The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Saints and Angels
'Whatever Rose-Marie's done, you're looking great!' Culver smiles at Benedict. 'I think I'm in the wrong line of business.'
Riggs acknowledges his colleague's pleasure shyly. 'So, what's the plan, guys?'
'Er... don't be too unnerved, old chap,' says Professor Twitchin, warily, 'but the plan is, seemingly, that I, in the guise of a deep-cover, unofficial agent of the British government, arrange your execution on the suggestion of a local voodoo priest and political leader.' He sips his drink. 'Oh dear, don't things get confusing... what a tangled web we weave...!'
Riggs takes this disheartening news calmly. 'Fake death, huh? No problem - we used to do that sort of thing all the time, back in the Service. You need witnesses to see me go into a small building - seconds later the building's destroyed by fire or explosion - an unrecognizably charred body with my ID is found in the rubble. Or an auto crash would do.'
'But where are we going to get the necessary explosives?' muses the Professor. 'Perhaps there's some other way.'
'Anything you can come up with, I'm ready,' says Riggs. 'Just make sure you have the two key ingredients - witnesses and physical evidence.'
Twitchin addresses the group as a whole. 'I am concerned about how Wirkus knows about my contacts with Borasme. It seems to me that either Borasme told him - why? - or he has spies in the Prefecture, or he can read Borasme's mind. Is Wirkus the real power behind the voodoo throne?'
'Sounds to me like he's trying to carve himself out a place,' says Side-step. 'There must be quite a few staff at that prefecture - they can't all be loyal.'
'Anyway,' says Culver. 'Who's doing what? I'm keen to meet les fils de Boukman - there's an interesting piece on them in your book, Laënnec - so I guess I'm off to Bois-Caïman.'
Hurbon polishes his glasses embarrassedly. 'Er... that account was rather anecdotal, as may have been apparent from my treatment of it, Matt. Don't be too surprised if the reality departs somewhat.'
'I'm with you, Culver,' says Side-step. 'I want to see these fils de Boukman clowns myself. It's obvious this whole shit storm revolves around that bloody island. We need to come up with a revised plan of how to get onto the place and maybe put a stop to their operation. If we can get talking to these Boukman people we may be able to gather a little more information on the place.'
'I think I can get us to La Tortue,' says John Henry drily.
'Side-step, you'll go with him, won't you?' asks Culver.
'Sure, but not yet - we should use this time for pure intelligence gathering rather than rocking the boat. We can plan for that later.'
'Will you be taking your little friend, Henry?' asks the Professor. Absently he adds 'Young boys, eh? Who'd have thought it...'
As Henry flushes with annoyance Twitchin grins and winks at Culver and Side-step.
There is a brief but touching scene as Professor Twitchin presses a large bundle of notes - $500 - into the surprised Léon's hand. 'I shan't be needing you any more, my dear chap,' he says.
Léon, tears of gratitude in his eyes, scuttles off to his car, no doubt already imagining how this good fortune will transform his meagre life.
'What was all that about?' asks Riggs.
'There have already been three deaths in this business, at my last count,' says Twitchin solemnly. 'I will not have Léon's on my conscience. I've got his address, and I'll get back in touch back in Port-au-Prince when this sorry affair is completed.' He eyes the American appraisingly. 'Would you care to accompany me to Jean-Rabel, Benedict? As the others all seem to be planning to visit Bois-Caïman, wherever that is.'
'Sure,' says Riggs agreeably. 'We can talk about how you plan to kill me.'
Mahmoud leads John Henry by the hand towards a shoddy-looking vessel moored at the fringes of the dock area, where the run-down fishing fleet lurks. 'I tell him you want make fish trip, m'sieu, and he very pleased for money, I think,' he confides.
The boat's captain is as unprepossessing as his craft, a snaggle-toothed old stager who looks as if he has little better to eat than fish guts for the last several years - and the odour which hangs heavy about him would tend to support this hypothesis. His name is Arthur Montrouge. 'I can take you to excellent fishing grounds, m'sieu - what you want to catch? Marlin? Shark? Bluefin tuna?'
