The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Saints and Angels
Side-step lights a cigarette, places it in his mouth with a hand that has now stopped shaking, and says coolly to the skipper 'The trip's off for now, but keep the money as a retainer - I may need you later.'
Riggs has advanced to the end of the dock, curious, and Side-step takes him by the arm to lead him away, saying 'Not now, Riggs...'
But at his touch the American tenses, brushing him aside - Side-step is once more reminded how much stronger Riggs is than he looks - and he lunges to the edge of the jetty. He lets out a terrible shriek, flinging his arms wide, and the bottle of pills Culver gave him fly off into the water. Side-step leaps to grab him, but Riggs dives into the filthy dock, treading water, cradling Creed's body in his arms and weeping piteously.
Side-step looks around for help, but sees that all the dockside loafers are merely watching impassively. Swearing, he grabs up a boathook and hauls Riggs and the body to the steps.
Riggs tries futilely to revive Creed, breathing into his mouth and pounding what remains of his chest. Eventually he gives up, whimpering 'No! No! Why di... did th... they do... this?!... you couldn't hu... hurt them!... you weren't there wh... when they... ravens?!' He straightens up, casting suspicious glances about him. 'Watching!... watching us with their little black eyes!!!'
Riggs breaks away from Side-step again and charges back down the jetty towards town. On the way he grabs a random loafer by the shoulders, and screams into his impassive face 'Don't you fucking see? We're all dead now! We're all fucking dead now that the ravens are flying! Their little black eyes are everywhere!!'
Side-step, glancing about once more to see that all the onlookers are merely watching him, jogs after Riggs.
'But my dear Faustin,' smiles Professor Twitchin, 'I would be delighted... it's too early for me to move onto the whisky, unfortunately... oh, alright then, just a small one.'
Wirkus grins broadly and offers Twitchin his arm for the brief walk back to his house, which is still being decorated for the grand festivity tonight. He leads his guest in to the inner sanctum room into which Riggs broke: it looks less eerie during the day, but the photographs of supposed victims wrapped in raffia and cock feathers lend a chill nonetheless.
The oungan produces a bottle of Bells, at the sight of which Professor Twitchin conceals his wince: any port in a storm, and decent whisky must be rather expensive here. He has to suppress a twitch of unease, as well, accepting the drink: 'Faustin' is too close to 'Faust' for comfort.
'I hear the local "flics" are coming down heavily on les fils de Boukman,' says Twitchin conversationally.
Wirkus nods, his mouth pursed. 'This is very difficult, especially at this time of the feast of Ogou Feray.'
'I will be safe, will I? I mean, the cops aren't going to bust up the festival? Although that may be rather exciting...'
'I think that here in Jean-Rabel we will be safe. In the city things may be more difficult.' Wirkus sighs. 'But you, m'sieu le Profess', you can have little to fear, eh? You and le Préfet Borasme are close, are you not?'
'How did you know that?' blurts Twitchin.
Wirkus smiles. 'A little bird told me.' He taps his nose slyly. 'And this bird says also that you are not just a professor, no? That you are high in the councils of the British Government?'
'Maybe,' says Twitchin uneasily. 'It seems to be a remarkably well-informed avian.'
'And that you are looking for friends in this part of Haiti?' Wirkus grins even more widely, exposing his diseased teeth, some of which appear to be filed to points.
'Yes,' says Twitchin, accepting that Wirkus probably knows of his meeting with Borasme. 'I spoke to the Préfet. Strange how he is still in charge post-Duvalier - things in Haiti may not have changed so much?'
Wirkus looks conspiratorially from side to side. 'Maybe they will soon, eh? Maybe a new man will be rising to power here. Maybe a man who can be a good friend to the British - a man who can tell them what they need to know? They might help such a man - might put words in with le Président Aristide for him? Maybe at Borasme's fall they would remember this man had helped them?'
Twitchin sits up. 'Are you saying Borasme is due to fall? How? Is it the fils de Boukman?'
Wirkus merely smiles again. 'I know a great deal, my friend. There is more than one lwa, and only a fool neglects all but one. Perhaps I will tell you more this evening - after you have spoken to your son in London? Or with le Président in Port-au-Prince?'
By the time Riggs calms down enough to return with Side-step to the Galaxie, Henry is sitting in the bar with another large rum.
