The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Saints and Angels
Riggs stares hazily at Creed. Then he says 'Wi... Willie?' Blinking, he pulls a pill bottle from his pocket and tips five tablets into his hand, swallowing them hard before looking up again. 'Creedo? Creedo!'
'That's right! Benny!' Creed spreads his arms wide, grinning.
'Man, fancy bum... bumping into you h... here! How are y... you? Were you follo... followed?'
'No man! Except these local guys, you know.'
Riggs shakes his head. 'The bastards fo... follow me everywh...' He stops, tips out another five tablets, and swallows them down. There is a pause of several seconds until he says 'Sorry. I've been having my problems, man. I'm here on a kind of holiday to sort things out. I got these pills re... recently. A friend of mine persuaded me to take them. Helps me think. Helps me to keep my mind focused.'
Creed pats him on the shoulder. 'Good on you, man - glad to hear you've got friends taking care of you. Bring back some of that old Benny Riggs magic, eh?'
Riggs orders a drink and, much to Side-step's amazement, does not check it for poison - instead he lifts it in a toast, turning towards the light. 'So what are you doing here, Creedo? I heard you got transferred to the DEA.'
'That's right boy! But I'm on secondment again right now - the Company.' He glances at Side-step.
'It's OK, you can talk in front of him,' says Riggs. 'He's a friend.'
'That's right,' says Side-step. 'What "Service" is this you two worked for, then? CIA? SIS?'
Creed replies easily 'Secret Service, man, "the noblest calling" - you know, In the Line of Fire, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, all that jazz.'
Side-step nods. 'I've done a bit of covert stuff myself in the past, I know the score.' He puts on a convincing Belfast accent. 'And the bastards I was dealing with would kneecap you with a shotgun just as an introduction.'
Creed and Riggs both nod sympathetically. A bond has been struck.
Side-step, in his normal voice, continues 'I've a feeling it would be mutually beneficial if we cooperate, so how about it?'
Creed thinks for a moment, sipping at his rum and coke. 'OK then, man - but keep this under your hat, right? If Benny here says you're a good guy, that's fine by me. Like I said, I'm working for the Company, the CIA, on this particular job. And this is tied in with my bosses at the DEA as well - we have here a severe drugs situation.'
'Smuggling into Florida, you mean?' hazards Side-step.
'Damn right. This little burg is the staging-post in a big drug-running operation. The guys in Colombia ship the shit here. Then there's a local operation purifying, packaging and so on. From here it's getting into the States - and we're talking bad shit here. Not just your usual crack, horse, whatever - we're talking psychoactives. Street kids in Miami are washing up out of their heads on some weird shit - worse than PCP. Think they're gods, think they're angels - you know?' Creed makes a throat-slitting motion. 'May angle here is to find out who's controlling it, and...'
'And enact a completion,' says Riggs, nodding.
'You know the score, Benny-boy, you know the score. The guy with the gimp - his name's Paul Créchon - he's a main man in all this, but he's working for someone bigger. And I haven't found out where they're based just yet, either.' He spreads his hands, studying his fingernails. 'Matter of fact, this here's a toughie, no mistake.'
Dr Culver edges around the silent crowd, keeping an eye on the tall man with the limp. He wishes that Side-step or Benedict were here - shadowing is rather more their forte than his - but the limping man is, he feels, an important piece in the puzzle.
He moves from doorway to doorway, trying (much against habit) to look inconspicuous, and is fortunate that his quarry seems to be paying little heed to his surroundings - he just stomps down the middle of the street, glancing neither to right nor left, his left leg swinging.
The man turns a corner, and ahead of him a young woman snatches her child out of his path with a gasp - her face is full of fear. The tall man just giggles, in a curiously high-pitched voice, reaches in his pocket and flicks a coin edge over edge towards the child. As Culver passes, his face intent, the child is reaching out to try and pick up the coin, but its mother is restraining it with both arms, muttering fiercely.
The smell of the sea is dull, dead and tinged with foulness - as though the docks' disuse and decay has spread to the very water. The street runs between what must once have been thriving warehouses, now all boarded up or with broken windows: a few drunks lie in doorways, gazing incuriously as the ill-matched pair scurry by.
Eventually the tall man reaches a small jetty, at the end of which is moored a modern-looking speedboat. Standing in the boat are two young women dressed all in white, and a small, stocky man in a grey silk suit - he has wavy dark hair and an olive complexion, and wears Seventies-style metal-rimmed teardrop sunglasses.
Culver lurks by a dockyard crane as the tall man gets into the boat, exchanging a few muffled words with the other man. His giggle can clearly be heard. Then he slips the mooring-rope and the boat heads out to sea. Culver watches it for twenty minutes or so, until it rounds the point of La Tortue and disappears behind the island.
