The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Saints and Angels
'Ruined by a cock,' mutters Culver to himself, gazing up darkly at the scrawny bird. 'Story of my life...' He shudders as Riggs's screams start to die down, reaching within his shirt for Rose-Marie Desruisseaux's mirror. A small part of him appreciates the irony: even dripping with, Christ knows, all the accoutrements of modern psychological science, he thinks to himself, I still reach instinctively for the one piece of voodoo hokum, my good juju.
Side-step, looking out towards Créchon, says to no-one in particular, 'Well, if it isn't Neanderthal Man come back to haunt us. He only learned to walk erect this morning.'
He turns to Culver. 'Decision time. Do we try to screw some information out of this animal, or do we just punch his ticket?'
Culver is squeezing the small square of glass and clay. He smiles. 'My grasp of French verbs isn't what it used to be, but I'd swear Louise just suggested that guy cold "go fuck himself". Course, we could try to fuck him first. Why d'you reckon he keeps his eyes covered?'
'Okay then,' says Side-step, 'why don't you see if that mirror of yours has any effect? Maybe he'll have a sudden overwhelming urge to put on some lipstick.'
Culver turns timidly to Louise Bijoux, only to find that she has risen stiffly to her feet and is striding out around the corner of the building, walking with certainty.
Créchon, seeing her advance, titters all the louder, grinding the hapless Riggs's face with his heel, and draws an extremely large and sharp-looking knife. He tosses it lightly from one hand to the other.
Side-step, muttering a curse, slaps Culver sharply on the shoulder. 'Go!' He himself scurries around the other end of the building, making for cover.
What a fucking mess. Culver is acutely aware that he is virtually stranded here in the darkness, surrounded by zombies and drug-smugglers, and facing a giggling psychopath with a knife in his hand and murder on his mind. He is clutching the mirror tightly, but Ezili's power does not seem to be having much effect just yet.
Louise, her hands in fists, advances directly on Créchon, who seems happy to wait for her to come onto him, occupying the doorway. Culver skulks miserably behind Louise. Riggs is muttering indistinctly 'Not the... not the... not... the black! The black helicopter! The bl... the black helicopter!'
And, indeed, the sound of a helicopter can clearly be heard, approaching the island.
Side-step works his way around the building to a point where he can spring out on Créchon, but until the giggling man is drawn out into the open it will avail little.
Louise stops a yard in front of Créchon, hands on hips, staring him in the face, and from her mouth pours a torrent of what the operatives can only guess is the vilest filth of which Creole is capable. Créchon's mouth sets into an ugly grimace, and he snarls.
At least that's wiped the smile off his face, thinks Culver, but just then Créchon lunges forward with the knife, striking straight for Louise's heart.
With a blurred movement quicker than thought, Louise's left hand flashes across her chest, and there is a thuck noise.
Créchon looks down in disbelief. The knife is still in his fist, and its blade has been driven fully six inches straight through Louise's left hand, which she is holding steadily in front of her, its wrist supported by the right, with no apparent signs of pain or emotion. This interposition has prevented the knife blade from reaching her chest. The guard of the knife is at her palm, and she clasps her hand around it, forcing Créchon's knife hand to bend downwards and backwards into him. There is a horrible soft noise of metal grating on bone. Créchon's own left hand goes to his wrist to support his grip, but Louise appears far the stronger and he is slowly forced downwards to his knees.
Culver, staring horrorstruck at Louise's hand, finally gets a grip on himself. Swallowing hard, he steps in and with one hand bats Créchon's sunglasses away from his face. 'Ezili protect me,' he murmurs, slightly shocked by the realization that for once he is not joking.
What they reveal is more horrible still. There are pits where Créchon's eyes should be, red, raw pits, their edges heavily folded and ridged with scar tissue - it looks as though his eyes must have been burned or gouged out. Nonetheless his gaze moves instantly to Culver, his mouth uttering a terrible strangled cry, and he lets go of the knife - Louise at once slumps to the ground in a faint, but Culver has no time for that now - Créchon's huge hands are snaking towards his throat.
Culver, staggering half-back, raises the mirror and his syringe full of Droperidol, but a dry voice speaks out from behind Créchon. 'Tell me, Créchon, did you have parents, or did they put you together with the leftover bits from the ward?'