Side-step flops down into one of the sprung armchairs. 'I tell ya, there are more stiffs turning up on this island than fucking Bosnia. I just found Creed, or rather what's left of him, gutted like a fish and tied under the jetty. He obviously sang like a dickey-bird about the plan because it was no accident that the body was dumped there. Can't blame him for talking, though, you should have seen what those animals did to him. Anyway, I abandoned the trip, they would have been expecting us.'
'Maybe the boat-owner turned him in,' says Henry. 'I might be able to find you a more reliable one.'
Professor Twitchin appears, in high spirits, and relates what he has found. Culver descends to join the group: he has sedated Riggs.
'We should carry out a thorough search of that graveyard - find the string, look for footprints,' says Henry.
'Oh, I've already done that...' says the Professor. 'I wasn't able to find any evidence, though.'
'They must have removed it,' replies the journalist.
'Maybe,' says Culver.
'Wirkus said we should appear any time after about seven,' says Twitchin. 'And there's no need to bring a bottle or any kind of gift, although a financial contribution might be appreciated... I would imagine.' He looks around. 'This affair with the unfortunate Creed... we only have his word that he and Riggs were in whatever agency it was together, and Riggs is generally too zonked to give us any more detail... could it be that Creed was a former colleague of Benny's but in a mental hospital or suchlike, rather than the army... after all, he did seem rather impetuous... maybe he was only acting out his undercover investigator fantasies...' Twitchin dries up as he realizes that Culver is directing a level look at him, one which somehow carries overtones of 'pot' and 'kettle'.
Side-step shifts impatiently. 'Well, I know you don't approve of my more direct methods, but I'm now a tad pissed off with these bastards, so it's time to fight fire with fire.'
'What do you mean?' asks Twitchin suspiciously, while Culver says 'Now don't go and do anything stupid...'
Side-step holds up his hands in defence. 'I know what you're going to say, but if we carry on the way we are there won't be any of us left to report back to SITU. Culver, if you'll just trust me on this one I could do with your help for a couple of minutes.'
'What have you got in mind?' asks the psychiatrist warily.
'I'll bet my ass that our street-sweeper friend is hanging around outside. What I need you to do is go outside looking a bit sheepish and walk down the street. Hopefully you'll pick up a tail, and I'll follow a little ways behind. Find a quiet alley somewhere and lead him down there. Now don't panic, I'll be right behind you, ready to... er... detain him.'
'Good idea,' says Henry, nodding.
At the sound of support from this slightly unexpected quarter Culver doubtfully agrees to comply with the scheme. 'But you watch out too, eh? There might be two of them watching.'
Benedict Riggs dreams. He is running through a dark field, a field of black grass, the leaves burnt and withered by foul fire. Above his head is the wakka-wakka-wakka of helicopter blades, buzzing him from right to left. He knows he dare not turn his head, for behind him flies a raven which will peck his eyes out. 'Why d'you let me die, Benny-boy?' asks Willie Creed from his ruined mouth, offering Riggs his spilling guts with both hands. 'W... we had our ord... orders,' says Riggs through gritted teeth. 'Cas... cas... casualties were acceptable! Casualties were acceptable!' Ahead of him the grass grows darker yet under a black sky, and its edge is patrolled by eerie robotic figures twisted together out of wire and feathers. There is a sharp smell of cordite and thre ground drops away from below Riggs's feet. He looks down at his hands as he falls, silently and slowly, and sees to his horror that their backs are sprouting black pinions, that down and dark feathers are growing from his chest...
Riggs jerks back to consciousness to find the manbo Rose-Marie Desruisseaux in his room, sitting on the edge of his bed, stroking his brow. There is a scent of roses and jasmine in the air. He tenses, starting to rise, but she gently presses him back down, her arms surprisingly strong. 'You rest now, boy. You done too much running... need rest now.'
As she smooths away the lines from Riggs's forehead, disconnected phrases bubble from his mouth. '... didn't deserve to... beaks as sharp as needles... sandwiches and smiles... fairground rides... two dollar candy bars covered in blood... wings flapping against the window... strangers in a crowd... scratching against the wood... open the door and let them all in... help ma... for God's sake, help me... please...'
'Ssh, you shush now. I'm helping you all I can.' She starts to chant in Creole, a low, rolling, sonorous chant that seems to Riggs to start around his toes and slowly well up through his body.