He is uncomfortably aware, as he looks around him preparatory to returning to the Galaxie, that several people are watching him, arms folded or otherwise nonchalant.
Marie-Joseph Michel throws herself into prayer with some abandon, weeping and wailing enthusiastically, and Professor Twitchin, uncomfortably on his knees beside her in the small whitewashed brick church, joins in as best as he can. The priest, Father Jacques, a portly, avuncular man, beams down on them both, asperging them regularly with his censer.
Eventually, when Marie-Joseph has subsided into sobs, he says a few words in Creole, and offers her a large white handkerchief to dry her face with. 'Eh, Professor, you see how it is for these good people - what they labour under. Truly we live in a land of sin, claimed by the devil.' He has a tear in his own eye.
'Father, what do you - an educated man, and a Christian - make of this talk of zombies?' Twitchin struggles to his feet and sites relievedly in a pew.
Father Jacques joins him, puffing slightly as he folds at the waist. 'Well, we must have open minds - was not Lazarus raised from the dead?'
'Yes, but surely that was only through the agency of Our Lord?' asks Twitchin.
'God moves in mysterious ways, Professor. Perhaps he is punishing this family for their sins by tormenting them thus. Or perhaps we live in the times of the devil, as the heretical Gnostics believed, and his is the power that we see in the land.'
'Do you truly believe that?' Twitchin inquires worriedly.
'Who am I to say - a foolish priest? All I know is what I see. The servants of the Lord are downtrodden and oppressed, while the servants of Satan are uplifted and exalted all around me.'
'Are the lwa demons, then, and not angels as the voodoo-worshippers say?'
The priest looks uneasy. 'Demons are nothing but fallen angels, Professor, are they not? And Lucifer, their chief, was the brightest and best of the sons of the morning, we are told.'
Twitchin pinches the bridge of his nose impatiently. 'At least tell me this - you must have sat with Johnny's body when he died, and you see him now. Is it the same boy?'
'The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away,' is the only reply Father Jacques will make.
John Henry, Hurbon in his wake, approaches Wirkus, who is standing to one side of the gaily-coloured arena, arms folded, observing his assistants at their labours. 'Ah! M'sieu Henry! And M'sieu le Professeur Hurbon! How honoured we are that you have joined us for this simple ceremony.' He sweeps a mocking bow.
'We wouldn't want to miss it,' replies Henry coolly, holding his gaze. 'Tell me, Mr Wirkus, do you know anything of dreams? A colleague of mine had a curious one last night.' He describes Riggs's experience, much to Hurbon's surprise and fascination.
Wirkus merely shrugs. 'A "colleague" of yours, eh? This sounds like the dream a man would have who has annoyed an oungan - for example, by breaking into his house. Such a man is bad company to keep, M'sieu Henry, I tell you this for free.'
'The strong man acts as he sees fit,' says Henry, not at all embarrassed.
As the day wears on more and more people turn up, until it looks like most of the village are here. Henry and Hurbon attract a few curious glances, but clearly Wirkus has said they are to be left alone, for no-one bothers them. Wirkus himself offers both a drink, which Hurbon downs gratefully: Henry attempts to spit his share back out into a plastic zip-lock bag, but cannot avoid tasting some. It is flavoured heavily of rum and nutmeg.
Riggs gives Creed the number of the Galaxie and says 'I'll be in touch, man - sorry about this, but I've arranged to mee... meet a friend, and I'm already late.'
Side-step too has shopping to do, so Creed is left to down his drink alone and, presumably return to his vigil.
Riggs and Side-step run across Culver just as they leave the hotel. He looks nervous and tired, and relays to them what he has learnt. He then explains his plan for exhuming Johnny Michel's body, and the role each is to play in it.
Riggs is in high spirits. 'The pills, Culver! They work! I can hardly hear their fucking voices any more, man. Apart from some bad dr... dreams, last night was the first night I managed to get through in one piece. Once I've finished this bottle, I'll need some more, Culver. You'll have to get me so... some more.'
Culver is relieved that his treatment appears to be working, but alarmed at the rate at which Riggs is gulping down the pills. 'You know, Benedict, too many of these can be as dangerous as too few. That bottle's supposed to last you five days, but you're half way through already. Don't worry, though, Louise'll probably have some with her too.'
Professor Twitchin watches anxiously from the Michels' front porch, and is greatly relieved to see Léon's car approaching. He presses fifty US dollars into the driver's hand. 'I really do appreciate your help, Léon. If you wish it, I won't take offence if you want to go back to the capital. But if you're glad to stay, I'll be very happy for you to continue - as driver, translator and by now, I hope, friend.'
