From the author: A teacher asks a New Orleans voodoo mambo to avenge her daughter.
by Stephen Dedman
“People have the wrong idea about voodoo dolls,” said the mambo. “They’re not meant to curse people, or to harm them. Believers nail prayers and shoes and images to pwen, but over time these rot away, and so there’s nothing left in the pwen but nails. Doesn’t mean it’s meant to harm anyone.”
“What’s a pwen?”
“That’s harder to explain. It’s something with power, magical power. A small one’s like a talisman, a lucky charm, gris-gris. The pillars in the temple are larger pwen, some trees are pwen, especially the ones in cemeteries, and they’re connected through the earth to other, still more powerful pwen.” She paused as a bus hurried past, shaking the jars in the shop slightly: she prided herself on never raising her velvet-soft honey-sweet voice, except when a loa was riding her and she could shrug off any responsibility. “Voodoo dolls are something different. Sympathetic magic: what you do to the image or symbol of something, you do to the thing itself. It’s part of voodoo, like it’s part of most magical traditions, and that’s what’s caused the confusion. Do you understand?”
The woman – a tourist, the mambo thought, judging by her accent – nodded. She was almost as dark-skinned as the mambo herself, but she looked fairly wealthy, dressed and talked like a businesswoman or an academic. Good shoes, and they matched her bag. Expensive watch. Didn’t look or sound like an undercover cop: too nervous, for one thing, though that could have been just an act, and probably too old for that sort of assignment. The mambo guessed that she was only a year or two either side of her own age of forty-four. “I think so. So if you wanted to curse somebody – or if somebody else wanted somebody cursed… could you do that using their image?”
“I know how it could be done, if that’s what you mean,” said the mambo blandly, and smiled. “How bad a curse?”
“How bad can they be?”
“Would death be bad enough, or would this hypothetical somebody be willing to pay for more?”
“There are all sorts of deaths, some worse than others. And what happens to you after that…” The mambo shrugged. “Are you writing a novel?”
The woman hesitated.
“An academic paper?”
“Or is your interest more than academic?” When there was no reply, the mambo stopped smiling. “Voodoo is not a joke. Not to those who believe in it.”
“And what if I don’t believe?”
A slight shrug. “Voodoo has less power to either help or harm those who do not believe. Not none, perhaps, but less. Does this hypothetical somebody that you want – sorry, that the other hypothetical somebody wants – believe?”
“Yes. I think so, anyway. He wears small charms – pwen? – but they could be as fake as he is.”
The mambo raised an eyebrow at this. “Local?”
“What did he do?”
“He killed my daughter.” The woman’s voice was steady.
The mambo didn’t blink. “How long ago?”
A nod. “Sounds like you could use some good coffee, or tea. I’m going to close the shop for a while. You sit down and tell me as much as you want to.”
* * *
The coffee was good, even by New Orleans standards, and the mambo served it with fresh beignets, in a small candlelit room behind the shop that smelled of cigars and incense and scented wax and looked like a combination dining room, museum, and temple. A large boa constrictor was draped across a dusty bookshelf, so utterly motionless that the woman couldn’t tell whether it was alive. Above it, a painting of a dark-skinned woman in a pink dress and headscarf seemed to transform as the candles flickered: young and beautiful, then ancient, or possibly scarred. “That’s Erzulie,” said the mambo, closing the heavy door to block out the traffic noises from the street. “Loa of love and beauty – and sex, lust, passion, art, motherhood, and jealousy. Protector of women, children, and homosexuals. So, tell me more about this man you want cursed.”
“Do you need to know my name?” the woman asked.
“Do you need to tell me?”
Her mouth quirked slightly, and she forced herself to look at the mambo rather than the painting or the snake. “Maybe later. The man goes by the name of Ramon Boyce, but I don’t know if that’s real either. He lives on Mandeville Street between Pleasure and Humanity; calls himself a tour guide, and a photographer and artist. According to my daughter, he works sometimes as a waiter, sometimes as a DJ. He’s also a pimp and a pusher.”
“How did your daughter die?” asked the mambo.
“An overdose. A speedball or snowball: heroin and cocaine. Boyce sells both.”
