"Would you like to see something interesting?" The phrasing was innocuous, but somehow the way Griffith said the words in his high, reedy voice made them hang in the air in a sinister fashion. He leaned forward slightly in his overstuffed chair with a child's curiosity in his eyes, but there was nothing innocent about him. If he had the inquisitive nature of a child, it was that of the kind of child who liked to pull the wings off of flies and torture frogs.
Addison Burke wondered, sometimes, why he allowed himself to suffer Griffith Sunderland's dubious hospitality time and time again. Certainly they were both Englishmen abroad, and both shared the unique view of men far from their home country for one reason or another--Addison's medical work for the British Empire took him to Haiti, while Griffith...he never spoke of his reasons for living so far from Britain, but Addison had picked up gossip at the consulate. Some sort of scandal, related to his researches. It didn't surprise Addison in the slightest.
But the camaraderie of exiles abroad wasn't all of it; the staff at the British Consulate was small, but not so small that Addison couldn't choose to pass his time with them instead of the natives--or the ubiquitous Americans, of course. Addison had heard that they were finally beginning to pull out, but one American always seemed to be boisterous enough for five ordinary men. Even so, their company might be preferable to Griffith's displays of "interesting" medical curiosities.
But to admit it, if only to himself, Addison did find his time with Griffith interesting, even enthralling. He might shudder and wince at the strange and unusual exhibits that Griffith brought forth in the eerie half-light of his study--the dog that contrived to bark for a full minute after Griffith had removed its head from its body, the chicken with two heads that pecked and squabbled with each other, the woman whose body was covered with a pelt of fine, velvety hair--but the morbid curiosity that lurked within Addison's soul made him return, week after week, for another chat over a late afternoon tea as the warm autumn nights drew in.
That curiosity made him say, "Interesting in what sense?" to Griffith, whose keen eyes watched him with a knowing gleam. He was sure that his...friend? No, even if Addison was willing to call Griffith friend, he felt sure that Griffith felt true affection for no human being, possibly not even himself. Acquaintance, perhaps. He was sure that his acquaintance derived as much pleasure from seeing Addison struggle with his own sense of propriety as he did from displaying his rarities.
"Interesting in my usual sense, of course," Griffith replied with feigned casualness. "Although I confess, this one is more interesting than most. Cost me a pretty penny, too. And let me tell you, Addison old chap, there were times when I felt like I was bargaining with my very soul." He laughed, almost a cackle. "I was as surprised as you probably are to find out I had one."
Addison merely smiled thinly in response. The comment felt too true to do more; though he thought that Griffith was a brilliant man, and perhaps someday a legend for his medical researches, there was no question that the man acted purely out of intellectual curiosity rather than out of any concern for his fellow man. He had no qualms about unearthing corpses, inflicting pain, anything and everything to push the boundaries of ignorance one iota further back. He was a cold man. Addison had read Shelley's 'Frankenstein' once, marveling at the lessons on the hubris of the man of knowledge. He suspected that Griffith had read it as well, taking notes on the practicalities of animating the dead.
"But I see you need more than words to pique your interest, eh? Then perhaps I should introduce you to my houseguest." He stood up, and headed to the door of the study. Throwing it open, he clapped his hands loudly and shouted, "Ayida! Come!" Then he returned to his seat. "She will be along presently.
"Ayida's case is a curious one, medically. There's nothing obviously wrong with the girl. No deformity, no gross injury or immediate physical ailment. And yet..." Ayida walked slowly into the room, wearing nothing but a simple gray dress, and Addison found himself starting in his chair. "And yet, it is immediately obvious to anyone who looks at her that Ayida was buried a week ago."
Addison forced himself to look at the girl as she closed the door behind her, then stood perfectly still in front of them. She was a young native girl, quite attractive if you were the sort of person who found favor in the features of a Negress; her skin, though, had a grayish cast to it, as though she had been dusted with ashes. Addison knew, from examinations of natives who had taken ill, that this was an indication of severe pallor; whatever illness she was suffering from, it had drained her of all color save the pigmentation of her race.
