The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Saints and Angels
'I don't think there's a need to do anything quite so drastic,' John Henry comments, butting in on Matt and Side-step's conversation. 'Riggs tore a strip off me, too - but I'm used to that sort of thing! With any luck, him chasing around out of control and breaking into people's houses and the like will provide a distraction while we get on with the serious investigation! I don't think there's any reason why the inhabitants of Jean-Rabel should connect him with us - unless simply being another foreigner is enough.'
Culver is frowning slightly. 'The atmosphere's getting to us all,' he points out. 'Face it, Side-step, you've been needling Benedict since we arrived - I'm not bloody surprised he finally hit back.' He massages his temples wearily. 'So, children,' he continues with more than a hint of irony, 'let's all agree to stop rattling each other's cages, have a big group hug and get down to business, yes?'
Side-step holds his hands up in defence. 'Don't panic, I'm not going to start banging heads just yet. I'll be all sweetness and light, see?' He adds a big smile and flashes his eyebrows sarcastically. 'Also, much as it shames me to admit it, I'm going to need your help, Riggs. I'll explain it to you tomorrow over breakfast.' With that, he stubs out his cigarette, knocks back his last Southern Comfort and heads for his room.
Culver turns to Henry. 'You're not the only one who's been reading up on this voodoo shit,' he grins. 'I agree the manbo woman's appearance is significant, and I've a hunch that she's on our side. Let me talk to her, huh?'
Henry nods. 'And by the way, we should try avoiding the old "writer-researching-a-book" cover story for a while - it's been done to death already!'
'So you pray a lot... for Johnny, I mean?' asks Professor Twitchin of the putative zombie's father, whose name it turns out is Hector. 'Have you a priest in the village? I'm not normally one for religion myself, but I'm willing to join you in church... that is, if you don't think it presumptuous. I have a son and grandson myself, you know...'
Michel shakes his head sorrowfully, saying 'Ah, m'sieu le profess', we pray night and day for this boy, but...'
Mme Michel (her name is Marie-Joseph) bursts into a flood of Creole. Léon, translating frantically, explains that she is going to the church tomorrow afternoon and would be glad of the professor's company. Perhaps his prayers will count for more than hers, as he is of the race that has been favoured by God throughout history, despite its great sins.
Professor Twitchin, clearing his throat embarrassedly, fishes around in his battered brown suitcase and pulls out a bottle of Johnny Walker. 'Drink, Hector?'
Marie-Joseph and the children retire for the night, leaving Michel and Twitchin (plus Léon, who invites himself into the drinking circle) making inroads into the Professor's duty-free allowance.
Rather than going straight to bed, Culver buys a bottle of rum at the hotel bar and then returns to his room to search through his belongings. Checking once more in Voodoo: Truth and Fantasy for what might be suitable gifts for a manbo, he digs out the bottle of champagne he picked up in duty-free, and an almost-full bottle of CKone from his own toilet bag. Slipping across the corridor, he knocks on the door opposite.
A sleepy-eyed Rose-Marie Desruisseaux opens it, clad in a kaftan-type affair that is almost as brightly printed as her ceremonial garb. She looks at Culver in puzzlement.
'Ms Desruisseaux? Bon soir. I apologize for the lateness of the hour, mademoiselle, but I... I saw you in Club Racing, and I seek your advice. I bring, um, offerings.' He brandishes the two bottles hopefully.
The manbo's expression clears at the mention of the Port au Prince club, and she smiles humourlessly. 'Not a night to remember happily, eh?' Her voice is deep and faintly hoarse. She looks the psychiatrist up and down. 'Entrez, entrez - come in. We can talk. I will not promise to help you, but I accept these offerings in the spirit you give them.'
Culver slips in after her, looking curiously about the room. Every surface has been covered with bright throws, and a small shrine has been set up in one corner, with a local-looking picture of the Virgin and Sacred Heart over it. 'I'm Matt Culver - a friend of Laënnec Hurbon. My friends and I saw you that night. The snake dance - for Dambala? - it was broken. Did one of the evil lwa possess you? One of the Gédé, perhaps?'