As Créchon starts to spin round to face Side-step, the knife is already in the air, and it strikes firmly home in his chest. Créchon totters, turns back towards Culver, his hands clawing towards the ruins of his eyesockets, and collapses to the ground, dead.
'Open fire!' commands Henry, and the two neo-Boukmans let loose with their submachine guns, enthusiastically if inaccurately hosing the front rank of zombies with bullets.
Chillingly, though, the damage this seems to do is small. Various of the zombies have appendages blown away, and a couple of them drop to the ground to be marched over by their fellows, but the majority trudge on imperviously, their gazes empty, heading for Henry's team.
Mahmoud, who seems to have rapidly lost his thirst for combat, clutches panickedly at the journalist's sleeve.
'We can't hope to fight these,' says Henry, mostly to himself. 'We'll have to go round them.'
'Into the jungle, m'sieu? What if they turn and follow us?'
'At least we'll be meeting up with the others - they'll be able to help us with this lot. Or we can hope the zombies have just been instructed to guard this beachhead, not to follow us,' replies Henry optimistically.
Mahmoud looks rather doubtful, but anything which postpones the confrontation is good with him. 'What of Maurice, m'sieu? The man we left with the boat, in the next bay?'
'He'll have to make his own getaway - we can't go after him now. Come on!'
Henry and Mahmoud dodge to the left, the two neo-Boukmans to the right, and they circle around the sluggish zombies, who lash out ineffectively.
'Right! Now, up the path!'
It takes no more than seconds for Culver's medical reflexes to reassert themselves: he drops to his knees beside Louise and starts to tend her dreadful wound.
Side-step grabs both of them. 'Later! We've got to get inside! There's eight guards with SMGs round the other side of this building, in case you'd forgotten!' He manhandles Culver, Louise and Riggs, who has now gone as limp as a doll and is emitting a greenish-white goo from nose and mouth - in the moonlight it looks faintly luminous.
As soon as they are inside the door, Side-step drags a desk across it. 'Right then. Let's see what we've got here.'
Professor Twitchin has briefly considered the idea of fleeing out of the rear of the Galaxie, making his way to his getaway car. He got as far as dashing upstairs to grab his passport, air tickets and money, together with his last quarter-bottle of whisky - but some noble, ingrained public-school sense of loyalty and fair play stayed his foot. Or was it just blatant pigheadedness and a couple of drinks that got the better of him? In any case, he runs out into the street and awaits the helicopter. Driving the length of Haiti in the night, pursued by the legions of darkness, was none too tempting in any case, he muses, and he remembers that Side-step claims to be able to fly one of these contraptions. Oh no - flying again!
It is only a few minutes before the helicopter descends, the clatter of its blades filling the street, blowing scraps of cardboard, rags and dust about the place. The Professor clutches his clothing about him, then once the helicopter has settled bounds towards the door with an air of nonchalance. 'Achille, what's up? At least we know that Mr Riggs isn't involved... what? Our friends in Washington are none too chuffed about that, London tells me.'
Borasme merely beckons. He looks very different from how Twitchin has seen him before. Instead of his customary three-piece suit, he is dressed in a black tail-coat with black dress trousers. Under the coat he has on a collarless white shirt, with a drooping white silk bow tie at the neck. His feet are bare, but he sports a tall black silk top hat, with a figured band around the crown. Smeared over his face is an ivory-white paste, highlighting the shape of the bones of the skull, leaving dark patches around eyes, nose and cheeks - the overall impression is strikingly vivid and chilling, as though a skeleton had come to life. Borasme also has his trouser flies open, although Professor Twitchin is far too polite to comment on that. He carries no obvious weapons.
Also in the helicopter is a pilot, and another man, small, Latin-looking, in a grey silk suit. From the descriptions he has had, Twitchin guesses he must be Geraldo Cabrera. Cabrera looks as nervous and ill-at-ease as Twitchin feels, sweat all over his face: he keeps mopping at himself with a large handkerchief.
Borasme himself seems reflective, gazing out of the window into the darkness. His whole body is very still, unnaturally so.
As the helicopter rises, swinging towards the bay, the Préfet speaks for the first time. 'You must both die this night. The lwa demand it.'