But it was not the pallor that marked her out as...Addison's mind reeled, refusing to believe Griffith's sensational words. As ill, he decided. Rather, it was her stance, her gait, the unyielding vacancy to her stare. Ayida walked as one would imagine the dead to walk. She held no flicker of intelligence in her eyes (and Addison had spent enough time with the natives to know that any who held the Negro to be of inferior intellect was a bigot and a fool.) She stood there, endlessly patient. Addison refused to hold to Griffith's words, but he could see how one might believe them to be true. "A...zombie?" he asked at last.
"Ah," Griffith said, his smile somehow terrible to behold. "I see you are familiar with the local lore. Good. That saves me some effort, I think."
"Well," Addison practically stammered out, "I have read Seabrook's book on the subject, but--"
"Seabrook?" Griifith shouted out. "A deviant and a drunkard to boot! A simple-minded fame-seeker who stared a zombie in the face and couldn't see it for what it was!" Addison had seen Griffith like this before, on rare occasions, usually involving members of the medical profession back in England. Griffith normally had an even temperament, but he could become furious when discussing someone he believed had slighted him. Apparently he and William Seabrook had met, on the latter's famous trip to the island some two years past.
Griffith's rant didn't cease for a moment. "Did you know the fool dismissed them at first as congenital idiots? Even with my help, my guidance, my insight, he merely saw enough to suspect 'a drug of some kind'. And then he sailed off to write his ridiculous book, not even thinking or caring what he might have witnessed! The perverted, sensationalistic fool!" Griffith's cheeks flushed red with anger. The last time Addison had inadvertently provoked one of these fits of temper, Griffith had thrown him out of the house. Looking at Ayida, Addison wasn't sure if he'd even be bothered if it happened again tonight.
"Look at her!" Griffith shouted, darting to his feet and grabbing a stethoscope from a table nearby. "Examine her, Addison, and tell me if Ayida's condition is the result of 'congenital idiocy'!" He nearly flung the instrument at Addison, and Addison decided to humor his acquaintance.
He walked over to Ayida and pressed the stethoscope to her chest. Even in the stillness of Griffith's study, he had to listen for long moments to be sure he wasn't imagining the beating of her heart. He placed his hand in front of her mouth, feeling for even the tiniest stirring of breath in her lungs. "She's alive," he said, but he was surprised at the lack of certainty in his voice.
"Four days ago," Griffith said, his rage finally seeming to subside a bit, "you would not even have noticed that degree of animation in her body. The day she 'died', not a doctor in the world would have suspected even a hint of life remained in her body."
"Then how--" Addison pulled the stethoscope from his ears. "Look here, Griffith, I'm not about to believe that this girl came back from the dead. Reanimation of a corpse is a fantasy, and even if it were remotely in the realm of medical science, it couldn't be achieved by some...some voodoo spell!"
Griffith clasped his hands together. "And nor did I. When I first heard these legends, when I began to investigate them myself, my first task was to strip away the legend and myth to find the truth beneath it. The bokors, they were none too pleased that a man like me was seeking to discover the basis of their so-called 'vodou'. But eventually I met one who was willing to share her secrets. For a price."
Addison couldn't help himself; he continued to stare at the girl. She gave no sign of looking back; nothing at all disturbed the perfect vacancy of her expression. "You...bought this girl?"
"More than the girl," Griffith said. "Mama Kisanga showed me how she turned Ayida into a zombie. She took me to the marketplace, and had me pick a girl out of the crowd. 'The girl you choose,' she said, 'will be dead before the night is out.'"
Addison shuddered. He'd known Griffith to be cold, even amoral, but this... "Once I had made my choice, Mama Kisanga and I followed the girl home," Griffith continued. "We learned where she lived, and Mama Kisanga showed me what she called her 'coup de poudre'. She told me that it would bring the girl death, but a death followed by life." He held up a small vial of fine gray powder. "I tested it, of course, on animals. It's a neurotoxin, a paralytic. The key element is the dosage. Too little, and the girl would merely be weakened. Too much, and she would be dead. But with exactly the right amount..."
Addison began to see. "She would be just barely alive, vital signs too faint to detect." He tried to remind himself of the grossly unethical nature of the experiment, to force the excitement out of his voice. It didn't entirely work. "In that state, her metabolism would be so greatly slowed that she would require less oxygen. She could actually survive being buried alive."