Desruisseaux looks him up and down once more, offering him a seat. She perches her not inconsiderable frame on the edge of the bed. 'You know a lot, for a white man. Yes, the snake dance was broken. Dambala Wèdo was not pleased. We must do this dance to keep the sea our friend - to keep the sea bringing us riches and food.' She is briefly silent in contemplation. 'Give me your hands.'
Culver complies, and she turns them back and forth in her own, examining the lines and markings. 'I have been ridden by one of the Gédé before - some years ago. At a dansé-lwa ritual. Before I gained my own lwa-mèt-tèt.' She shudders, still holding Culver's hands. 'This was the same. The Gédé spirit defeated my lwa-mèt-tèt and rode me to the ground, and Ezili could not protect me.' She looks up into his eyes. 'I think you know what I mean, white man. You carry the marks of a spirit's passage yourself. You have also come too close to the Gédé and you carry the stain of darkness. Your gros bon ange, your strong soul, is very weak in you.'
Culver blinks, disturbed. 'Do you know Laurent Mars, the psychiatrist? He's dead, his head hacked off with a machete and delivered to his colleague in a box.' He describes the red fillet and black feather.
'I did not know, him, no, but this is an old warning. It means that he was killed by agents of the Gédé, of Baron Samdi. Was this here in Port-de-Paix?'
'Here in this hotel.'
'Ah! I was right, then. I came here because of what happened in the Club Racing. The next morning, when I was recovered, I asked Ezili what to do and she showed me, the spirit was sent from here, from this town. There is a strong evil here, strong enough not to fear the anger of Dambala. This evil killed this man Mars, I am sure.'
'Could the sender be Baron Samdi himself? He had a limp... surely not Papa Legba?' Realizing he is reaching the limits of his rapidly-acquired knowledge of voodoo, and not even sure he is pronouncing the names properly, Culver dries up uncertainly.
'This tall man? Not Legba, no, he would not such a thing. Perhaps le Baron.'
'Might the killing have had something to do with the feast of Ogou Feray? Or with Faustin Wirkus?' Culver explains what little he knows of the Jean-Rabel bocor.
Desruisseaux nods slowly, filing away the news. 'I mean to find out.'
'So, Hector, tell me - what is the reason for this man Wirkus's behaviour?' asks Twitchin, all three men now pleasantly hazy.
'That swine! What a filthy trick, to play on my dear dead son. And I had been his friend before. But it was all over money - as it always is with him. The good God and his lwa should not have given such a man the power they have. It was when my father died. Three years ago.
'Yes?' prompts the Professor, filling up Michel's glass: he is holding it in both hands, staring into the fire.
'Wirkus said he would ask the lwa to be good to my father when he died - my father had not always been a good man and he was afraid of judgement. And Wirkus made him more afraid. So when he died, Wirkus said my father had promised him two of our fields in thanks. But I knew my father would not do this - or not if he had not been forced by this greedy man. So I would not give the land.'
'Did Wirkus have any proof?'
'He had a paper with my father's mark on it - he said. My father could not write. He was a very intelligent man, but he never had learnt. I said the mark was not his. Wirkus moved his people onto the land. I took him to court.'
'I won, but... now this. Wirkus swore he would have vengeance on me and my family, and this is it - poor little Johnny suffers for it.' He begins to cry. 'I would rather have him back and lose all the fields I own!'
Twitchin pats him rather awkwardly on the shoulder.
Before going to sleep, Riggs laid out a circle of salt around his bed, at Culver's suggestion. Now, suddenly, no more than two hours after going to bed, he wakes sharply. There is a noise at the window.
Riggs silently slips out of the far side of the bed, which is dappled by moonlight. In the silvery light the furniture throws odd shadows about the room, and there are strange creaking noises.
Hardly daring to breathe, he pulls out his knife, and presses himself against the corner of the wardrobe, in the shadow.
The shutters creak back, and a human form is briefly silhouetted in the window. Then there is a thump, and a foot lands on the floor inside.