“Who told you that?”
“The police. Off the record. I hired a private detective, and we spoke to police and local journalists.”
“They couldn’t arrest him?”
“They said there was no evidence that it wasn’t self-inflicted.” She shrugged, and put her coffee cup down on the polished table. “I’m not saying it wasn’t, I can’t prove that he meant to kill her…but he’s the one who supplied her with drugs.”
“Had she taken them before?”
“Before she came here? Not heroin; I’m sure of that.” She grimaced. “She might have tried cocaine. And ecstasy. Pot, yes; I know the smell of pot.” A brief hint of a wry smile. “The other stuff, I haven’t tried, but I know the signs.”
“You’re a teacher?”
“I used to be. I let them promote me to deputy principal, and Lakeisha – my daughter – decided to move out and stay with my ex-husband not long after that. I only saw her on weekends for the next year and a half, and after she went to college, almost no contact except for e-mails and the occasional phone call. I didn’t even know she was coming to New Orleans until I had a postcard, more than a week later. She’d already met Boyce by then; she might even have moved in with him, or maybe that came later. Do you have any children…?”
“Call me Marie. And no. Do you have any others?”
“No. Paul and I divorced when Lakeisha was four, and we’d stopped trying long before that. I never remarried.”
“You say you’ve talked to the cops. Is there anything they can do?”
“They said there are so many murders now, after Katrina, that they can’t spare the time or the people. They’d like to put him away, but the jails are overcrowded and the courts backlogged.”
Marie nodded. “Who sent you to me?”
“The private detective. He said” - as a faint flush appeared in her dark cheeks - “that if you couldn’t help me, you’d probably know someone who could, and would, for a price.”
The mambo looked at her appraisingly. “I suspect he said more than that,” she said dryly. “Let me guess. He told you that I don’t cater to tourists, not in this neighborhood, so if I’m a fake, I’m good enough to fool the locals who’ve lived here for years. And that, fake or not, I know a lot of dirt about a lot of people. How’m I doing so far?”
The woman didn’t speak, but her eyes answered for her.
“Okay, don’t have to be psychic to know that. He may also have thought that Boyce might be a member of my temple. He isn’t, and if he were, he’d be under my protection unless you could persuade me to expel him - which you probably couldn’t, not without real evidence, because I don’t know you. I do know men who might kill him for you, and likely some women too… but I won’t tell you their names. Where you from? Washington?”
The woman looked into her empty coffee cup. “You’re good.”
The mambo smiled. “Magic takes work. Time. Sacrifices. When there’s easier ways to do things, like recognizing an accent and a way of talking, I use them. A case like this, easiest thing for you to do would be to hire someone with a knife. Wouldn’t even be expensive – at first. Problem is, someone like you has a reputation to worry about as well as money, you’d be easy to blackmail, while the guy with the knife wouldn’t worry so much about being found out. So maybe he goes to jail for a few years – so what? Lots of people here got so little they wouldn’t worry ‘bout that.”
“Could you – I mean – act as my agent in -“
“Like you were a loa riding me? Or, what do they call it in Washington? Plausible deniability?”
“No. Not for any money. What I will do, is see what I can find out about this Boyce and your Lakeisha. And then, maybe, I’ll curse him for you.”
The woman stood, her posture stiff. “Thank you for your time. How much do I owe you?”
“Nothing,” said the mambo. “Oh, you can leave a donation in the plate on your way out if you want, I won’t stop you, but I’m not hurting, unlike a lot of people here. And if you hear that this Boyce has got what he deserves, you can send money to Common Ground or Red Cross or someone like that who’s helping people here, as much as you think it’s worth, but I won’t give you a receipt or anything like that. Not going to try to prove I had anything to do with it, ‘cause that’s the way I like it.”
“What he deserves,” said the woman, thickly, then drew a deep breath. “What he deserves –“
“Is the best I can do,” said the mambo. The candles flickered as the door opened, and in the shifting shadows, her face looked alarmingly like that of the portrait of Erzulie. “And a bad enough curse for almost anyone.”
