The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Saints and Angels
Side-step, Riggs and Culver meet over breakfast. Riggs looks uncomfortable, his face occasionally spasming, and he is rather drowsy and uncommunicative. Culver watches him concernedly as Side-step speaks. 'I'm telling you, that floating skull act was bullshit. It was some dickhead with a stick and a piece of string.'
Culver smiles, as if he recognizes what makes Side-step take up this attitude, but has long left it behind himself. 'A skull on a string? Buggered if I know what it was, but I didn't see any strings...'
Side-step looks at him incredulously. 'Please tell me you don't actually swallow that shit. There's about as much chance of that being real as there is of you fulfilling your fantasies of finding your way into my underwear.'
Culver merely whistles gently, and turns to Riggs, whose jaw has become rather slack. 'Your dream, Benedict - nasty stuff. Two nights now.'
'It was... real, man. Realer than th... the other one.' Riggs makes an uncontrolled chopping gesture with his hand.
'I'm certain it's not a chlorpromazine side-effect - though Christ knows you're throwing back enough of the stuff.' Culver throws Riggs a considered glance. 'I reckon we should fight fire with fire - and I want to speak to Rose-Marie anyway. Give me an hour or so to grab an offering, and I'll go talk to her about "lifting the curse", yeah?'
Riggs trembles violently, clamping his arms about his body to stop himself.
'Riggs,' says Side-step, 'can you contact Creed and ask him to meet us here later? I have an idea for a little sight-seeing trip I think he will find useful.' He looks around, an air of slight concern coming over his features. 'Has anyone seen Henry recently?'
John Henry, his head clear, stares firmly back at his knife-wielding assailant. As the man tosses his knife from one hand to the other, Henry reaches down into his pocket and presses a button on his trusty Psion organizer. At once the hallucinatory quiet of the lavatory is broken by the sound of a voice, that of the dead man sprawled at Henry's feet. He is muttering in Creole, a short prayer to the Gédé.
The knifeman's stares at the dead man, his jaw dropping open. Henry, acting swiftly, lashes out with his foot and knocks the knifeman's left leg - it rings with a metallic tone as he strikes it - out from underneath him. The knife spills to the ground, and the man snarls as he sprawls, clutching for Henry's foot, but the journalist is scurrying backwards out of the toilet.
He bursts back into the bar and cries loudly 'Dans le... WC! Il y a un homme mort!'
All is confusion as the remainder of the early-morning clientele grapple with this concept. 'Les flics,' the barman says to one lounger, who runs out into the street.
Henry orders another drink, three fingers of rum, and downs it.
Professor Twitchin descends to the breakfast room, rubbing his eyes, and confesses his rather rash visit to Borasme.
'God, you're a wily old bastard!' cries Culver, eyeing him with new respect.
The Professor hem-hems into his beard, taking a big gulp of coffee. 'I'm afraid I'm not really cut out for all this cloak and dagger stuff... and I used Theo's name... what if Borasme is in fact a good guy?'
'I don't think so,' says Culver. 'And, anyway, you should've let us know where you were going - s'pose you'd disappeared?'
'Oh dear... I seem to be spending too much time with the likes of you two.' Twitchin indicates the rather hurt Side-step and the dozing Riggs. 'Matt, do you have anything for an old gent's nerves?'
Culver sighs, reaching into his pocket for a Diazepam. 'D'you reckon anywhere in Port-de-Paix sells mobile phones? That'd help us keep up to speed with each other.'
'We can try, but it's probably not gonna be much good,' says Side-step. 'You can't just use those things out of the box, you know - you have to register with the service, wait to be assigned a number and all that business. It'd take a few days at least.'
As the operatives move on to discussing Creed, Twitchin nods. 'It seems that we must accept that Willy Creed is a good guy... can you confirm that, Riggs?'
Side-step elbows the American. 'Eh? Wh... what? Huh?' He glances around him warily.
Twitchin sighs. 'Those drugs haven't got him so befuddled that he doesn't know the difference, have they, Matt?'
'No, no,' says Culver. He steeples his fingers together. 'Here's my theory. Either the body in the grave's a plant, or it really is Johnny and the guy at the Michels' place is some catatonic schizophrenic they've "adopted" as their dead son.'
The Professor nods again. 'I have seen no firm evidence that he is in fact raised from the dead, only apparent wishful thinking and evasion on the issue. The body reinforces this belief.'