Léon's eyes moisten at this touching speech and he wrings the Professor's hand, too overcome with emotion to speak. The fifty dollars disappear into an inner recess of his clothing.
'And now,' says Twitchin, 'back to Port-de-Paix, and off to see Monsieur Borasme.'
Henry, who is making detailed mental notes, assesses that there is a hard core of around a dozen villagers who are high in the ranks of the faith, from the way they order others around and report closely to Wirkus. The party atmosphere which has descended is not structureless - every now and then there will be a communal chant, or Wirkus will make a speech, or the musicians will play an insistent, repetitive beat on their drums - but it does not give the impression of sticking to a particular timetable.
The sky is darkening now, and candlelight gleams from the shining faces of the worshippers, all of whom are dressed in bright, clean clothes - all in white, or with red head-dresses, or in coloured kaftan affairs. Hurbon, who has not stinted himself over the food and drink, is swaying along with them, but Henry is managing to preserve a reasonable detachment. He notices, though, that around each point of light he perceives a faint corona of multicoloured sparkles - has he been drugged?
Borasme's residence is more like a mansion than a house - perhaps a former colonial governor's residence, or some such, it is in an informal neo-classical style, set well back from the road and screened by palm trees. A fountain plays prettily in the forecourt, which also holds half a dozen police armed with automatic rifles, and a black Mercedes coupé.
Léon, whose nervousness has been increasing as the car approaches the gates, drops the Professor off just outside, and Twitchin is left to walk in alone. At once he is challenged by one of the guards. He presents his card, and, after a brief moment of conferring, he is shown into the building.
For such a large building, which presumably contains a number of administrative functions as well as the Préfet's residence, it gives the impression of tremendous emptiness. The high-ceilinged corridors and rooms, each lined with tasteful eau-de-nil plaster mouldings, are untenanted and echoing, and so cool as to make the Professor shiver after the heat of outside. He is escorted to a small antechamber - at each turn passing another armed guard - and told to wait.
After only ten minutes or so, which Twitchin passes by wishing he had never been so foolish as to contact the Préfet at all, let alone without notifying his SITU colleagues, a door opens and in walks Achille Borasme.
He is a tall man, but also immensely large - broad-shouldered and fat-bellied. He must weigh at least twenty stone, but carries it easily. He is wearing a conservative dark grey pinstripe suit, which the Professor (who knows little of such things) guesses to be from Savile Row. His hair is short and still black, although from the lines on his face he must be well past fifty. He wears incongruous sideburns, and an inch-long scar shows on the left side of his chin. He exudes an air of power.
'Professor Twitchin?' Borasme's voice is deep and sonorous, like an operatic bass. He crushes Twitchin's knuckly hand in his own huge paw.
'Good evening, sir. I am most grateful for your time... I will try not to waste it.'
'Good.' They both sit, Borasme's chair creaking underneath him.
Twitchin's hands sketch nervously in the air as he continues. 'This is a most unofficial and deniable contact from elements in the Government of the United Kingdom... my son is important in certain military areas in Britain, as I am sure your enquiries can confirm.'
He looks up for a sign, but Borasme's face is expressionless, so he ploughs on.
He explains that the UK is always looking for friendly contacts with 'important and influential local leaders of ambition and discretion' for information and cooperation, which other local parties may find a little 'embarrassing'. The Government understands, through other contacts, that things are shortly likely to become 'interesting' in Haiti, and their interests and Borasme's may have some overlap. 'Those Gringo cousins of ours are too damn powerful!'
Borasme raises his eyebrows slightly at this, but continues to listen.
'If you have some knowledge of these coming events, then maybe we could help each other - the fangs are not pulled entirely on the British lion, you know - we would welcome an opportunity to help... if we can... and if we knew what the outcome is likely to be. You to your ambitions, us with a friend in the region. I think a man of your experience will understand what I am saying.'
'I think I do,' rumbles Borasme. 'But your sources are mistaken, I think. I do not believe any great change is coming to Haiti. We will carry on as we have done. Any tendencies seeking change will be firmly suppressed.'
Twitchin frowns. 'There may be other advantages aside of the 'Great Game', though, to you and I becoming acquainted. A friendly local Préfet and a town not too much of an aeroplane flight from the suppliers and consumers of many, how shall I say, desirable commodities. My enquiries hint that you already have an interest in these affairs...' here Twitchin breaks of as Borasme rises swiftly to his feet in one smooth motion.