"Oh, yes," Griffith responded. "And in fact, she did exactly that. Mama Kisanga stole into her room at night, and blew the coup de poudre into her lungs. By the next morning, her parents were mourning her death. They stood guard over her grave that night, but Mama Kisanga has many zombies under her control. It didn't take long before we dug Ayida up." Addison wanted to ask what had happened to Ayida's parents, but he found that he didn't truly want to know what lengths Griffith had gone to in order to pursue this knowledge.
"That explains the weakened vital signs," he said, "but...the vacant stare, the lifeless gait, her response to your summons..."
Griffith held up a second vial. "A further drug," he said. "This one dulls the senses, empties the will. It reduces Ayida's mind to a dream-like state. She believes herself to be a zombie, and hence it becomes true for her...as long as the drug lasts, of course. But Mama Kisanga has provided me with a supply, and I don't even need to worry about the dosage. Ayida is under orders to dose herself with the drug regularly. The slave enslaves herself!" he chortled.
"But...then you could release her, bring her back to herself," Addison said, hoping Griffith would agree.
"Oh, eventually," he said. "Once I have all the knowledge I need, I'll want to test how long it takes her to recover her faculties. But my research is simply too profitable right now." Addison blanched, horrified, but Griffith continued as if oblivious to his fellow doctor's shock. "It really is quite a fascinating psychological study, you know. She's utterly incapable of refusing orders. There is no taboo she will not cross, no task too degrading. Watch!"
He clapped his hands again. "Ayida! Take your clothes off!" Addison wanted to look away as the girl removed her dress without a hint of hesitation, her actions as mechanical and methodical as when she had entered the room and performed with as much emotion. But something, shock or curiosity or some darker, more bestial emotion, stilled his tongue and his eyes and made him watch as Ayida bared her body for them. As a doctor, he had seen women unclad before, but something about this made it seem far more...perverse. He remembered Griffith's comments about Seabrook's 'deviancy', but evidently Griffith considered himself immune to such slanders.
Griffith clapped again. "Ayida! Pleasure yourself!" The girl's hands reached down with slow, lifeless motion and felt their way between her thighs, finding her womanhood without a hint of shame or embarrassment...or for that matter, enjoyment. The motions of her fingers at the entrance of her womb seemed to stimulate her excitement not at all. She merely stared straight ahead, her jaw slightly slack, as her fingers worked at her nether regions. "I'm not sure if she really feels pleasure, of course," Griffith said. "She does lubricate, but that may simply be a physiological response. It's certainly worth further study, though..."
"Enough!" Addison shouted, Griffith's obvious enjoyment of the spectacle finally shaming him into speech. "That is enough, Griffith. Give the poor thing her dignity."
Griffith rolled his eyes. "Oh, very well," he said, clapping his hands once more. "Ayida! Put your clothes back on and go make us some tea." The girl complied, showing no signs of caring that two men had witnessed her in such immodest circumstances. Griffith, for his own part, resumed his seat as though he'd witnessed nothing more than an interesting medical development...but Addison caught sight of him adjusting his trousers slightly as he sat, and he suspected that Griffith had been making shameful use of the girl.
Addison sat in silence for long moments, collecting his thoughts. Finally, he could hold them to himself no longer. "You spoke of profitable research," he said coldly, intending to upbraid Griffith for his callous disregard for the girl's decency. As the Bible said, 'What could it profit a man, if he gain the world but forfeit his soul?' But Griffith interrupted him with glee.
"Oh, I'm certain it will be," he said. "Imagine the uses for it, Addison! A toxin that kills undetectably, whose dosage can be adjusted to produce seeming death instead of true death, weakness instead of apparent demise. Oh, I know that the weak-hearted fools in government have signed the Geneva Protocols, but those only cover warfare. This is to mustard gas as the scalpel is to the axe." He rubbed his hands together.
"And that's to say nothing of the second drug." Ayida returned with the tea as he continued to speak, so caught up in his grandiose dreams that he failed to even notice Addison's appalled reaction. "I'll need to patent it, of course. But who wouldn't pay for a drug that could sap a man's will? Picture it, Addison!" He took a sip of his tea, finally giving Addison a chance to speak.