'In any case, I reckon Johnny's incidental to the main stuff going on,' continues Culver. 'To return to our original mission briefing, I'd guess priorities A and B are linked: I don't think voodoo zombieism in itself is part of the conspiracy, but Borasme is; likewise, zombieism is a medical phenomenon, but one which he's trying to turn to his advantage. My guess is they're working on some psychoactive which can induce zombieism - or produce compliant, suggestible slaves - and Borasme's gonna use the end result to stamp out any suggestion of revolution.'
'How does that tie in with what Creed told us about the drugs going to the States, making kids think they're angels?' asks Side-step.
'God only knows,' admits Culver frankly. 'Maybe this whole thing goes beyond Haiti...'
The policemen who arrive to drag away the body of the murdered seaman cast Henry only a cursory glance. He presumes that the knifeman made his getaway via the back door before anyone else appeared on the scene. Finishing his drink, he rises, and heads back out into the sunlight - the day is warming up nicely now.
Two minutes' walk from the bar he spies a small shelter, of corrugated iron placed at an angle against the wall, with filthy blanket tucked into it. A small, dark child's face peers out from the opening.
Henry pauses, catching the child's eye. At once it retreats backwards into the tiny shelter. He walks quietly across towards it and crouches down, hands spread empty and harmless. 'Do you speak English? Parlez-vous Anglais?'
There is silence, the child watching him warily and mutely.
Henry pulls out a small wad of dollars and fans them. 'I want some help - and some information.'
The child - it becomes apparent it is a boy, probably about ten - starts to emerge, eyeing the money.
Henry reaches into his other pocket and pulls out the Psion, expertly snapping it open with one hand. 'Look at this! You'd like one, wouldn't you? I could get you one, if you help me.' He makes it play a brief tune.
The boy puts out his hand, and henry places a dollar bill into it. 'So, we understand each other! What's your name?'
'I... called Mahmoud.'
Willie Creed has arrived, and Side-step and an increasingly somnolent Riggs are sitting at the bar with him. Side-step noted with some concern that the street-sweeper is watching the place again: Creed does not seem to have picked him out as an observer, judging by his lack of care. Today he is wearing a smart button-down shirt and tie, with navy peg-top slacks and deck shoes.
'From what Culver has told us, I'd say this little drug operation you're interested in is located on the island of La Tortue,' says Side-step.
'Who's Culver? An informant?' Creed starts making excited notes.
Side-step sighs. 'No, he's a colleague of Riggs's and mine. Didn't you tell him all this, Riggs?'
'Eh? Wh... oh. Yeah. Hi, Willie.' Riggs gulps another handful of pills and slumps back onto his elbow.
'You OK there, Benny boy?' asks Creed. He glances at Side-step for explanation.
'It's the pills, Culver reckons,' confides that worthy. 'But trust me, he's better like this than he was before he was taking them. Real fruit loop country.' He makes a spiral by his temple. 'Has he always been like this, when you two were working together?'
'No,' says Creed, 'I remember, back when we were together, he was one of the sharpest knives in the box, you know? But there was a mission which went wrong... a bunch of wackos were plotting to kill one of the candidates - it was election year, this was after I left and went to work at the DEA - and Benny and his team went in. It was all hushed up, and none of the rest of us ever heard what happened. But Benny was the only survivor.' He shakes his head sympathetically. 'Man, this guy really gave it all for his country, you know? This is the kind of guy they should be giving the medals to, but instead -' he shakes his head again. 'So, how'd you guys fix up together?'
'Through mutual friends,' says Side-step enigmatically. 'Me, him, the other three - we're here on our own mission. But it looks like you and us are on the same side against these drug baron guys, so we'll give you all the help we can. If our intention is to clip their wings, we'd better find out what we are up against. I reckon a little clandestine intelligence gathering is in order.'
'Scout out the island, you mean? Good idea, man. Let's get moving.' Creed at once leaps to his feet.
'Hold on, hold on!' says Side-step. 'We're going to have to do this after dark.'
'Oh - yeah. Sorry.' Creed sits down again, abashed.
'As I'm sure you know, where there are drugs there are usually also guns, so we can't afford to take any chances. I'll give you the outline of my plan, but jump right in if you think of anything.'
Creed nods eagerly.
Side-step taps with his finger on the table. 'I suggest we find a boat for hire with a skipper who, for the right price, will ask no questions, he'll need to have an inflatable with an outboard too. We should approach to within say a mile of the shore, and row the rest of the way in the dinghy.'
