02: Back in Black

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When It Happened (Chronicle Time): April 12-14, 2002

Who Was There: George Phillapoussis (Storn), Jonathan Wertham (Matt), Mark Donovin (Eric), Nemura Kentaro (Chris)

What It Was

Back in New York City, Jonathan gets a career-making chance to restore Harlem's beloved Renaissance Casino & Ballroom, part of a larger deal landed by his employers, McKendrick & Sloane. But the project nearly ends before it starts when brain-drained homeless people begin turning up in the "Renny." With the help of El-Hajj Jamal Rashid, the four men learn something about the secret history of New York, and defeat a creature made of lethal black mold.

The Full Horror

Eight months have passed since the battle in Grand Rapids, and the four men are a little surprised to find that they are all still in New York. George and Jonathan are back at their jobs, of course. But Mark is staying around, finding enough work to pay his bills. And Ken is now a visiting scholar at Columbia, where he teaches classes while he makes sure Jonathan and Mark fully recover.

Then, in April, Jonathan has another dream about the lake bed. This time a large cobra stares him in the face as voices scream all around them. Then the cobra speaks: "All things begin with screams, because they have no choice in birth. But rebirth is your choice. Will you make it?"

Later that day, the four men are in the spacious atrium of the Citicorp Center, attending a party sponsored by Jonathan's employers, the architecture firm McKendrick & Sloane. The celebration is in honor of their contract for a new office complex in Harlem. Community leaders are already calling the project an important next step in Harlem's recent revival--even former President Bill Clinton was heard talking about it. In return for the lucrative deal, M&S have also agreed to restore a Harlem landmark: the Renaissance Casino & Ballroom.


Demetrius Katsoulakis is on the board of the Renaissance Renovation Fund, and with some behind-the-scenes arm-twisting, he made sure the project went to Jonathan. It's the sort of break that could make Jonathan's career, and Katsoulakis stops by during the party to tell him, "Don't fuck it up."

Harlem's civic leaders are not especially pleased to see the Renaissance project go to a Midtown firm--much less a young, white, English architect. But a recent roof collapse and a very wet spring have put the Renaissance in serious danger. Saving it will take gifted vision and technical expertise, and that means Jonathan and his firm really are the Renny's best hope.

Citicorp, the underwriter of both projects, demanded security for both sites, so Katsoulakis recommended Mark. Mark's formidable dispatcher, Carla Madajewicz, cancelled his assignments so he could take the job and promised to help him find good recruits for a security team.

Mark will earn his money. Citicorp wants the project to stay low-profile, but some residents of Harlem are refusing to heed their community leaders' request to accept McKendrick & Sloane. Malik Zulu Shabazz of the New Black Panthers even threatened to stage a protest, and it took an alliance of old-school Black Panther Bobby Seale, Representative Charles Rangel, and Reverend Al Sharpton to make him back down.

Which brings things back to the Citicorp celebration. With the joyful song of a gospel choir from the Abyssinian Baptist Church in the background, the four men see some familiar faces, including the lovely Lady Margaret Jameson and and the world-weary Lesek Czernin. Michel Borsavin stops by and makes a big show of offering his psychic services to Jonathan, just in case he needs help detecting any hidden problems or dangers around the Renaissance site.


Lady Margaret then introduces them to a man named El-Hajj Jamal Rashid. Jamal is obviously important somehow, and Lady Margaret clearly respects and likes him, but her comments about the man are carefully vague. After they are introduced, Jamal looks at Jonathan and says, "You seem to have a journey, Brother, but don't yet know the path."

A drunken Michel stumbles back to talk to Jonathan and ends up dumping his drink on him. Then, when Jonathan goes to the men's room to clean up, he's approached by Martin Murray. Jonathan definitely isn't happy about starting a conversation with Murray in the john, but the creepy bastard won't take a hint.

Then Murray grabs Jonathan's attention by saying it's too bad something so "terribly upsetting" should have happened at the Renaissance only that morning. A public-relations disaster for sure. Murray is out the door before Jonathan can ask him what he's talking about, so the four men run over to Jonathan's office to get some answers.

Checking Out the Renny

Some basic facts about the Renaisance Casino: built in 1925, it covers an entire block at 138th and 7th, just down the street from the another Harlem landmark, the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Until 1949, the Renny's second floor included the home court of the New York Renaissance, Harlem's own basketball team. The first Crisis magazine awards were given there (their first prize went to Countee Cullen), and the great Chick Webb and his band played there several times.

Despite its place in history, though, by 2002 the Renny is in bad shape. The roof collapsed in January, and the wet spring has left the building waterlogged and structurally damaged. Fortunately, an appraiser says, despite all the mildew and water damage, the building can still be salvaged. The interior will have to be gutted and rebuilt, but the exterior is still largely intact, so Jonathan won't have trouble with the historical commission. It will be an expensive project, but M&S is certain the Renny's sister project, the new office complex, will cover it.

Attached to the appraisal report is a cover letter to Jonathan and Mark. It says: 1) the City has given M&S control of the Renny out to the middle of the surrounding roads (so they can police the sidewalks), and 2) Mark and his guards may bear handguns openly on the premises. No one ever gives that kind of authority in New York. Obviously M&S (or, perhaps, Katsoulakis) has friends in very influential places.

While they're taking all this in, Erik Sloane, the more tight-lipped partner, drops by Jonathan's office to tell them that two homeless people were found in the Renny's Grand Ballroom that morning. It looks like they may have been there since April 10, two days before. One guy was alive, but the other one was very dead. M&S are calling in favors from the NYPD to keep the story out of the papers so Citicorp doesn't hear about it. But Sloane tells Mark and Jonathan this just became their first assignment. Find out what happened and make damn sure it doesn't happen again.