'We don't want to go to far from the mainland,' says Henry, 'so whatever you can show us, really. Just put out to sea and cruise around?'
The man looks disappointed. 'Is just a short trip, then? Well, no matter. How many people?'
'Around six,' says Henry. 'Maybe a couple more, maybe a couple less.'
'No problem! I can carry twice six with no problems. I will have rods and lines for eight. When you want to leave?'
'Not sure yet... let me give you this as a daily retainer, and you be ready to leave when we turn up, is that OK?'
'No problem, m'sieu,' smiles Montrouge.
The car is crowded, with Culver, Henry and Side-step crammed together on the back seat, Louise Bijoux on the front, and Hurbon driving. Henry has left his terrified young protégé locked in his hotel room, hoping that none of the staff try and clean it in the meantime: such a discovery could do untold damage to his reputation.
'Laënnec, do you know of one Celestina Mirande, another SITU operative?' asks Culver as the car speeds through the periphery of town, headed south-eastwards into the centre of the island. 'She recently wrote a piece on Haiti for one of the reports, and I wondered why they didn't do the obvious thing and send her instead of us. Just curious, y'know.'
Hurbon shrugs. 'I read the piece, yes. Reasonably accurate as far as it goes, but rather lacking in the social dimension. I would guess the writer to be of Haitian ancestry, rather than a current inhabitant: her accounts of the rituals, and the spellings she uses, suggest a Briton. As for why she was not sent, that is a puzzle - one might think SITU would think her knowledge useful. On the other hand, perhaps they did not wish her preconceptions to cloud the investigation. If she is a believer, she is bound to be more susceptible than you or I to the so-called spells of these people. If, like that unfortunate young lad, she thought Borasme was Baron Samdi incarnate, she would be of little use combating him. You and I, we know that his evils are purely secular, do we not?'
Culver wishes he were quite so sure.
Twitchin and Riggs take the Professor's car to Jean-Rabel, the former's erratic driving exciting the occasional comment from passers-by. Fortunately the roads are far from busy: vehicle ownership in this part of Haiti is not high.
They find the small town in festive mood, with red and gold bunting strung around the chief buildings. Most of the populace seem to be in the streets, clad in finery, chatting and laughing, playing music and dancing.
The church is attempting to hold a special service of its own, in rivalry to Wirkus's, but only a few of the villagers seem to be in attendance - among them the Michel family, who stare reproachfully at Twitchin as he parks next to Wirkus's house. Johnny is not with them.
Wirkus is holding court to a gang of acolytes dressed all in white: he himself is also in white, but with a red headdress that makes him look rather taller than usual. He breaks off at once as he sees the Professor approach.
'May we speak privately?' inquires Twitchin, and Wirkus leads him within, looking up at him expectantly.
Twitchin hands over a bottle of Glenmorangie he was fortunate enough to find in Port-de-Paix, and Wirkus's eyes light up. 'The lwa will be greatly pleased!' He at once opens the bottle and pours two generous shots.
As the Professor sips his drink appreciatively, he says 'I am authorized to talk with you, dear fellow, but why should I? I need evidence of both your good faith and your influence before I could commit my masters to doing business with you.'
Wirkus nods eagerly. 'This is sound business sense. Only the fool buys a pig without seeing it first.'
'Er... exactly. So I need to know what is going on in northern Haiti. Why should we trust you and no other? What is going to happen? Knowledge after the event will be no use to us.'
Wirkus leans close, putting a finger against his nose. 'It is the fils de Boukman, as you guessed, m'sieu le Prof. They will bring down Borasme. Ogou Feray is angry with him.'
'Where do you fit into this? Are you active in the fils de Boukman?'
Wirkus laughs derisively. 'I? They have no real leaders - a gang of malcontents is all they are. They will not be able to put firm rule in Borasme's place. And that is what this country needs - a man who can get things organized, who knows what he is doing. The President will appoint a new Préfet, and he will probably want an outsider. But you and I know that a local man would be better - and a man well loved by the lwa. With the influence of Great Britain, and of Professeur Hurbon, that man will be me. And then you will have a friend here rather than a stranger.'