'Eh?' exclaims Professor Twitchin. 'I don't think I can have heard you aright, old chap.'
Cabrera simultaneously expostulates in Spanish. He looks panicked.
'A suitable sacrifice. An Englishman, and a Spaniard. Our people's oldest enemies. A government agent, and a criminal agent. The symmetry is delightful. If only we had a Frenchman too - ah! But it will suffice.'
'My padron will destroy you if I am hurt,' spits Cabrera. His voice is thin and reedy.
'Your padron, who told you to meet behind my back with that village-bocor Wirkus? After this night we will have no more need of you and your padron,' says Borasme, his voice very hollow. 'After this night we will have no more need of anyone except my own padron - le Grand Baron, le Terrible, l'Incroyable, lui qui est là au début et à la fin, à l'ouverture et la fermeture même.'
'Er, do you have something special planned for tonight, then, Achille?' inquires Professor Twitchin warily.
Borasme laughs, and it sounds like tomb doors flapping in a chill midnight wind. 'Yes indeed, Professor, very special indeed. You and your comrades have played into my hands by delivering the incarnation of Boukman Dutty, of Ogou Feray, into my place of power. Now I can turn this land into a far greater and stranger realm than has so far been imagined.'
Twitchin had prepared a cunning scheme to distract Borasme from his purpose and cause him to land the helicopter early, but the words die in his throat: he knows it will not work. He has a firm and uneasy feeling that he has bitten off rather more than he can chew.
While Culver bandages the pale, unconscious Louise, Side-step assesses the situation. They are in an office room which occupies half this end of the building. To the side is another, similar office. Both open into a larger room, which looks like a laboratory.
'You done there yet? Come on, give Riggs his charm back - we need him back on his feet.'
'The charm?' asks Culver. 'Didn't you get it?'
'You were going to, remember?' Side-step slaps the desk in annoyance.
'I had my hands slightly full with Louise when we were coming in here, actually,' says Culver sarcastically. 'Oh, hell. Well, look, I can stick my head out and try and grab it...'
As if in mocking response there is a burst of fire from outside. The door splinters heavily, and all the windows shatter. Ducking to avoid the flying glass, Culver and Side-step look at each other. 'Come on - we haven't got much time.'
Keeping low, Side-step sweeps all the papers and disks he can find into his bag. The guards outside seem content to pepper the door for the time being - they do not appear to relish attempting to force an entry. 'Right then, let's check out the lab.'
'Bring these two?' asks Culver.
'Better had - we might not be going out this way,' says Side-step, and he darts off, dodging between cover.
We might not be going out at all at this rate, thinks Culver as he takes Riggs under one arm and Louise under the other, puffing with the strain. It is fortunate that both are very slight: the pumped-up days when Culver could bench-press two hundred pounds are long behind him.
Henry and his team scurry along the path, now illuminated quite clearly by the moonlight. From ahead, the sounds of gunfire can be heard. As he approaches the edge of the clearing, he motions the others to the undergrowth, and peers cautiously ahead.
There are four guards gathered in a knot at the loading-bay end of the building, apparently debating whether to enter. Running towards the far end are two more, and the final two can just be seen blazing away at the door through which the other SITU operatives entered.
'The others must be inside,' says Henry. He looks anxiously around him.
Just at that point a change comes over the two neo-Boukmans with Henry and Mahmoud. Just as Culver and Side-step witnessed earlier with Louise, they stiffen, their eyes flashing and their features becoming fiercely rigid. Each rises from the undergrowth, striding out into the clearing.
Borasme's guards notice and point, gesticulating fearfully. One opens the door, another fires a wild spray of bullets in the direction of the two neo-Boukmans. The two neo-Boukmans casually raise their own weapons and each in turn fires a short burst. Two guards die. The others fling themselves into the building.
The two neo-Boukmans continue to stalk onwards. 'We go after?' asks Mahmoud.
But the helicopter is now descending towards the clearing.
The laboratory is well-equipped and spacious, but Culver spends little effort trying to work out what the purpose of each part of it is. There are many plastic packets full of white crystalline powder. There is a wide selection of strange local-looking ingredients - tree roots, dark powdered earth, and various zoological-looking items in jars. And there is a pill-making apparatus, by which are standing metal canisters, one of which is half-full of shiny black tablets - each about the size of a paracetamol, stamped on one side with a death's-head and on the other with the word 'ANGEL'. Culver takes samples of everything, and stashes them in the many pockets of his trousers.