* * *
“These things that look like pizza ovens are tombs for folks who can’t afford their own mausoleums,” said Ramon Boyce, looking over the small gaggle of tourists who he was guiding around Saint Louis Cemetery One. “The ones at the top are waiting for new tenants, and if you look, you’ll see the bottom row’s already sunk into the mud under the weight of the ones above it. I don’t know how many rows are already underneath that, but here in New Orleans, we like to take some things slowly, including” – he paused, and winked at the most attractive woman in the flock, a conventionally pretty blonde in distressed jeans and a Guess? T-shirt that also seemed to be under considerable stress - “burying folks. Someone on this tour once told me that it’s a pity Edgar Allan Poe never made it down here: he would never’ve needed to worry about a premature burial if he had.”
He looked at his clients while they photographed each other – except for one woman, who’d come alone and had taken a few photographs of him with her small digital camera. Her hair was covered with a scarf, and her eyes with dark glasses that reminded him unpleasantly of images of Baron Samedi, the loa of death and resurrection, the zombi-maker. He’d looked closely at her when she’d joined the group, making sure she wasn’t Lakeisha’s mother in disguise trying some sort of trick. She was heavier in build, but just as dark, and looked to be about the same age. She still made him uneasy – but that wasn’t reason enough to turn down her money, not with other people watching. He tried to tell himself the photos were just a souvenir or maybe a form of flirtation, it wouldn’t have been the first time one of these old bitches had tried hitting on him and this one seemed rich enough that he would otherwise have tried his luck – but not with this one. He wasn’t particularly short of money, and the Californian blonde looked like a much better bet: she’d mispronounced Treme as ‘treem,’ as though it was an abbreviation of extreme, which marked her as a tourist as clearly as her small and expensive video camera. She’d probably be easy to pick up after he’d given her a line or two, and if he could get her hooked, maybe she’d even join his stable. “Okay,” he said, as he led the way past a stack of broken headstones, “down here is the tomb of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. At least, she’s supposed to be there, and you’ll note the plaque on the tomb says ‘reputed burial place’. Some say she never died, while others say that’s because one of her daughters – they were all called Marie - took over her title. And some say the ghosts of both women haunt the place, especially on St John’s Eve, when voodoo worshippers come here for a ritual.”
He stopped at the Greek revival tomb, and the blonde giggled. “What’s with all the triple-X signs? Did she have a sideline as a porn star, or something?”
Boyce looked down at the candles, flowers, and bottled water under the epitaph, partly to hide his smile. “People used to do that, and knock on the tomb, if they wanted Marie to grant them a wish. As you can see, worshippers still leave gifts here, so some people still take voodoo pretty seriously.” He gave the crowd his best smile. “Of course, it paid to be careful what you wished for.”
* * *
Boyce rarely rose before noon, and since he’d spent the night saying goodbye to the blonde, he woke even later in the day than usual. He’d been unable to persuade the bitch to stay any longer, so his mood was as sour as the taste in his dust-dry mouth as he staggered out of bed in search of something to ease his hangover. At a few minutes before three, dressed and groomed to his own satisfaction, he stopped to collect his mail before heading out to a café for a belated breakfast.
He nodded to the waitress and sat in his favourite booth, where he looked cautiously at the largest envelope. His name and address were printed in an elaborate and unfamiliar font, and there was no return address. Picking up a knife from the table, he slit the envelope open, and stared at the postcard-sized photo that slid out - a head-and-shoulders photo of himself with an open tomb as a backdrop. A heavy line was drawn through his neck.
The waitress bought him his coffee, and he grunted his thanks before shoving the photo into his pocket. Without needing to look at the menu, he asked for an oyster po’boy, pre-empting the waitress by adding, “Undressed.”
“What’ll it be, darlin’?”
Irritated, he turned around and repeated his order. The waitress stared at him, then shook her head. “Is this a joke?”
“What do –“ He blinked as he saw her expression. “You can’t hear me?”
“You need more time? I’ll come back later.”
“Wait!” he shouted. She didn’t turn around, until he picked up his spoon and tapped it ringingly against his water glass.
“You ready to order?”
“You really can’t hear me?”
She hesitated. “You got laryngitis, or somethin’?”