'When will all this happen?'
'Very soon now, I think.'
Twitchin considers. 'Very well then, tell me more about this narcotics smuggling business, that we believe to be taking place on La Tortue. We would want a sample of the drugs themselves as a proof of good faith.'
'Not possible, m'sieu,' Wirkus makes a sad face. 'I do not have the resources to acquire such a sample. The drugs are never here - only on La Tortue - and that place is guarded. I cannot get you these - maybe the Americans could supply a sample?'
'And finally, then,' Twitchin leans forward, 'I want an explanation - not a load of superstitious bumf for the ill-educated - of the zombie phenomenon. This, my dear Faustin, is for me only. I just want to know.'
Wirkus smiles widely, revealing his slightly pointed teeth. 'What explanation could satisfy you, m'sieu? There are many. All are true. We know here that truth is not absolute. One truth is that the substances used are potent drugs. Another is that the magic used produces strong suggestion. Another is that the society in which we move here supports belief. To me, all I know is that I enact the rituals prescribed by the Gédé, and a zombie will arise. M le Préfet may work differently. In London, different ideas again might be needed. You cannot ask these questions from outside the culture in which they are rooted.'
The road winds upwards through the velvety darkness, the stars beginning to gleam down on the silent investigators. Their car has been joined by others, and periodically passes groups of pedestrians, all going in the same direction. To either side of the road is dense woodland.
'Over there, behind the hill,' whispers Hurbon - the atmosphere seems to discourage louder speech - 'is Cap Haitien, a large town. These woods around us are Bois-Caïman - here rebel slaves, called Maroons, hid from the army, two hundred years ago, and affirmed their faith.' He clearly relishes the opportunity to lecture.
The car rolls off the road onto what looks like a logging track, which ascends steeply. After half a mile it stops. 'We must walk from here,' says Hurbon. His eyes are shining brightly with excitement.
Louise Bijoux by contrast looks distinctly uneasy, glancing around her at the worshippers - men and women, mostly young but with all ages represented - stream up the hillside. Above can be heard the sound of drums. She takes Culver's arm.
The air of expectancy is almost tangible.
In the yard behind Wirkus's house, Professor Twitchin is getting into the spirit of things, drawing approving applause from the locals as he jigs his gangly tweed-clad body about in an attempt to follow the drums' insistent beat. He has partaken generously of the whisky, and of various other drinks that have been circulating, and all the lights in the yard now have a fuzzy rainbow-hued corona around them, to his vision.
Wirkus nods to Riggs in a friendly fashion. 'You and I understand each other now, eh? I see you have learnt to respect the ways of the lwa.' He indicates the charm Riggs wears around his neck.
'No hard feelings, huh?' says the American amiably. He is keeping a firm eye on Twitchin, making sure the old fellow doesn't embarrass himself or slip a disc.
Amid shouts of approbation an icon of St James, done in local style and depicting him as a fisherman bearing pilgrim's staff, is paraded around the yard. There are about two hundred people here now, all dancing, swaying, drinking and generally having a good time. Wirkus supervises and administers the whole, prowling around and directing his assistants.
'You want give chicken to Ogou Feray?' asks a large woman of Twitchin. 'I got two - look. You buy one, twenty dollar?'
'Er... why not, indeed,' says the Professor, reaching into his pocket. He buys the chicken - a sad-looking red cockerel, its legs trussed firmly together and its head in a bag. It twitches half-heartedly.
The path continues to rise through the trees for about another half-mile, but eventually they part as it nears the top of a rise. Reaching the crest, the operatives look down into a tremendous natural amphitheatre - perhaps the crater of some long-extinct volcano, it is almost perfectly round, sloping gently inwards. It is filled with people - there must be several thousand of them. All are carrying candles, whose flickering mimics the stars above. There is no noise but that of the drums, which resonates heavily within the bowl of land. It is a quite awe-inspiring sight.