The four men drive to the Renaissance to check it out. The Renny really is a wonderful old building, and they spend the better part of an hour exploring the Grand Ballroom, the meeting rooms, the remnants of the basketball court, and the dingy basement with its massive steam furnaces. There's not much else inside, other than old mattresses, syringes, razor blades, pigeon shit, and sundry detritus. Wisely, they thought ahead and are wearing masks and rubber gloves as they wander around.

Mark and Ken then go to the Harlem Hospital Center on Lenox to examine the two homeless men. The dead man is in the morgue, and they find his mouth, ears and other orifices coated with a thick black substance. His lungs are choked with the stuff, and preliminary reports suggest he died from suffocation. The substance is some kind of mycotoxin, a black mold quite likely from the Amazon, though that hasn't been confirmed yet.

Up in the psych ward, the other man is being kept in isolation. He has the same black substance on his lips, ears, and other orifices, though not to the same degree. The preliminary report on him shows a massive decrease in brain activity. This was so disturbing, the hospital cleared its MRI machine right away, and a full battery of tests found severe deficiencies in all his major brain chemicals: serotonin, acetylcholine, dopamine, norepinephrine. The man's brain is barely functional, and all his higher functions are completely shut down. The doctors hope they can cure him, but they have to wait for more data. They've never seen anything like it.

Meeting the Neighbors

Mark hires eight guards to secure the perimeter of the Renny, and a ninth man to spend the night inside and keep watch. At 8am the next morning, one of the guards calls to say the night watchman hasn't come out in two hours. The four men head down to the Renny, and find the watchman lying on the second-floor basketball court, completely unresponsive, just like the homeless man in the Harlem Hospital psych ward. They call an ambulance to rush him to the Harlem Hospital.


After that, George goes to the homeless shelter of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and meets Shauntell Robertson, the woman in charge. Her brother, James Robertson, has heard the homeless say no one dares to spend a night in the Renny. Any homeless who do turn up the next day sick in a way that terrifies the street people. This started happening within the last couple of months. Some of the homeless have been talking about something they call The Choker.

It's 11am when Mark hears a commotion down the street: voices chanting "Black Power!" and other slogans. Four members of the New Black Panthers are coming down the street, followed by several men and women who want to see what happens. The crowd doesn't get any larger, but Mark can see a television news crew (WCBS) and reporters (the NY Post, NY Daily News, and NPR's WNYC).

Neither the group's leader, Rodell Kimanzi, nor the other Panthers are armed, but they all have megaphones, and they start setting up a platform in front of the Renny. That puts them within Mark's jurisdiction, but he wisely holds back. He tells his guards to fall back inside the Renny, and they wait the crowd out.

Mark calls his new contact at the 32nd Precinct, Sergeant Michael Webster, and brings him up-to-date on the situation. Webster offers to send some cops to break up the demonstration, but Mark asks him not to. Sure enough, when the Panthers fail to get a good confrontation, the crowd breaks up and the reporters leave without a story.

Secrets & Shadows

Not long after that, Jamal Rashid stops by. He seems to have heard about Mark's smart response to the demonstration and credits him for it. When all four men are there, Jamal asks Jonathan and the others to follow him inside. Jamal leads Jonathan to the middle of the foyer and asks him what he sees. Then Jamal places a hand on Jonathan's shoulder, and at once the architect can see lines of power surging throughout the Renaissance, a complex web of energies that Jonathan has vaguely sensed in some old buildings, but has never been able to see before.

Jamal then tells the four men about the arrival of Dominican immigrants in Brooklyn during the 1950s and 1960s. Most of the new arrivals were just happy to reach the U.S., but among them were a small group of bokors, evil sorcerers who craved power in their new home. The growing strength of the Brooklyn bokors led to an occult war with Harlem's Nation of Islam in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The final showdown came in 1976, and it happened right in the Grand Ballroom of the Renaissance. That night, the Dominicans summoned something they could not control. It consumed the NOI leaders but the creature also took over most of its summoners. The bokors "won" that night, but only at great cost.

For years the creature lay dormant while the bokors terrorized New York's Occult Underground and helped spur the City's decline during the late 1970s and 1980s. Only the rise of a man named Alex Abel, and an alliance of survivors from 1976 (including several old-school Black Panthers) helped turn things around. Things are much better now, so even Jamal had never thought to check on the Renny.

When the roof collapsed that spring, the interior started getting very wet, and the mold-based creature came out of hibernation. Now it has started to feed again. Jamal believes the creature may still have access to the powers of the bokor who summoned it, so he can't be certain what it might be able to do. But it is up to them to stop it.

The group waits for night, and as darkness falls over the Renny, the creature attacks. First it hurls handfuls of black mold which stick to the men's clothes and start wriggling toward their mouths, ears and noses. And it creates miasmas of black mold, which might have killed the men if they hadn't been wearing masks and ear plugs.

After some frightening moments, the men finally corner the creature on the second-floor basketball court. A shroud of pitch darkness descends on the entire room, and the men are forced to feel their way through it. But slowly they begin to close in. With one final effort, the creature flings itself on Mark, and tries to rip the mask off his face so it can force itself into him. But Mark and Ken manage to beat and cut the creature to death, and its remains ooze away across the floor of the court.

Previous Recap | Next Recap | Updated 3/19/12, by the Croupier