'Sounds fine so far,' says Creed.
'Once there, you and I will set off to do the recce while Riggs keeps guard by the dinghy, ready to fire up the outboard if we return in a hurry with shit and corruption following. This is what we need to find out. A - if the drug operation is indeed located there. B - which are the main buildings. C - what sort of defences, guards, weapons, etcetera, are involved. Oh, and as a bonus, if we can obtain a sample of the drugs, that will be useful in determining if that is what was used on the Michel boy. If we pull this off we can slip out quietly and decide on a plan o action at a later date.'
'Excellent, man! You should be with the Service - that's just like one of their plans.' Creed's admiration sounds genuine, and Side-step cannot help a nagging feeling that his cheery interlocutor may well be one of the slightly blunter knives in the box.
'Right then, I suggest we all get our sneaky beaky gear sorted out, and meanwhile I'll go and find us a boat.
Culver and Twitchin are still lingering over the coffee. 'We need to find out who this fellow with the limp is, Matt. How can we connect him to Borasme?'
The Professor continues, 'Borasme puzzles me. For some form of voodoo bocor to use such prosaic methods as a henchman with a knife lends some doubt as to whether voodooism actually exists other than as mass suggestive hysteria, à la most other religions.' He looks up. 'In fact, your experience in the graveyard could be ascribed to collective hallucination as well.'
'Going back to Borasme, he and Creed are certainly on opposite sides. Perhaps I should confide in Creed - surely a CIA operative with special forces experience should be able to fake a convincing death - maybe a blown-up body with false Creed ID planted. That would allow me to resume contact with Borasme on the basis of the apparent "good will gesture" on my part in eliminating him. That way at least one of us may be in a position to seek additional information.'
'Sounds risky,' says Culver, 'if there's still a live Creed running around as well - you could really be exposing yourself to Borasme.' He rises. 'I've got some shopping to do - see you later.'
Mahmoud has insisted that Henry bring him back to the relatively civilized part of town before they speak. Henry, despite his air of sang-froid, keeps glancing about him nervously - he fancies he hears the knifeman's curious tittering laugh from time to time. Eventually they sit outside a café (the proprietor will not allow Mahmoud within).
'Tell me about these people who are going missing from the docks, Mahmoud - who is killing them?'
'Bad men, M'sieu - ver' bad men.'
'Which bad men? Why are they doing it?'
Mahmoud looks about him fearfully and leans closer. 'They say... bad men making zombies. Zombie army. Men disappear, get made to zombies.'
'Who is behind all this?'
'The most bad man of all - he is tall, he wear black suit, white shirt, he walk with bad leg, scar here - his name is Paul Créchon - ver' bad man indeed. He is the boss.'
Henry notes all this dutifully into his Psion, and snaps it shut. 'Thank you, Mahmoud - you've been very helpful. I'll have some more questions for you later. Stay near the Hotel Galaxie - I'll find you.'
Mahmoud makes the small stack of dollars disappear with consummate ease.
'That looks fine, Léon,' says Twitchin as he inspects the 1960 Ford sedan that his trusty driver has purchased for him. 'I'll leave it around the corner here, out of sight... never know when it might come in handy! Meanwhile, you and I are going back to Jean-Rabel, to investigate the graveyard.'
Léon pales with fear.
Culver, during his shopping trip, has found the town in a state of excitement, with a party atmosphere starting to build. The next couple of days will bring major festivities in honour of Ogou Feray and St James. He sees a number of fils de Boukman posters up, which have not been so apparent within the town itself previously: police are tearing them down in some places.
He makes his purchases and returns to seek out Rose-Marie Desruisseaux, who he finds in her room once more, wearing a bright red kaftan and headdress. It appears he has interrupted her at her devotions - a thick, pungent incense is burning, and the icon of Ezili is standing on the floor with a strewing of rose petals before it. 'Ms Desruisseaux?' he smiles, with a mixture of warmth and polite deference. 'Is this a bad time?'
She sighs, and beckons him in. 'This is a very bad time for all of us, I fear, Doctor Culver. Ezili tells me her power is very weak here now. But I will speak with you now.'
'I have information, an offering, and a favour to ask.' Culver enters the room, wrinkling his nose. 'You talked of an evil in this town, something which did not fear Dambala's anger: could this be connected with the phenomenon of zombies? Could a bocor - Wirkus, for example, or even Borasme - make a pact with le Baron or... or trick the Gédé in some way... perhaps with a drug? Does the name Paul Créchon mean anything to you?' He studies her face intently.