Worshippers continue to flood past the party as they descend gingerly to stand at the edge of the throng, behind a small cluster of scrubby shrubs. 'Good view from here,' whispers Side-step.
At the centre of the gathering is a stage, about twenty feet square. It is empty, with drummers lining all four sides. As the party watch, six red-clad figures mount it. At once there is a whispering and sighing noise from the crowd. 'These are the oungans who will lead the ceremony,' says Hurbon.
Unlike the ceremony of yesterday at Jean-Rabel, this gathering does not have a festive or celebratory air. Rather there is a sense of quiet expectation, like a State funeral.
The four oungans start to speak, in unison.
'They are reciting the history of this place. Telling how Boukman Dutty himself gathered the people together here, two hundred years ago, to overthrow the evil slave-owners who held us prisoner. They describe the sorrows we suffered, here and in the slave ships of the Middle Passage. The Africa that we left behind, the land of spirits. The good lwa who came with us to watch over us. And especially Ogou Feray, protector of the weak.'
More time passes, during which the audience listen attentively, occasionally sighing or murmuring, and the SITU team are fascinated or bored according to their natures.
'Ah, now we move on to today. We suffer again under oppression most evil, and it is one of our own. Like Duvalier before him, he calls upon the power of le Baron Samdi to help him keep us down.'
There is a stir and a murmur as another figure, clad as Baron Samdi in a dark suit, tailcoat and top hat, his face made up as a skull and with bare feet, leaps onto the stage and starts to caper about.
'And now they say - oh good Ogou Feray - send us another Boukman - another warrior who will lead us against this evil.'
The crowd immediately around the stage parts, and six red bulls are led up onto it, excellent examples of their kind, sturdy and well-muscled, with vicious horns. They stand patiently while the drumming intensifies and people in the crowd start to cry out sporadically. They must be drugged, thinks Culver to himself. Louise Bijoux is squeezing his arm painfully hard now, and appears very uneasy.
Professor Twitchin joins the shuffling, twitching queue of worshippers presenting their victim to Wirkus. One by one, the oungan expertly cuts the cocks' heads off, and each sacrificer in turn slings his or her victim backwards to spatter those close by with blood. Wirkus grins at Twitchin as he offers his own cock, tugging the hood from its head: it looks around, dazed by the sudden light, but only very briefly before Wirkus executes it. He daubs blood over the Professor's face.
One after the other the six bulls are stunned with a mallet and their throats slit, each one greeted with a mighty shout by the worshippers. A metallic smell drifts across the arena.
'Now they call for Ogou Feray to come down into this place,' says Hurbon, speaking normally now: he could not be heard otherwise.
Suddenly Louise stiffens, releasing Culver's arm. He turns to her, alarmed, to see that she is holding her arms and legs stiffly, her body fiercely erect, her teeth bared. She shudders all over as though having some kind of fit.
Culver makes to take hold of her, but Hurbon strikes his hands away. 'To interrupt it is more dangerous,' he breathes. 'Fascinating!'
Louise glances around her, and her expression has totally changed. The worry lines usually present are gone, replaced with an imperious hauteur. She struts forward, swinging her arms stiffly.
Side-step moves to intercept her, but she brushes him aside. 'Va te faire fout'' she exclaims, her voice deep and harsh, and she strides down into the mass of people, which parts respectfully before her.
Looking across the arena, Henry can see that three other people are behaving similarly, heading for the stage with a military gait. The oungans are busily carving the dead bulls into joints: someone has lit a large fire nearby.
As Professor Twitchin continues to dance, he feels a curious sensation stealing over him. His movements become more and more sinuous, and his tongue starts to flicker in and out of his mouth. He drops to the ground and starts to writhe around in the dirt, to the cheers of the nearby celebrants. A detached part of his mind is observing this behaviour, thinking to itself 'My goodness, this is all rather curious,' but it is as though the remainder of his volition has been taken over by another set of desires and motivations entirely, with which he has no real contact.