'Professor, you are a clever man, or so it appears. But I wonder just how clever. I will tell you what I know - there will be no rebellion against Aristide. Things here in Port-de-Paix will continue as they are. In return you can help me, as you say. Your "cousins" - they have a man here who annoys me. Poking his nose where he should not. If your people want to be my friends, you will dispose of him for me. His name is Willie Creed - if you are as fanged as you say, you will need no more information than that. We can speak again when you have removed him.'
With that he strides from the room, leaving Professor Twitchin to sink back into his chair, his shirt sticking unpleasantly to his back, breathing deeply. The interview is over.
'What muscly thighs you have, Side-step!' exclaims Culver as they squeeze into a taxi, together with Riggs and Louise Bijoux. 'You must lend me your Buns of Steel video some time.' His hand moves towards Side-step's leg but is withdrawn with a shrug.
'Why are you dressed like that?' asks Louise curiously of Side-step, who is in his tropical combats.
'Don't want to stand out too much, do we?' he replies cryptically.
When they arrive at Jean-Rabel the festival of preparation for Ogou Feray is well under way, although the Michel family appear to be boycotting it. Culver and Louise busy themselves checking Johnny, who shows something of an improvement, and taking samples of blood, hair and urine from his parents.
Before long Culver, Riggs and Side-step are at the cemetery, Louise having gone to the ceremony to meet with Hurbon and Henry. Fortunately the Michels were not able to tell them where Professor Twitchin has gone, or they would probably be more worried than they are.
Side-step drops to his belly and starts to worm through the undergrowth, while Culver takes up station by the gateway. 'I'll cough if anyone turns up,' he says. He remembers that some of the Gédé like to manifest around cemetery entrances, and hopes that his bottle of rum will serve if any of them do appear.
'We'll give it five minutes,' Side-step whispers to Riggs, 'and if there's no sign of activity we'll go do it.'
The cemetery seems deserted, so they cautiously approach the Michel site, Riggs more focused and alert than Side-step has ever seen him. He holds a torch while Side-step spreads out a large polythene sheet, then starts to loosed the turf with the shovel he bought earlier.
A ring of dancers has formed around the poteau-mitan, the tall red wooden post in the centre of the courtyard, and they are being led by a woman with a powerful voice, singing to the beat of the drums, which ha intensified still further. Wirkus stands beside the poteau-mitan, and starts what sounds like a prayer.
'Now he calls to Papa Legba, opener of the gate - this is so that the lwa can come down to this place,' whispers Hurbon, his own eyes bright.
Six men, each bearing a huge standard with a complex design picked out on it in red cloth, parade around the yard, and Wirkus starts another series of prayers, praising the lwa for their goodness. Most of the people are dancing, now - only the very young are sitting aside and watching.
A young man brings forward a red cockerel to Wirkus, who waves it around his head in a series of formal gestures before placing it before some grains. It pecks nervously at them, and a great cheer goes up. Two women wash it with a yellowish liquid, then all falls silent - and a great shout goes up as the man strikes the cockerel's head from its body. He drinks a couple of drops of blood, then swings the carcass over his shoulder. All the worshippers surge forward to touch it, and smear themselves with a dab of blood.
'A good sacrifice,' whispers Hurbon. 'The lwa are happy with this village.' Henry looks at him slightly alarmed - he sounds much more like a believer now than he has done previously.
Wirkus sketches on the ground, and his assistants lay out various kinds of food. The dancing lessens in intensity, and there is an air of expectation. Suddenly the young man who made the sacrifice stiffens, his body stretching upwards and his limbs locking. He starts to march about the yard, to the accompaniment of great acclamation, and barking orders. 'See! Ogou Feray has come down into him. This is very good,' explains Hurbon.
Another man drops to the floor, and start making the sinuous movements of a snake. 'Dambala. But he looks angry.'
Side-step and Riggs have been digging only for around fifteen minutes when Riggs's shovel strikes wood and goes through. The smell is deeply unpleasant. Side-step hisses to Culver, who somewhat reluctantly comes over to peer in.
Riggs clears away the rotted coffin lid to reveal what was once a human body. In the heat and moistness of the Haitian soil it has rotted thoroughly. 'Well,' says Culver between his teeth, 'according to the gravestone, this is Johnny Michel - and it's about the right size and time of burial. That's about all I can say.'
'Then who's the guy at the house?' asks Side-step, leaning on his shovel.
Suddenly there is a rattling, like a snake, behind a nearby grave. All three men jump. In the shaky beam of the torch, rising from behind the gravestone can be seen a tall, battered black hat.
'Holy shit!' yelps Riggs involuntarily.