Side-step picks up his pace as he enters the alley, running up behind the street-sweeper, who has the nervous Culver firmly in his sights. He grabs the startled man round the neck with his left arm and pulls him backwards onto the ground, bringing his knife up to the exposed throat with his right hand. As Culver watches in fascinated distaste, he turns the man over onto his front and, kneeling on his back, twists his right arm up sharply behind him. He leans forward and says in his ear, almost hissing 'Okay pissant, listen and listen good cos I'm only gonna tell you this once.'
'Ah shall say zis only once,' Culver mutters to himself in a French accent, trying to defuse some of the tension he feels. He hugs himself tightly with both arms.
Fortunately Side-step did not hear him. 'From this position I have three choices. I can dislocate your shoulder, snap your wrist, or with the aid of a well-placed knee I can break your arm at the elbow. All you have to do to avoid any or all of the above is to answer a few questions.' From this position of proximity he is aware how cold and grey the man's skin is, and what an odd smell there is about him - a mixture of spice and meat.
The sweeper rolls his eyes, too frightened to speak.
'Oh, and don't try to lie, because my friend here is a shrink and he'll know if you're telling me porkies. Now do we understand each other? I do hope so, because I've had a really shitty day.'
The man makes a small motion of his head as it presses in the dirt, which might be interpreted as a nod.
'Here's an easy one to start with, then. You're working for Paul Créchon, aren't you?'
'That's better. Next, where can I find him? Where does he hang out?'
'At... the Préfecture,' whispers the man.
'Right! Now for the bonus question... what is his little game? Just what kind of shit is he planning?'
Another whisper. 'I tell you, I a dead man.'
Side-step applies a little more pressure. 'You don't tell me, same thing. You want it now or later?'
'Is on La Tortue, sir. You find all your answers there.'
'Is it drugs? Smuggling? Fancy angel dust?'
The man's eyes roll again, and suddenly there is a rattling noise in his throat. His body stiffens and relaxes.
Culver quickly kneels down and turns him over, feeling for his pulse, but there is none - his heart has stopped, and he appears to have suffered an infarction.
'Fuck me!' says Side-step, rubbing his mouth. 'What the hell happened there?' He catches Culver's eye. 'That was an exclamation, not an invitation, by the way.'
'Looks like you frightened him to death,' says the psychiatrist, rocking back on his heels. 'Either that or Monsieur Créchon has ways of making sure his henchmen don't talk.'
'What - magic, you mean?' says Side-step contemptuously. 'Come off it! Probably just had a weak heart.'
'Let's get back to the hotel, eh?'
In the café next door to the Galaxie, meanwhile, Professor Twitchin is on the telephone. 'Monsieur le Préfet? Swift work, my friend, on our mutual acquaintance, you seem to have paid your compliments before I could... and now what, pray?'
Borasme chuckles, a disturbing sound. 'Some of my employees can be a little... enthusiastic... at times. You should watch for the company you keep, Professor - you've been seen with people who we do not think are welcome guests to Port-de-Paix.'
'I have to make contacts in my job, as I'm sure you can imagine,' says Twitchin nervously. 'But one little piece of information... I hear that US Special Forces are combing their ranks for Creole speakers. I wonder why... now perhaps you can help me?'
'Would-be infiltrators?' Now Borasme laughs for real. 'Then they are more foolish than I had imagined. One thing is for certain, Professor - I cannot be infiltrated. All of my people are bound to me by a bond stronger than blood. Can you imagine that, you who seek to buy and sell the people of the Caribbean?'
'Maybe they'll just be trying an outright raid, then: on the docks here, or on La Tortue - set a few fires, perhaps?' Twitchin is aware that he is bluffing.
'Perhaps. But if so we shall be ready for them. And we caught Creed before he was able to report. I hear, though, that one of his colleagues is here in Port-de-Paix - a man named Riggs. We are told he is one of their top agents, with an excellent service record. If you can... deal with... him, in the same way as was discussed for Creed, Professor, then your country will have a true friend here in me.'
Twitchin swallows. But he manages to get in his parting shot: 'By the way, old chap, please do something about Créchon, there's a good fellow... such an obvious incompetent.'
He is answered with another laugh, but is there a hint of uncertainty in it?