“Or something,” he said. He could hear his own voice as though it were echoing in his pounding skull, as usual, and seemed to be hearing everything else normally too, but the waitress merely looked at his mouth.
“I can’t read lips,” she said. “You better point to the menu if you want somethin’, then get your ass to a doctor.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my ass,” he muttered silently, stabbing a finger at the menu. She nodded, and returned a moment later with a muffeletta. It wasn’t what he’d asked for, but he barely noticed.
Apart from some burglary in his younger days, and a few stints in prison kitchens and laundries, every job he’d ever had had depended on his smoky-molasses voice. From the old scam of telling tourists he knew where they got their shoes, to his more profitable gig as a DJ at a strip club where he recruited most of his girls, it had served him well – and as a means of controlling his stable, it was better than a knife and maybe even a needle. Without it, he was…
He didn’t want to think about it. He wolfed down his muffeletta and café au lait and hurried out into the street in search of a doctor.
* * *
“Physically, there’s not a damn thing wrong with you,” the doctor told him, two weeks later. “No indications of infection, constriction, or physical damage anywhere in your throat. No traces of a toxin, nor of an allergic reaction. Nothing wrong with your hearing, either, and your comprehension and other language skills are within normal limits. I suppose there could be some nerve damage somewhere that we haven’t picked up with any of the tests, but I’m an E N T, not a neurologist. Of course, it may be psychosomatic.”
Boyce glared, and reached for the notepad he’d been using as his main form of communication for the past few weeks. His handwriting, once a scrawl too incomprehensible to be used as evidence, had improved significantly. I’M NOT CRAZY.
“I’m not saying you are,” the doctor replied. “But it may be worth seeing a specialist: there’s plenty of experts in post-traumatic stress disorder in town, though there may be a waiting list…”
Boyce started to write I DON’T NEED A HEADSHRINKER, but stopped on the second word, his mind racing ahead of his pen. He stared at the notepad for a moment, then screwed up the top page, scrawled THANKS, showed this message to the doctor, and walked out.
* * *
Boyce’s usual dealer, who he knew only as Jacques the Shark, was sitting in his usual spot on the Place John Paul with a tarot deck spread out on the cloth in front of him. He glanced up from the cards as Boyce approached, and smiled toothily. “Where you been, bro? Long time!”
Boyce squatted opposite him, and handed him a note. Jacques peered at it over the rims of his dark glasses, and blinked. “No shit? You can’t talk?”
Boyce shook his head. Jacques looked him up and down for a moment, then wrapped the cards up in his faded bandana, stuffed the package into a pocket of his once-black trench-coat, and led the way to the Cabildo. Once they were hidden from the square by the pillars, he patted Boyce up and down: he grunted slightly when he found the knife and the tiny .25 automatic, then asked quietly, “You ain’t wearing a wire?”
“Okay, so what is this shit?”
Boyce showed him the photo, then with a mixture of gestures and notes, recounted how he’d spent the last month eking out a living as a busboy and laborer. Jacques listened without any indications of sympathy, then stared at the photo again. “So what you want from me?”
Boyce retrieved the notepad and scrawled I THOUGHT YOU MIGHT BE ABLE TO HELP.
Jacques snorted. “I’m no Obeah man, I don’t mess with this sort of shit. I just read the people, and tells ‘em what I think they want to hear. Voodoo, real magic, I don’t know any more about than you do.”
Boyce knew full well that Jacques’ cards were mainly a punning form of advertisement, but he’d hoped that the older man had some knowledge of the craft he pretended to. YOU KNOW ANYBODY WHO COULD HELP?
“Maybe,” said the older man, blandly. Boyce glared at him for a few seconds, then grabbed his wallet and held it open to show how depleted it was. Jacques plucked out the largest note with his long fingernails, and made it disappear. “There’s a voodoo temple across the street from Armstrong Park – the real thing, not just a tourist trap.” He grabbed Boyce’s pen and wrote an address on the pad. “Somebody there should be able to tell you who did this, maybe even what you can do about it. Good luck.” He touched the brim of his weatherbeaten top hat in a mock salute, and walked back to his spot in the square.
