is a very saint in 'uman form - forever 'elping ze old ladies across the road and so forth. I 'ave my doubts about ze validity of zeir news values, myself.'
'What about Wirkus? Or anything interesting about local politics?'
'Nothing about Wirkus - for such a prominent man, 'e must make some effort to stay out of ze news. Local politics is all about Borasme opening schools an' 'ospitals. Ah, 'old on - 'ere is a piece about "les fils de Boukman". It seems zis is a terror organization - and anyone who knows of any members of it is to report zem to ze police. Zat is all it say.'
'Laënnec,' says Culver as the sporadic lights of Port-de-Paix start to appear on the horizon, 'um, forgive me for asking, but can you enlighten me a little on the Gédé, Baron Samdi's agents? What are they supposed to look like, and how do they manifest? I'd guess they've got something to do with the zombie process, yeah?'
Hurbon settles back into professorial mode, squeezing Riggs uncomfortably against the wheel arch. 'The Gédé, ah, yes. A group of spirits, some of them lwa, some lesser than lwa. I would not speak of them as Baron Samdi's agents - that would normally mean humans, what you might call "cultists". Instead the Gédé are his assistants. They supervise the dead on their journeys to and from the spirit realm. But the zombification, this involves fooling the Gédé - the bocor must cajole the spirit of the dead from them, or have achieved an understanding with them that allows him or her to take bodies. Zombification, this is the ultimate indignity for a believer in voodoo - it makes him or her a slave, precisely the condition from which voodoo was established to relieve the people. For this reason some people poison their dead, to prevent bocors from attempting to raise them: this practice is frowned upon by the coroner's court.'
Henry nods, taking this in. Then, 'Laënnec, the island of La Tortue - how did it get its name?'
Hurbon frowns. 'From its shape, I think - like a turtle's back. The Spanish called it Tortuga originally, our name is just the French version of that. Why - does it interest you?'
'Theo? Theo, are you there? My goodness, this line is dreadful.'
'Father? Is that you? Do you know what time it is?'
'It's... ten o'clock, or just after.'
'Well, here it's three a.m. What do you want?'
'Oh, I'm so sorry - I didn't think of the time difference. I was wondering if the newspaper had come out yet - with the science supplement, you know.'
'It'll be here in the morning, Would you like me to call you when it arrives?'
'Oh, no really, that won't be necessary, I'm not that bothered what they've said... well, perhaps, if you'd be near the telephone anyway, you might just tell me whether it's in or not.'
'Very well, Father, I'll call you as soon as it arrives.'
The Professor gives Theo the Michels' number, and they rather stiffly bid each other goodnight.
Side-step has accounted for the major part of a bottle of Southern Comfort by the time the car arrives, although he seems little the worse for wear for it. 'Here you are! I thought you were going to stay all night at this rate.'
The operatives gather around the table, and Henry shares his thoughts. 'Who are this pair of watchers outside the hotel - and who are they watching for? Mars and Bijoux? Professor Hurbon? Us? This woman Rose-Marie Desruisseaux? Or someone else? We need to find out who they are working for, and whether we can trust either of them. I suggest that, for the time being, at least one of us watches the watchers. We don't want to get heavy-handed - yet.' He glances at Side-step. 'And what is this manbo woman doing here? It's more than just a coincidence. Hurbon thought she may have been struck by an evil spirit during her stage act. Could someone here have caused it? Wirkus? Borasme? Or is she here looking for help? Either way, we need to talk to her.' He sits back. 'It's a pity it's late now, or else I've got a plan to collar her. Perhaps the morning'll be soon enough.'
Side-step is not listening: he has drawn Culver to one side. 'Listen, Matt, I think it may be a good idea if you put some of that experience of yours to good use on Riggs. He's really beginning to worry me. The man's totally lost it.' He taps his finger on his temple. 'You know, the wheel's spinning but the hamster's dead. He button-holed me earlier. Got physical and started gibbering all sorts of weird shit. He's becoming a liability, and with the way things are panning out we can't afford distractions like him.'
Culver: you give Riggs the Chlorpromazine. He looks at you suspiciously but grudgingly accepts it.
Riggs: Culver presses a pill bottle into your hand, saying 'Look, no excuses. It won't dope you up, but it will make you feel a little calmer. Just give it a try, huh?' Later, Side-step draws you aside and says 'I don't know if you remember that little outburst of yours earlier, but listen to this. I let it go last time because you're obviously a few feathers short of a whole duck, but you get in my face like that again and I'll plant you where you stand. Are we on the same page here?' You explain to him that your fears are now centred around Henry.
Side-step: you draw Riggs aside and say your piece. He begins to shake and cry in contrition, explaining 'I thought it wa...was you but it wasn't, Anderson! It wasn't! We're not who we are, Anderson! It's Henry! Henry's not who he was! Henry's not who he was, Anderson! He's not who... who he was...'