Riggs, striking with reflexes quicker than thought, lunges forward, stabbing upwards with the knife. He meets flesh, but the blade passes through as his adversary twists aside. Dark liquid spatters his hand, and a slice of flesh falls twitching to the floor.
The figure is completely silent, and completely dark - all Riggs can tell is that it is tall, male, and clad in little more than rags. It advances towards him, arms extended, and he slashes again with the knife, cutting off another chunk of meat.
Another heavy blow, and his assailant staggers back towards the window. Riggs, seizing his opportunity, takes two steps and plants a heavy swinging kick into its chest. Its arms flail wildly, and, still in silence, it topples backwards out of the window.
Riggs, breathing hard, peers down after it, but nothing can be seen in the darkness below - the meagre lights of Port-de-Paix have gone out. He examines his knife - the blood on it and on the floor is dark and sticky, and writhes under his gaze.
Then, suddenly, he wakes sharply. He is lying in bed and the sheets are twisted around him. It is no more than two hours after he went to sleep. The circle of salt around his bed is glowing faintly in the silvery moonlight. His hand is on his knife, under his pillow. The room is silent.
The next morning the Port-de-Paix-based operatives gather for a late breakfast. Culver is rubbing his eyes, rather tired despite a lay-in. The heat, smell and noise are not conducive to sleep - nor is what he learnt from Rose-Marie Desruisseaux. 'What say we head in to Jean-Rabel again today?' he suggests.
'I take it I've been delegated to keep an eye on the Yank and the peanut salesman?' says Side-step.
'From Creed's reaction to your mention of the man with the limp, he obviously knows him - is maybe even afraid. And now he thinks you're a friend of his... you could really play that for all it's worth...'
'I've got a little plan for dealing with him,' says Side-step, glancing at Riggs, who is uncharacteristically withdrawn and silent. 'Here's what I have in mind. Assuming I can locate this Creed guy, I'll try and persuade him to come back to the hotel for a friendly drink. Now we all know you Yanks can't take your drink, so I'm going to try and get him as pissed as possible. This is where you come in.'
Riggs nods slowly and warily.
'A little bird tells me you have quite a talent for helping yourself to other people's property without them knowing, so while I'm trying to loosen his tongue with booze, I'll give you the nod, and you can come out of the woodwork and relieve him of his wallet and possibly that notebook of his. Find out if he is who he says he is, and have a flick through his book to see what he's up to. When you've done it, put the stuff back and disappear, Oh, and Riggs, do me a favour and try to restrain yourself from going into one of your "we're all doomed" type rantings.'
'Thinking about the village again, if anyone wants to go grave-robbing,' Henry says, glancing at Matt, 'the best time to do so might be during the ceremony for Ogou Feray - the villagers will hopefully be distracted then. I shall be attending the ceremony, of course,' he adds, giving Riggs a menacing stare. Fortunately the American is not looking at him.
'Are you all right this morning, Benedict?' asks Culver with some concern. Riggs seems almost completely withdrawn. 'Have you been taking that medication I gave you?'
Henry takes the call - it is Professor Twitchin.
'Ah, Henry, good morning - could you please put Culver or Side-step on? Thank you so much.' When Henry has passed the receiver over, Twitchin explains what he has learnt. 'I spoke to one of my former colleagues about the symptoms the Michels described, as well, and he just laughed at me! He said they were an absurd combination. Is that right, Matt?'
'I'm afraid so,' smiles Culver. 'We're probably too late to find out what Johnny died of.'
'Well, call me an alarmist, gentlemen, but for some reason I feel sure we are looking at some forthcoming turmoil. This "fils de Boukman" organization... for some reason I sense some anti-Aristide, counter-revolution, CIA involvement, voodoo hordes marching on Port au Prince, ton-ton macoutes crawling out of the woodwork... Or maybe it's just me... this tropical heat going to my head... do you realize that you can receive The Archers on World Service?'