Riggs watches anxiously as the Professor wriggles his way about the yard, hissing and weaving, his arms along his sides, his glasses askew. Many of the worshippers are laughing, a friendly laugh, but they are also treating Twitchin with respect. Wirkus, grinning broadly, rises and shouts out a long prayer, in which the words 'Dambala Wedo' can be heard.
Some time passes at Bois-Caïman before the mood descends to normal once more. Louise and the other three people acting similarly all simultaneously collapse, as though their strings have been cut, lying on the stage in the pool of blood. The oungans pronounce a valediction. The celebrants, all having tasted at least a piece of the sacrificial bulls, slowly start to disperse. There is a noticeable sense of disappointment, a though something rather more spectacular had been hoped for.
The SITU team thrust their way down against the flow, towards the central stage. Culver goes to Louise and checks her vital signs. She is unconscious, but breathing normally, and her heartbeat while fast is slowing. The same is true of the others.
One of the oungans looks curiously across, and Hurbon exchanges a few words with him in Creole. He then turns to the team. 'This man will answer your questions.'
When Professor Twitchin slumps into unconsciousness, Riggs neatly steps into the dancing crowd and hauls him out to the side. He satisfies himself that the Professor is not too badly damaged by his trial. His clothes are all shredded and filthy, his glasses long gone, his skin scuffed and abraded all over, but there are no broken bones. None of the blood which liberally besmears him appears to be his own.
Wirkus comes over. 'He is a fortunate man. To be ridden by Dambala is a sign of great good luck - for him and for all of us. Dambala has not blessed us with an appearance for almost a year now.'
There is a whistle from the shadows at the side of the house, and Wirkus looks up. 'I must leave you now - a little sleep and he will be well.' He walks hastily away.
Riggs, peering into the darkness after him, sees him stop in front of a small, stocky man in a grey silk suit, with wavy dark hair and an olive complexion, wearing Seventies-style metal-rimmed teardrop sunglasses. Wirkus shakes his hand, and leads him into the house, glancing around him anxiously.
'I wanted to ask you about the situation in Port-de-Paix,' says Culver. 'Borasme and Créchon - we think - are deliberately perverting the forces of voudon for their own ends - and les fils de Boukman will suffer as a result.'
The oungan nods. 'Le Baron has Port-de-Paix firmly in his grip and will not let go.' His voice is deep and resonant.
'We - my friends and I - are sympathetic to your cause, and we would like to work with you if possible,' continues Culver. 'Perhaps we can help remove this darkness from Haiti... maybe even permanently?'
The oungan smiles, tight-lipped. 'Today, m'sieu, we prayed for a new Boukman Dutty - a man blessed by the lwa, a figure of strength to lead us as an army against Borasme and his zombies. We were not sent this new Boukman. What then can we do?'
'What about these?' Culver indicated Louise and the others.
'Pff... they were ridden, they carry a part of Ogou Feray, of the new Boukman, in them, but none of them are the general we wanted. None of them are the bright, shining figures, nine feet tall, sabre-wielding warriors we sought. What good can these small people do? They cannot lead armies.'
'Maybe they can still be useful somehow,' says Side-step. 'Do any of you people know La Tortue at all? The facility that Borasme has there?'
'No-one has come back from that island since he set up his base there,' says the oungan sorrowfully. 'It is accursed.'
'Well, have you at least got an idea of what kind of installation it is - how many guards, how they're armed, that kind of thing?' Side-step persists.
There is a brief conference. 'Perhaps twenty men? Some with guns. There is a dock and there is a laboratory. Then there are the zombies - maybe dozens of them.' He looks thoughtful, then points to one of the unconscious neo-Boukmans. 'This man, I think, he lived on La Tortue before Borasme took it over. He could help you find your way around.'
'Great!' says Culver cheerily. 'Anything else?'
'The only other thing is that we have heard that a representative of their suppliers - a Colombian - is in town meeting with Borasme. By the name of Geraldo Cabrera.'