"Oh, I can picture it all too well," Addison said. "It's demented, Griffith!" Ayida poured him a cup of tea, handing it over to him, but he refused to break the flow of his speech even as he accepted it. "A man's mind is sacrosanct, a gift from the Lord! What you're doing, what you're planning of taking further, it's monstrous! The temptation is obscene!" He took a drink of his tea.
"Oh, I expected no better of you, Addison," Griffith said irritably. "You lack vision! You see before you a wonder of medicine, and a visionary who can see a better world beyond it, and all you can think about is invoking the Bible? Imagine a murderer, dosed with this drug and turned into a productive laborer! Imagine a madman, dosed with this drug and calmed of his fury!"
"Imagine a woman," Addison retorted, "dosed with this drug and turned into a whore! You can't believe that people wouldn't use this drug for unscrupulous purposes, Griffith. Give a man the means to make anyone his slave, and they will do exactly that."
Griffith leaned back in his chair and took another drink of tea, his ire seemingly abated to disdain. "And yet," he said, "the bokors have possessed this secret for centuries, and use it only sparingly. Explain that."
Addison took another drink while he thought about Griffith's question. Pondering the past, instead of Griffith's nightmare future, seemed to calm him a little, but he remained no less adamant in his opposition. "Perhaps they cannot produce the powder in quantity," he said. "They're constrained not by desire, but by means."
Griffith shrugged. It was evident on his face that he had grown bored with the conversation. "It matters not," he said. "They've given me the means, and I have the desire. You'll see."
Addison thought briefly about storming out of the room, but a strange lethargy seemed to have overtaken his limbs. "I can't in good conscience allow...allow..." He paused, his train of thought somehow forgotten. "I..." He suddenly realized that this exhaustion was more than physical, but mental as well, and suddenly Griffith's words seemed more ominous with each passing moment. He looked down at the teacup he held, a dreadful suspicion growing in his mind.
Looking back up at Griffith seemed to take every bit of strength in his body, and he didn't doubt for a moment now that he had been dosed with the mysterious, will-sapping drug. He tried to insist that he didn't believe in voodoo, that he wouldn't fall under the sway of the mysterious trance that held Ayida in its grasp, but something deep within his heart told him that while he might not believe in voodoo, he believed in the effects he'd personally observed. He knew that the drug could affect him just as surely as the superstitious peasant girl.
He expected to see Griffith's triumphant leer, and braced himself for that high, reedy cackle. But instead, he was shocked to see that Griffith's eyes were every bit as glazed and vacant as he knew his own must be. Even as he watched, Griffith lost his grip on his teacup and spilled the dregs of the drink into his own lap, all without reacting at all.
Addison's mind whirled in confusion as his head sank back down in exhaustion. If Griffith was affected as well, then who...? He heard the sound of clapping from outside the room, and Ayida walked out of his field of vision. Addison felt too weak to follow her even with his eyes.
He didn't need to. Within moments, the mystery was solved when a dark-skinned woman walked into the room to stand in front of them. She wore a long white dress with a black men's jacket over it, and a men's top hat to boot. Smoked glasses covered her eyes, but her smile made the predatory look on her face clear nonetheless. Ayida stood by her side as though born to serve her, and Addison instantly knew that this must be Mama Kisanga.
"The bokor do not share their secrets, white man," she said to Griffith. "Did you think that Ayida served you? She obeyed my commands above all others, reported to me your progress while you slept. And when I commanded, she made sure that you had a full measure of the knowledge you sought." Addison wanted to fight, to run, perhaps only to shout for help, but the drug seemed to lull him into a hazy, obedient dream.
"And now," Mama Kisanga said, "I think it is time for you to leave your old life behind." Addison tried to think of his friends at the consulate, his duties as a doctor, but his mind seemed to still completely until all he could think of was following Mama Kisanga's commands. "Do not worry. I am not a harsh mistress. What need have I for whips and chains, when you cannot help but obey?" She clapped her hands. "Zombies!" she shouted. "Follow me."
She turned, and blank-eyed, Addison and Griffith rose to their feet and walked behind her as she left the study, leaving nothing behind them but an empty house and a mystery that would never be solved. The British Consulate never discovered the missing Englishmen, and the natives knew better than to speak of the two pale zombies who harvested the sugar-cane crops by moonlight.