As Rose-Marie Desruisseaux descends from her room, John Henry is lurking in the hotel lobby. He looks up at her in feigned surprise. 'Wait a moment - don't I know you? Yes, how could I forget! The Club Racing, Port au Prince! You were really quite spectacular, Miss...? Please, you must let me buy you a drink. I won't take no for an answer. And how about dinner? I trust you're feeling better now - you gave us all quite a shock with your fainting fit the other night. Nothing serious, I hope?'
'You are most kind, sir,' smiles Desruisseaux. 'A coffee would be delightful.' She accompanies him into the bar, which the others have now left. 'I am much better now, thank you. My name is Rose-Marie Desruisseaux.'
'John Henry, at your service. Tell me - I really was worried, I hope you won't think I'm prying - what happened that night? It looked rather serious.'
'Serious enough, M'sieu Henry, that is true. But nothing lasting - I hope.'
They chat for a little while longer, but Desruisseaux is giving nothing away.
'Father? I hope this is a good time to telephone.'
'Theo? How are you, my boy? I'm off to church shortly, but I have time to talk.'
'To church? Getting religion in your old age? Anyway, it's this article, it's come out now. Cranks and Crazies.'
'Oh.' Professor Twitchin is silent for a while.
'Father? Are you there?'
'Yes, yes. Do you have it with you?'
'Of course. Would you like me to read it to you?'
'Just... just a summary, please. I imagine it's rather long.'
'No, not really, only half a column. It starts off with some background, your career at the University, and so on. It says your tutors at Cambridge thought you were a highly promising doctoral student. Then it says "But when did the rot set in?" It's... not very enthusiastic about your later work.'
Twitchin sighs. 'What does she say?'
'Err... here's a bit. "I visited Twitchin in his London flat - a scruffy bachelor residence in Kilburn. The unwashed tea-cups, the handkerchiefs hanging over the radiator to dry, the piles of illegible notes on every available surface - all spoke of the mad scientist of legend. I was expecting him to have five pairs of spectacles, like Professor Branestawm." Then here's another. "Twitchin was so absorbed in trying to explain his crazed theories that he put salt instead of sugar in my tea. I drank it anyway - it helped take my mind off the unfortunate fellow's plight." It could have been worse, though,' Theo adds brightly.
'How, exactly?' Professor Twitchin is cradling his head in one arm, and various Michels are looking on with concern.
'She doesn't mention me - they must not have realized you're my father. It could have been very embarrassing for my career if we were associated in the public mind.'
'Yes... yes... that would be terrible.' A thought strikes Twitchin. 'Does it mention your mother, her disappearance?'
'No, not at all.'
The Professor sighs deeply. 'That's a blessing, at least.'
Henry is reading through Mars and Bijoux's notes on Borasme. They are sketchy and clearly only recently assembled. 'Here, Laënnec - there appear to be many cases of homeless people, sick people even, simply disappearing off the street. How can that happen?'
'If the police will not watch over them, who will? And the police work for Borasme.'
'One thing Mars says here, Borasme is immensely wealthy personally. Could he have gained that legally?'
'Hardly. His salary would be generous by Haitian standards but not great. Even from his corruption and tyranny over the prefecture it is difficult to see how he could gain much money - this is a poor province. And he spends a good deal, too, it seems, on the town as well as on himself. It is a puzzle.'
'Yes, because here Mars says that the trade coming into the docks is actually very small - the docks are half unused. It's fallen steadily since Borasme came to power.' He shakes his head in puzzlement.
Side-step checks from his station inside the window of the Galaxie, and is pleased to see Willie Creed already in position outside. There is no sign of the peanut vendor, though.
He walks out onto the street and jogs over towards Creed, who today is wearing a Hawaiian shirt and big sunglasses under a broad-brimmed hat. Side-step waves his arm and shouts 'Hey, Willie, how ya doin'?'
Creed at once jerks into alertness and glances around warily. 'What you want, boy?' Today he has a Southern accent.
'Listen, I wasn't exactly straight with you yesterday about that guy with the limp. I am looking for him, only he doesn't know it yet.'
'Eh? What you mean, white boy?'