At the far end of the lab is a pair of doors which presumably lead into the loading bay. The sounds of running feet can be heard approaching these doors.
Side-step swiftly swings a workbench across the doors. Then he starts methodically spreading petrol around the room.
'Don't set that off until we've got out of here, will you?' urges Culver. 'And, er, by the way, how are we going to get out? There's men with guns outside both of these doors now, you realize?'
Side-step merely jerks his thumb towards the high fanlight windows.
The downdraught from the helicopter's rotors is terrific in the enclosed clearing. As it settles on its skids, John Henry and Mahmoud watch fearfully from the forest. The two neo-Boukmans, who now seem to be almost visibly glowing with power, turn towards it, not disturbed by the wind, and stride smoothly at the opening door.
Borasme grasps hold of Professor Twitchin. 'I say, old chap, that's not necessary!' protests the Professor, but he is unceremoniously flung through the doorway onto the baked mud of the clearing. Cabrera lands nearby. Then Borasme himself steps through the doorway, as the engine cuts and the rotors still.
The two neo-Boukmans continue to approach, their arms moving smoothly and gracefully now. They are no more than five feet away when Borasme speaks a word. It seems to be made up entirely of vowels, and each sound falls as heavy as a block of lead onto the expectant clearing. All at once Twitchin is unsure whether the white shapes of bone he can see on the Préfet's face are in fact make-up after all. There is a dreadful smell of rot, rolling outwards from Borasme, which makes everyone gag. Through the slit in his trousers pokes a huge erection.
Borasme brings his hands together with a hollow clap.
Both neo-Boukmans stop, unsteady, colour and power draining from them. Borasme holds his hands out, and his palms twitch and tingle - it is as if energy is flowing from his adversaries into him.
He laughs again, as the two slump to the ground, their skin ashy.
Professor Twitchin has struggled to his feet. 'I really cannot abide the fellow,' he mutters to himself and, snatching up a dead branch, he strikes Borasme heavily across the back of the head.
The big man does not even rock. Instead he turns to face Twitchin and opens his mouth wide. Twitchin can see no lips, no teeth, no tongue - just a black void. He feels as though he is being drawn into it, and his bowels and knees alike turn to water.
Cabrera is trying to crawl away into the jungle, but Borasme takes one large stride after him and picks him up by the scruff of the neck. Cabrera, swearing, pulls out a gun from his armpit, but Borasme casually bats it out of his hand, sending it flying across the clearing. He holds the struggling Cabrera above his head with both hands, as though showing him off. He cries out again, in what sounds like the same dark tongue of power. Then he brings the Colombian down across his raised knee, snapping his back like a dry branch.
Once again, Borasme's body twitches all over, and it now looks to the confused Twitchin now as though ripples of energy are running all up and down it - as though black fire is burning under the clothes. There is almost nothing of the human left about his face now.
'You could at least give me a hand with these two,' complains Culver as he laboriously hauls Riggs and Louise up onto the workbench, preparatory to lowering them down through the window.
Side-step looks carefully around the lab, satisfied that he has splashed petrol over anything that could be of use. Not before time, as the northern door is now completely shot to pieces: it cannot be long before the guards there gain the nerve to enter.
'Out we go, then.'
Culver cautiously peers through the window, then sticks head and shoulders through. Fortunately, this is the far side of the building from where Borasme and the helicopter are. Finally, with much struggling, he and Side-step start to lower Riggs out.
Next is Louise, and then Culver himself. Lastly, Side-step sits in the window, a scrap of cloth in his hand, and pulls out his trusty lighter. 'Okay, let's light the candle and get the fuck out of here.'
He snaps it open and spins the wheel with his thumb - but nothing happens. There is no flame. There is not even a spark.
'Eh?' Side-step shakes the lighter. It looks normal, and the wheel is rubbing on the flint as it should. But there is no spark. He turns it over in his hand. The engraving, where it says 'Side-step 6 - IRA 0 - Witches 0', is blackened and crumbles away under his finger. Then he sees that the whole lighter is black, tarnished and crumbling.