'The power of the Gédé and le Baron here are very strong - too strong. But it is just here, in Port-de-Paix. I do not think that this Wirkus of whom you speak can be involved at the heart of it. Perhaps Borasme - I have not yet encountered him. But the evil sorcery is spread throughout the town, black threads of it running down each street and through each house.' She shudders. 'Dambala is punishing this town - you can see how poor the docks are, how little the sea is giving them. Why, I do not know - it would not just be for their devotion to the Gédé. They must be misusing the sea for evil purposes. As for drugs -' she shrugs '- I do not know about them. Substances are used when making zombies - would you say they are drugs? I do not know the name of Créchon, I am sorry.'
'I have a theory,' says Culver. He explains to her his idea that psychoactive drugs may be being manufactured on La Tortue.
Desruisseaux pales. 'If Borasme is using these new drugs, sending them overseas to make zombie servants - that would be purest evil. To enslave such a number of people - no! It cannot be! Les bons lwa - they would not allow it!' She gnaws on a fingernail. 'We must find if this is true, and we must stop it - any way we can. But he is very strong...'
'And here in Port-de-Paix,' Culver adds gravely, 'he is also creating large numbers of zombies, I believe - perhaps for use against les fils de Boukman. What do you think?'
'Ah, maybe. Certainly they are a threat to him. He would wish to destroy them - if they grow in power they will be strong enough to overthrow him, surely. If their Bois-Caïman comes again - and this the feast of Ogou Feray, protector of the people against oppressors...' She looks up at Culver. 'We must learn more of these fils de Boukman. It may be that they are our only hope against this evil man and his plans.'
Culver nods sombrely. Then, reaching into his pocket, he hands her the basket of cosmetics he bought at the town's nicest chemist, and describes the unfortunate situation in which Riggs has found himself. 'He has placed salt around his bed, but the dreams are getting worse. Perhaps you can advise him on how the curse might be lifted?'
'Certainly. It will only work if he has learnt the lessons of his folly, though. Bring him here as soon as is convenient.'
Léon lurks outside in the car as Twitchin prowls around the graveyard of Jean-Rabel. There is little to see, though: the signs of his colleagues' hasty departure are still apparent, but there is no sign of footprints or of disturbed earth around the grave from which the skull came. Nor is there any sign of skull, hat, or rum.
Twitchin straightens back up, brushing his knees, and sees that Faustin Wirkus is standing by the cemetery gate, his arms folded. 'M'sieu le Professeur! How good to meet you at last.'
'Mr Wirkus? How do you do?' says Twitchin, a little taken aback. The houngan's manner is cheerful and friendly, though - if somewhat smug.
'Come - will you not join me at my house? I would dearly love to learn more of you, and of your friends - it may be that we have things in common. Will you take coffee with me now - or whisky? I know you English professors like your whisky. Tonight we have a big festival here - for Ogou Feray, your Saint James - will you join us? The whole village will be there. My house is yours, as an honoured guest.'
Side-step concludes his negotiations over the boat and settles down with Riggs to wait for Creed. The docks are quiet and faintly threatening, but he is not greatly bothered by such atmosphere, nor by the gangs of loafers who stare hostilely at him. He lights a succession of cigarettes.
Riggs taps him on the arm. 'See that?' There is a huge black raven hopping busily about the jetty, pausing occasionally to peck at the planking. 'Those th... th... things give me the creeps. They used to w... watch me - maybe they still are...' He shudders violently, gulping another handful of pills, his eyelids twitching.
The bird spots something, caws eagerly and, opening its wings, drifts down toward the piling underneath the jetty. There is the faint sound of tearing and slurping.
Side-step, an uneasy feeling in his stomach, tells the boat captain to wait for a minute and walks cautiously over to peer over the side of the jetty.
Below him, floating in the scummy water, fastened to two piles with rope, is the body of Willie Creed. Its head lolls back at an unnatural angle, sightless eyes staring. The torso has been ripped open as though by giant claws, and much of the body cavity is exposed. The raven is perching on the pelvis, delving into the internal organs.
Side-step reflexively retches, spilling his guts over the edge of the jetty. He waves blindly behind him at Riggs. 'Stay back! You don't want to see, trust me!'