Richard Ferguson has prepared five of his most unsettling short pieces -- bizarre tales of dark doing and unthinkable acts where horror and madness take on weird, unearthly forms . . . where indistinct shapes in the dark and bumps in the night are always signs of something dreadful on the prowl.
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RUM AND HORS-D'OEUVRES -- One would hardly think two bankers relaxing on a porch would attract the forces of evil . . . unless one of them practiced the dark arts of Haiti.
THE GENEALOGIST -- When Harry Poindexter sets out to learn about his ancestors, he has no idea what malevolent forces he will unleash.
THE NIGHTRIDER'S SONG -- Doctor Vodun and The Mambo Sisters find out loose lips can sometimes do more than sink ships when their rock group heads for the next gig.
LI FAN'S CAMERA -- Johnny Corbett discovers that sometimes crime not only doesn't pay, it can unlock an unfathomable surprise.
BAEL STUMPE -- When Bael meets his father after thirteen years, he enters the world of madness.
Monsieur was tall and slender, about eighty, white-haired, dapper, very dark, the color of old varnish. He was a former Haitian banker who lived in Galveston. He sat on the porch of his home, a grand, columned mansion that suggested a cross between a plantation home and a New Orleans house. We were tasting different kinds of rum poured over ice.
Two men plodded on the street below; one hesitated and looked up at us, staring without expression, and Monsieur commented, "Those men are zombies. The undead. And deservedly so." He regarded me with sharp black eyes. "You don't believe me?"
During the course of the afternoon he had told me of many strange things. How at night the ghost crabs skittered through his garden. That his cook, a haughty woman who had kept us supplied with tasty hors-d'ouevres for the past hours, had fed her former employer deadly mushrooms and was wanted for murder. And he had described a village deep in Haiti where all of the inhabitants were deformed. "Little people as warped as corkscrews. They rarely come into the cities."
"I have no reason to doubt you."
He cocked his white head. "You think you do. You are wrong."
With that, he glided into his parlor, an airy room with slowly turning ceiling fans, and stood by a book case.
I remained on the porch, but could see him well, this educated, elderly man, the result of pure island blood.
He picked up a conch bleached as white as old bone, and blew into it, producing a surprisingly mellow note.
The two men who had been passing stopped and turned back at the sound. A shroud of darkness had gathered and I couldn't see clearly. They moved mechanically. Mindlessly, it struck me. Again, they approached, this time both stopping and turning their faces up toward us.
He blew again.
More dark figures appeared from both directions. Shuffling. Plodding. They gathered in the street below. A dozen. Two dozen. Silent. Still. Faces upturned. I saw the keen eyes of my host on me, gauging the success of his concert by my reaction since he couldn't see the street from his position in the parlor.
He came to my side and waved his arm.
The crowd below spread and melted away, merging with the darkness.
Now he regarded me. "You see?"
"Yes, but I don't understand." If he wanted to play with me, I'd go along. I wouldn't tell him I knew they had been Mardi Gras revelers expecting beads.
He smiled. "Islands are like that, full of strange things."
I was curious to see how far he'd take his joke. "I've lived here all my life. Why haven't I seen them before."
"There is a difference between seeing and looking. You looked, but you did not see."
A servant stepped onto the porch and set out fresh glasses of iced rum.
I tasted it, a little like absinthe. "I have seen ghosts here. They were eating snakes. Holding them by their tails and lowering them like sword swallowers."
He accepted that as fact, and nodded. "Yes, they must have been the spirits of Indians. They ate snakes."
I pointed to the street below. "What do the zombies eat?"
"Aren't they missed?"
He nodded. "Of course. Surely you can remember cases where people were presumed to have drowned or who simply disappeared and never were found. Mostly they eat street people and runaways who never are missed, though. It's uncomfortable when there is no breeze. Would you like more ice? Rum?"
"I've never tasted rums like these before. I have a friend from Haiti. I'll have to see if she can get some whenever she goes there."
"No need. I have cases. Accept a bottle of each from me."
"You're too generous."
As he poured rum from a peculiarly-shaped bottle with no label: "Tell me about your Haitian friend. Is she pretty?"
"What is her name?"
"Sylvie," he repeated slowly. "Our women can be lovely: supple, haughty, smooth, sleek as leopards. Sometimes they can be enticingly bold, too."
"Yes, that's her precisely."
His eyes became a fraction less friendly. "But is it not a problem, the color?"
"She is a beautiful color. Like this." I held up the latest glass of rum, the palest shade served so far, about the same as honey. "But I know what you mean. I can't be seen with her because of my job. That would be a little too liberal for the bank."
"We did not have such problems at my bank. This particular rum was once used as an anesthetic for operations. There is something about it that is said to be particularly numbing. The mind remains clear, but the body feels nothing. I see you are looking at the photograph of my family."
I hadn't noticed it before. In fact I was certain it hadn't been there on the small table between us. Perhaps he had brought it when he came from blowing the conch. Now, it had the same dumb power to draw my attention as a spot on a blank white wall. It was about six inches tall and four inches wide. It was in a mother-of-pearl frame with an easel back. Three people. Monsieur, much younger, a woman, and a girl. The woman was white and the girl was very light-skinned.
"Your wife and daughter are beautiful," I said. My vision blurred. I heard a rhythmic whooshing near me and saw a sea gull hovering near my face.
He waved his hand much the same way he had before and the bird swooped away. "I feed them sometimes," he said apologetically. "A lonely man has to do something." In reply to my questioning glance, he added, "My wife died years ago. My daughter is all I have now. Where do you take your woman if you can't be seen with her?"
"I have a beach house down the island. Quite secluded. We spend time there."
"I too have spent time at the beach. A good friend has a cabin where I sometimes go. It's very shocking for an old man though."
"The young women wear so little. From behind, they appear naked, and not so much more from the front."
"The new generation has different morals. Sylvie wears nothing at all when we swim in surf at night."
I heard the gull swoop past again. It screeched. Far off, a band struck up, trumpets, drums, applause and shouts, sounds reminding us that it was Mardi Gras week in Galveston.
"I can't stand the noise and the stench. I spend my time at my friend's beach house during the season," he announced.
"Actually, I enjoy it. It's a time when people release their inhibitions. In years past, I have gone to a party on the parade route."
"Yes, I can imagine that might be amusing." Monsieur was standing now, moving to and fro, and I became aware of how lithe his movements were, how like a leopard himself. "Of course, you couldn't go to the party with Sylvie."
All the while, the photograph had occupied center stage in my view, drawing my gaze into it. Strange how we imagine similarities. All Orientals look alike. All Haitian women are Sylvie, even young girls.