'I know you know something about him, from your reaction yesterday. I was wondering if you would join me for a drink so I can explain.'
Creed relaxes slightly. 'You'll tell me all you know about this man, right?' His accent has reverted back to the educated tones Side-step guesses are its natural home. 'I can't drink on duty, though.'
'Oh! - er, when I'm making notes for my book, I mean.'
Side-step leads him back towards the hotel. 'How's the research coming along, then? I must admit, you don't strike me as the kind of guy who'd be writing books on Haitian culture.' The peanut-seller is absent, but there is a street-sweeper, leaning on his broom, who seems rather interested in Creed's movements.
'Why not?' Creed stiffens. 'I minored in literature at college, let me tell you. My professor said I was "highly promising".'
Riggs is sitting in one corner of the bar, looking inconspicuous, and Side-step steers Creed in his direction. 'So - Southern Comfort?'
Suddenly Creed points at Riggs. 'Benny Riggs! My man! What are you doing here?'
Riggs jerks in surprise and looks nervously round himself. 'Wh... what? Who are you? What's going on?'
'Hey, Benny, what way is that to greet your old friend? It's Willie Creed - you remember me - Willie Creed!' Creed seems genuinely pleased to see Riggs. 'Me and this guy used to work together,' he explains to Side-step. 'Say, this calls for a drink. Benny! After all this time! Word in the Service was that you'd cracked up - good to see you looking fine! This a holiday for you? Say, this must take you back - remember that time on Cuba with the exploding seashells?' He chuckles, then glances guiltily at Side-step. 'Oh, gee, guess I shouldn't have mentioned that. Benny, this is Side-step, new acquaintance of mine. He's offered to show me round the town when I get off duty - if I ever do. Er, when I finish making notes on my book, I mean.'
Professor Twitchin takes out one of his old business cards, on which his academic status is still intact. On the back he writes 'Dear Sir, I would be most appreciative of an audience with yourself - this evening at 7.00 pm if that is convenient. Yours, Adam Twitchin.'
'Léon, my dear chap, can you have this note delivered to Monsieur Borasme, please?'
Léon turns pale and his jaw drops. 'Borasme? The Préfet?'
'That's the fellow. And can you make sure it does get delivered?'
Léon, shaking his head worriedly and muttering, gets into the car and drives back towards Port-de-Paix.
'Now,' says Twitchin, turning to Marie-Joseph Michel, 'shall we visit the priest? Er - nous allons visiter le... er... le père?'
'I would like to come with you, anyway,' says Hurbon to Henry. 'Maybe I can explain some of the ceremony to you. If any of the others want to cme along, they can hire a taxi.' Together they get into Bijoux's car - she is not keen to return to Jean-Rabel today, preferring to sleep in her room - and head off down the coastal road. The torn-down 'fils de Boukman' posters have been newly replaced with fresh ones.
'If you keep quiet and stay to the side, you should be all right,' advises Hurbon. 'Of course, you are in no danger anyway, but you may not wish to get in the way of the ceremony. If this man Wirkus has invited you himself he will make sure no-one bothers you.'
When they reach Jean-Rabel preparations for the ceremony are well under way, Wirkus directing two assistants clad in white with red headbands as they mark out a large rectangular yard behind his house with coloured chalk. There is a festive mood in the village.
Culver has been drawn from the hotel by the sounds of shouting. He follows the road for about a hundred yards until it ends in a square: here there are three men tied to posts, their hands above their heads and their backs bared. Each has a burly policeman laying into him with an ugly-looking knout. There is a crowd of a hundred or so people watching in silence. Two of the men have passed out, but the third has sufficient life left in him to raise his head and call out weakly 'À revenir le Bois-Caïman!' He is hit savagely in the face.
On the far edge of the crowd, his arms folded and his face expressionless, Culver sees a tall man, in a black suit with a white shirt, wearing dark glasses. As Culver watches he turns and walks in the direction of the docks, limping slightly on his left leg.'
Henry: your notes for the SITU expose are progressing well.
Riggs: Willie Creed is one of your former colleagues in the US Government's service.