Cursing, he pulls out a box of matches out of his pocket, but his hand comes up with nothing more than scraps of rotting wood and cardboard.
The sound of Borasme's laughter echoes around the clearing.
Borasme picks up the hapless Professor Twitchin and carries him around the end of the building, to where Side-step and Culver are struggling down the wall. He tosses Twitchin into the small heap made up of Riggs and Louise.
Side-step and Culver freeze, as do Henry and Mahmoud from their jungle vantage.
'By bringing me this power you have helped me raise myself greater than before,' says Borasme, his voice quiet yet echoing hollowly throughout the clearing. 'I have broken the power of Ogou Feray now for all time, as I did with Dambala before. None can stand against my supreme reign.'
Keep him talking, thinks Culver. Make him give himself away. It always works in films. 'What about these drugs, then?' he asks, his voice weak. 'Fancy psychoactives - making kids think they're angels? That's not very clever. I'd have expected better.'
Borasme's skull-visage regards him coldly. 'Each of those tablets carries my seed with it. Each who has taken one is now my child - a living Gédé.'
'So why kill Cabrera, Achille?' asks Professor Twitchin weakly. 'Surely you need his... er... supply, to make your vile preparations.'
'Not any more. Now I have taken the power of Ogou Feray, my seed can spread through the world without the need for the tablets.' He starts to advance. 'Now, none stands against me.' Both Culver and Side-step feel their strength and willpower draining from them, as though a deathly chill were stealing over their limbs.
It is as much as Culver can do to reach into his shirt once more and pull out the mirror Rose-Marie Desruisseaux gave him. 'Here's one thing that still stands for something,' he whispers. 'Mama Ezili, help your baby boy!'
At once a choking scent of roses seems to pour out of his hand, washing over the stench of rot that emanates from Borasme. The surface of the mirror, as Culver turns it to the Préfet, erupts in brilliant, coruscating pink light. Hard-edged greenish shadows dance about the clearing.
The effect on Borasme is staggering. He recoils, throwing up his arms in front of his face, but it is as though the pink brilliance is blasting away his clothes into black rags. The mirror almost at once becomes uncomfortably hot to hold, and Culver frantically wraps cloth around his hand.
Borasme attempts to stagger in to grab for the mirror, but as he reaches for it his whole arm bursts into pink flame, which rushes up to his chest and face.
Culver and Side-step feel their ability to move restored, and Side-step stumbles out of the way of the blundering Borasme, who is now wreathed in a twisting column of pink fire.
Henry seizes his moment to dart out of the forest, and, dodging around Borasme, starts to drag Louise to safety.
Professor Twitchin comes back to himself. He crawls away, pulling Riggs with him.
Culver continues to direct the beam of pink fire at Borasme, although the cloth in which he is holding the mirror is now smouldering.
Borasme lets out a deathly shriek, chilling the very marrow of all who hear it, and twists up double, blundering into the side of the building. There is a half-felt sensation of a black veil lifting from around him, up into the sky.
All at once the sensation of pressure that has filled the clearing is lifted. Borasme twitches and lies still, his body still burning fiercely.
The cloth around Culver's hand catches fire. Gritting his teeth, he takes careful aim, and throws it and mirror through the open window into the laboratory.
The petrol catches, and fire billows out of every window.
The SITU team gather themselves together at the edge of the clearing. Professor Twitchin shakily pulls out his hip flask. 'Er, gentlemen, your chariot awaits.' He indicates the helicopter.
The pilot is slumped across the controls, dead. Not only that, he looks as though he has been dead for some time. A worm crawls out from his mouth as Side-step hauls him out of the cockpit.
'Right, it's definitely time for tubby-bye-bye,' says Culver wearily. 'Get us the hell out of here, Side-step.'
As the helicopter rises from La Tortue, spiralling away from the blazing facility, he pulls off his cap and runs a grimy hand through his hair. 'It's funny, I see pain every day. I work with insanity. God knows I've touched madness myself now and again. But back there...' He shakes his head, unable to articulate the feeling.
A few days later
'Thanks for everything, Laënnec. I guess my eyes have been opened a little. I hope we've made some difference.' Culver hugs the anthropologist fondly.