'Mahmoud, do you know anything of La Tortue?' asks Henry.
'Bad place, M'sieu - full of bad men.' Mahmoud wolfs down his doughnut.
'Is that where the zombies are?'
'Is Paul Créchon there?'
'Sometimes. Or at the Préfecture. Ver' bad man.' Mahmoud squirms uneasily.
'Do you know anything about the drug they are making - anyone who's taken it?'
A shake of the head. 'Over the sea, m'sieu. America. Not here.'
'Right - so how are they making these zombies, then?'
'Is le Baron Samdi, Papa Gédé, makes them.'
'But who actually does it? Borasme?'
Mahmoud glances around in terror, and his teeth start to chatter. 'Not say name! He hear! That man is le Baron!'
'He's Baron Samdi? That's just superstition, surely - you mean he's a priest, or votary. He's as human as you or I.'
Mahmoud shakes his head violently, and nothing can shake him from his insistence that Borasme is in fact Baron Samdi in the flesh.
Eventually Henry stops making notes. 'Here you are - some more money, you've earned it.'
Mahmoud looks terrified and clings onto Henry's hand. 'I go from here - too dangerous for Mahmoud. Go from Port-de-Paix.'
'Not yet - I may need to ask you some more questions! You'll be safe enough, surely?'
'No, no - you take me with, sir? Take to England, to America?' Mahmoud clings plaintively to Henry's fingers.
The journalist sighs. 'Oh, very well, then. When we leave here you can come with us back to England - all right?'
'And now I sleep in your room? Not go back to docks - too dangerous!'
'Oh, I suppose so! What else!'
'One more doughnut?'
Culver and Twitchin meet Rose-Marie Desruisseaux as she leaves Riggs's room. She looks at them severely. 'That man is much troubled in the spirit. He should be in a safe place, not here.'
'He was in one, but I think he escaped,' says Culver apologetically.
'Er... Mademoiselle... might we trouble you for some protective charms?' asks the Professor bashfully. 'If we are to fight the forces of darkness, I mean. And can you tell us what the 'substances' are that are used to make zombies? It really is most important... I would of course keep my source confidential... and vow never to make a zombie myself... whether in Haiti or elsewhere...'
He tails off as Rose-Marie stares disapprovingly at him. 'This is evil knowledge, M'sieu, and I do not have it. I know that they use part of a fish, and another part of a mushroom, and much else, but it is the prayers that have the most effect. Perhaps you should ask this bocor Wirkus if you really want to know. But be warned - even just the knowledge is enough to taint you.'
Culver nods. 'Professor, can you give me some moral support now? I'm going to look for the fils de Boukman.'
Laënnec Hurbon has been looking rather lost this past day or so, his round face falling into unaccustomed lines of worry. He is perked up considerably by Culver's praise of his book Voodoo: Truth and Fantasy.
'Would you very much mind writing me a dedication?'
Hurbon writes with a flourish: 'To Matt, for making a difference'. He looks up at Culver. 'You will make a difference, won't you?' He sounds almost childlike.
'We're doing our best,' says Culver. 'But you can help us now, Laënnec - we need to contact les fils de Boukman, and quickly. Where do you think they might be found?'
Hurbon smiles. 'If I am any judge of historical inevitability - the cyclical pattern of the dialectic - they will be gathering tonight at Bois-Caïman. The feast of Ogou Feray will be too good to miss.'
'Is that a real place, then? I thought it was just a figure of speech.'
'It is a real place, although not everyone knows it. I can take you there if you wish.'
'Er, I was rather planning to return to Jean-Rabel this evening,' says Professor Twitchin.
'We'll have to split the party, then, just for a change,' says Culver. 'Let's tell the others, see who wants to do what.'
'Hi, guys,' says an unexpected voice - like Riggs's, but completely lacking in the shrieks, mutters and overtones that are characteristic of him. They look up, and it is indeed Riggs, walking towards them across the bar, but everything about him is different - the way he moves is easy and lax, his face is open, and his hands swing lightly rather than clenching. Around his neck he is wearing a small charm twisted in bright blue cloth.
'Bloody hell,' mutters Culver. Riggs appears to have made a full recovery - well beyond what would have been expected from the antipsychotic drugs he has been taking.
'What's the plan?' asks Riggs, sitting beside them. His expression is keen and alert.