* * *
From the outside, the temple looked like any other slightly run-down Creole townhouse, with no signs outside to say that it was anything other than a private home. There was an elaborate diagram hanging behind the glass panel in the front door, but it meant nothing to Boyce. The door opened when he knocked, but it was bright in the street and dark inside, and it was several seconds after he stepped in that he recognized the woman standing opposite him. If he had still had a voice, he would have sworn, or gasped.
“Yes?” said the mambo, politely.
Boyce reached into his pocket, meaning to draw his pistol, but grabbed the photo instead and thrust that at the woman he’d last seen during a tour of the Saint Louis Cemetery. The mambo took it calmly, and smiled slightly. “A good likeness,” she said. “Please, sit down before you fall down.”
Boyce pulled out his notebook and pen, but Marie shook her head. “There’s no need for that,” she said. “No, I don’t read minds – except when I need to – but I can read lips. So, what brings you here?”
“You did this to me, didn’t you?” said Boyce, pointing to his throat, then to the photo.
“You could say that – well, you could try. Or maybe it was Erzulie. Or some could say you did it to yourself.”
“You think this is a joke?”
“No,” said the mambo. “You may think voodoo is a joke, but I don’t. I don’t see anything funny about poisoning women, either.”
“I’ve never –“
“I’ve done some checking. Four of the women working for you or sleeping with you have died from drug overdoses. One might be regarded as a misfortune, two looks like carelessness, three… Well, as the saying goes, that suggests enemy action.” She pulled a slim panatella out of the packet in her pocket, bit off an end and spat it out into a small trashcan, and lit the cigar on one of the scented candles burning on the counter. “Four,” she continued, “makes me wonder if you losing your voice is punishment enough. It’s not as though you’ll ever be able to compensate anyone for what they’ve lost.” She glanced at the photo again, then held it a few inches above the candle flame. Boyce felt himself beginning to sweat.
“Unfortunately,” she said, “my power is limited by your belief – or your imagination, maybe, because you can’t yet imagine yourself dead, even in your dreams. A curse that stopped you eating would be a serious inconvenience, but there would be other ways of feeding you and keeping you alive, though I doubt you’d enjoy them. Or I might be able to send a loa to ride you while you’re asleep, and make you do something or go somewhere that would kill you after they’ve left you, but that would make me little better than you.”
“I didn’t poison anybody,” said Boyce, but his voice sounded like a croak, thin and unconvincing, inside his own aching head.
“I can’t prove that you did,” replied the mambo. “If I could, I’d be content to let the police deal with you. That should be enough to keep women safe from you.” She glanced at a Fulla doll painted and dressed in a rough likeness of Erzulie. “But I can’t, and you’re young, you might outlive me, and maybe you think that would be enough to lift the curse –“
Boyce fumbled for his pistol, and Marie touched the glowing tip of her cigar to the photo, burning out one of the eyes. The pimp screamed silently, and Marie raised the panatella slightly. “But I’ve asked the bones, and I can’t say your future is looking bright,” she warned him. “You can see yourself out – if you hurry.”
Boyce aimed the pistol, peering through his remaining good eye. The mambo burned out the other eye of the photo just as he squeezed the trigger.
Boyce stood there in darkness, unaware of whether he’d hit the mambo. The ringing in his ears from the gunshot, and the traffic noise from the street outside, made it difficult to hear any sounds of movement inside the shop. The skin of his face no longer felt hot, but his head was aching as though being squeezed inside a giant hand. Blind, aching, and terrified, he fled from the shop and into the street, straight into the path of a bus.
* * *
A month after Lakeisha’s death, her mother returned from mass to find an envelope in the mailbox. Her name and address were printed in an elaborate and unfamiliar font, and there was no return address.
She walked inside her apartment before slitting the envelope open. A small clipping from a newspaper described how Ramon Boyce, 29, had been fatally struck by a bus. The only other item in the envelope was a postcard-sized photo, the angle and lighting suggesting that it was a still from a security camera, but the profile was undeniably hers. In the background was the painting of Erzulie from the voodoo temple. She stared at this for a moment, then opened her laptop and logged into her bank account.
This story originally appeared in Midnight Echo #1.