Hurbon smiles self-consciously, rubbing the lump he still bears. Arthur Montrouge overpowered him within ten minutes of the operatives leaving the boat, and headed back to harbour at full speed. But he has a firmness about him that was lacking before. 'Thank you for everything - all of you. I hope we will meet again.'
Louise is still rather pale, and her left hand is swathed in huge quantities of bandage. Side-step rather awkwardly shakes the other one. 'Um, look, you look after yourself, OK? That was bloody stupid, but,' he grins, 'bloody brave.'
Professor Twitchin is standing in front of a mirror in the departure lounge. Pointing one finger, narrowing his eyes, he says to himself in what is probably supposed to be a Scottish burr 'The name's Twitchin. Adam Twitchin. Licensed to... whatever.' He starts as Side-step taps him gently on the shoulder. 'Oh... is it time to go?'
'Catch you later, John?' calls Culver after John Henry, who has a few more days in Haiti to complete the adoption papers. 'An interesting souvenir. Me, I prefer to play with boys my own age...'
Henry has grown used to these jibes by now. 'Maybe... I'm away to Florida next, to follow up these "Diana corks". I don't know when I'll be returning to the UK.'
Professor Twitchin has bought a carnival mask as a souvenir for his grandson Luke. Thinking of Theo, he shakes his head. Narrow majority? I thought they had won a landslide - or has there been another election since then? Foolish boy! - is a fool, always was a fool. I can't imagine where he gets it from.
As the operatives ascend the steps into the plane, the puzzled staff of the duty-free shop are hurriedly restocking the denuded confectionery and perfumery sections. Ezili will smile...
From: Andre Swahn, Briefing/99
To: Agents: Steven Anderson, Matthew Culver, John Henry, Adam Twitchin
Subject: Zombie activity in Haiti
Achievement of objectives: all Operatives are to be commended on their thorough investigation of the voodoo phenomenon. Operatives' persistence and dedication in the face of considerable unexpected physical threat is particularly worthy of note.
Priority A) - from the manner in which Borasme met his end, it seems highly unlikely that he was involved in the conspiracy which we all oppose. Therefore SITU judges it similarly unlikely that the voodoo phenomenon is significant to us in a larger sense.
Priority B) - it seems clear from your report that the description of zombieism covers more than one aetiology. The case of Johnny Michel, successfully treated with antipsychotics, suggests that the Bijoux & Mars schizophrenia theory has some validity. Preliminary analysis of the drug samples recovered from La Tortue indicates psychologically destabilizing elements, in addition to CENSORED. In any case, the question of zombieism is now judged to be of purely academic interest to SITU.
Priority C) - the death of Achille Borasme and his replacement by Faustin Wirkus as Préfet of Port-de-Paix can be seen as a highly positive achievement. Wirkus has pledged himself to the Aristide reform programme and to govern in the name of all the lwa. Although our assessment is that he is a deeply corrupt and power-hungry man, who will probably swiftly re-establish smuggling links with the Medellin cartel, he is probably the best available man for the job. At least the thorough destruction of Borasme's laboratories on La Tortue means that Wirkus will be restricted to trafficking in conventional drugs.
Professor Laënnec Hurbon: was appointed by President Aristide to chair the new National Commission on Religion and Society, with a brief of investigating the positive and negative impacts religious beliefs can have on the body social, and the necessity or otherwise of separation between faith and a secular state apparatus.
Dr Louise Bijoux: has taken up a teaching post at Haiti's Quisqueya University, and is serving on the Hurbon Commission.
Agent Benedict Riggs: the marked deterioration in Agent Riggs's condition has caused grave concern to SITU. He is now being tended in a secluded secure establishment, and is receiving the finest of psychiatric help.
The power of the lwa: careful analysis of operatives' reports suggest to SITU that a sceptical analysis can still legitimately be applied to the power of the lwa. Nothing has been reported that could not be explained as delusion, suggestion or hallucination. However, we do not feel that this is necessarily a helpful analysis. It is, though, for individual operatives to form their own opinions about what they did or did not witness, of course. Our joint concerns are for operative stability and efficiency, and thus we encourage the adoption of belief systems which prejudice neither.