'Stay calm,' says Culver, who has preserved a remarkable sang-froid. Even he is perturbed, though, when beneath the hat is revealed a grinning skull. He steps forward slightly, holding his bottle of rum. 'Er... Monsieur le Baron... lwa Gédé... voici un cadeau.'
The rattling continues, and the skull continues to regard the three over its gravestone as Culver lays down the bottle and retreats. 'Fill in the grave, quickly. We're on its territory now.'
The others need no encouragement, heaping the earth back and laying the turf on top. It looks far from perfect, but it will suffice for casual inspection, and the grass will probably knit back quickly.
'Look,' whispers Side-step, 'I'm not being funny, but - what if that thing's just some guy hiding with a skull on a stick trying to put the willies up us?'
Riggs gulps another handful of tablets down. 'I... I don't think so, man.' He points a shaking finger. The skull, hat still atop it, is floating through the air towards the bottle of rum. It stops above it, and chatters its teeth warningly at the investigators.
'Let's get out of here,' suggests Culver.
By the height of the ceremony about twelve worshippers have been possessed by lwa, and Henry has to admit to himself that if it was all acting it was extremely convincing. On the other hand, he saw nothing that could not be ascribed to non-magical means. He is sure that some sort of drug was in the drink.
He, Hurbon and Bijoux return to Port-de-Paix, a quiet journey. Culver, Side-step and Riggs have already made their way back, and Professor Twitchin is sound asleep in his bed.
Culver, who drew a circle of salt around his bed and encouraged the others to do likewise before going to sleep, reads the debriefs he has been sent by SITU. He blinks rapidly, and those who are used to his usual slightly manic, active air would be surprised to see him looking rather weak and vulnerable. He picks up the phone and places an international call. Connection takes some time, and there are a number of buzzes and cracks on the line, as well as a slight echo. 'This is Matt Culver. I'm requesting to be placed on SITU's next mission involving vampires.'
A neutral voice somewhere in London says 'Request noted, Operative Culver.'
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 skeletal form, surmounted by a top hat and wearing a long frock-coat, is briefly silhouetted in the window. Then there is a rattle, and a foot lands on the floor inside.
Riggs, striking with reflexes quicker than thought, lunges forward, stabbing upwards with the knife. He meets hard bone, and the knife glances harmlessly off as his adversary twists aside.
The figure is completely silent, and completely dark. It advances towards him, arms extended, and he slashes again with the knife, getting only another glancing blow.
It lashes out with a heavy cane, striking him in the breastbone, driving the wind out of him, and he drops backwards to the bed. Its bony hands reach out greedily for his throat, and he screams, screams, screams...
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 night passes uneventfully, and Henry rises first. Without disturbing the others, he leaves the liquid for Culver at reception, and slips out towards the docks. The air is still cool, and there are few people about.
The overall impression is one of dereliction and disuse, and Henry has to poke around for some time before he can find anyone willing to talk to him (in English, at least). Eventually, though, a one-armed drunk agrees to allow him to stand him some rum. 'I use' to work on ze docks, m'sieu - until I lost zis. I tell you what you need to know.'
'I'm researching a story,' says Henry, who at least can use this line honestly. 'I want to know about the people who go missing - what happens to them.'
The man pales. 'Oh, m'sieu - do not ask such questions. Zey are in a better place now.'
'Dead, you mean?'
'Let us 'ope so.' He crosses himself fervently, and adds something in Creole.
'What was that?'
'Nothing - just a little prayer to the Gédé, that I may never suffer such a fate.'
Henry sighs. 'Listen, man, stop hinting - tell me what I want to know, will you? I'll give you money.'
'Just a minute - I will return.' The man staggers off to the toilets, which are through a door behind the bar.
After a couple of minutes Henry starts to be suspicious that his informant has fled, and goes to the toilet himself to investigate. The back door of the toilet, which leads into an alley beside the building, is shut, but one of the cubicles is shut, so he knocks on its door impatiently. There is no response, so he tries it.
There is resistance at first, then a sliding slump and the door half opens. It is obstructed by the dead body of the man to whom he was just speaking. His throat has been slit from ear to ear.
As Henry gapes in shock, the outside door flies open. Standing in it is a tall man in a black suit, his left leg hanging stiffly, wearing dark glasses. He giggles, his voice disconcertingly high-pitched, and reaches out towards the journalist. His right hand holds a bloody knife.
Culver: you suggest Riggs speak with Desruisseaux.
Riggs: Culver is concerned at your mention of your dream. He says 'Look, Benedict, if Faustus Wirkin has really placed a curse on you, the manbo woman might be able to help. Buy her a present - perfume, cakes, sweets, that sort of girlie shit - and go ask her, hmm? Tell her I suggested you speak to her.'