Some folks would tell you Major Graham got what he deserved for calling up the Devil. But Devil is an ignorant man’s word for something he don’t understand. Major just got tangled up with something he didn’t know nothing about, and it bit him. You would not mess with one of them big electrical boxes if you wasn’t an electrician. And neither should you try to deal with a Devil you don’t know.
We like to think we know what we’re doing, but mostly we don’t, and don’t know we don’t. A wise man doesn’t act out of ignorance; and a truly wise man knows he can never be sure he ain’t ignorant. So wisest of all is the man who does nothing.
And I happen to have a talent for that. My aunts called it laziness, but actually, it’s wisdom. And the wisest way to deal with the Devil is not to do it. I can do it, of course, otherwise not doing it wouldn’t count. I just know better. Most of the time.
I don’t live in the city. They may call it the Big Easy, but that city is too big and not nearly easy enough for me. I live out to the swamp a ways. Man was meant to live in the swamp. I reckon the Garden of Eden was very likely a swamp. There ain’t no place easier for the creation of life. You leave your shovel out overnight, and in the morning there’ll be worms living in the handle.
With so much life all around my house, it’s downright impossible to surprise me. When a human gets within a hundred yards, the frogs and chuck-will’s-widows and devil’s horses all come so quiet you’re like to go deaf. So I knowed it when the police was coming. If I’d had a phone, they could’ve called me. But that’s why I don’t have one.
The detective who came out was a cousin, not close but kin nonetheless. I’d seen him at family functions and such, which obliged me to listen to him, against my natural inclination. His name was Hebert, Stephen Hebert. Whereas I was a Boudreaux – Tom Boudreaux.
I invited Stephen up to my porch and offered him a drink. I had a Sazerac myself, except I was out of absinthe. And out of bitters, so you could say I was just drinking a glass of rye with a sugar cube. Well, three sugar cubes.
Stephen declined my whiskey on the grounds he was working. If I’d ever needed convincing about the foolishness of working, that would have done it.
“There’s been a murder in town,” he said gravely.
“I’m most sorry to hear that,” I replied, “but you have to expect that sort of thing, working for the Homicide Squad.”
“Yes, Tom,” and he sighed, as if I was the one bothering him. “I do expect that. But this case looks like it involved hoodoo. And that means you have the opportunity to be useful for once in your life.”
“I thank you for the opportunity, but you ought to know I’m morally opposed to being useful.”
“I know that for damn sure!” Stephen tugged at his starched white collar, getting his temper under control. “Just try doing the right thing for once.”
“I have,” I said darkly, “but I learn from my mistakes.”
“Look, I ain’t asking for much. I expect all you do is walk around and stare at things, recite mysterious nonsense, and collect your payment.”
A wise man don’t talk when he has nothing to say so I just sat there and enjoyed my drink and hoped he’d go away.
But Cousin Stephen was a righteous man and he knew if he kept standing there in the heat, with his collar wilting and the mosquitoes biting his neck, I’d be obliged to help him…
He briefed me in the car, on the drive to the city. That’s what they call it, only brief ain’t the word for it. Them Heberts love to talk.
“The victim is Major Graham. ‘Major’ isn’t a title; that’s his name. White male, forty-seven years old, five-foot-ten, two hundred and eleven pounds. Member of the local country club – one of the better ones. Mister Graham was found dead by his housekeeper at 8 a.m., in his garden. Impaled on a sharp implement.”
I nearly snorted when Stephen called it an implement, like the TV police.
“No fingerprints nor footprints but his own. Nothing on security cameras, and the servants were gone for the night. He had recently quarreled with a friend at the country club, but his friend has a good alibi and a lot of lawyers. And, as the Commissioner reminded me, he’s first cousin to the mayor’s wife.”
The Graham house was one of them huge estates. Its garden was about the furthest thing from my swamp you could imagine. Every blade of grass the same height and color. A tiled pool with a fountain. Paths of crushed white limestone with not a spot of moss on them. A hedge maze trimmed so perfect they must have used a ruler. I reckoned Major was so rich he bought a new boat when the old one got wet.
I got a look at the implement what had sealed Major’s fate – and it made the whole garden unreal. It was a raw, thick black line nine feet high, with a crescent moon shape up top. The police didn’t know what it might be, and it troubled them. Me, I knew what it was, and it troubled me more.
“I don’t think this, ah, implement, stabbed him to death. That don’t look like a lot of blood.”
“Cause of death is for the medical examiner to determine. But we can’t move it. Can’t haul it off. Can’t dig it up. Can’t cut it down.”
Of course they couldn’t. Sometimes an object in our world gets too close to the Otherreal, and starts acting according to its rules. They can cause a powerful lot of trouble, and to deal with them safely, you need a good hoodoo man on a good day.
But this wasn’t an object from our world. It wasn’t even an object. It was pure symbol, and had no right standing in the crossroad of two paths in the middle of a man’s garden. That placement, and the moon-shape on top, well, that was a Devil I knew quite well – Papa Legba. All crossroads are one to him, and he can be called at any of them. And this implement was Papa Legba’s walking stick.
But why was it here? I looked about real close.
And there it was. Rolled under a hedge. A broken, empty bottle of rum. I got down under the hedge. In a little pool of rum was a half-smoked cigarillo. Cousin Stephen stared at me down under that hedge, considering whether it had been his brightest idea to bring me in on the case.
I was tempted to not tell him about the bottle. But to know what had happened here I’d have to get him off my back. And that bottle would keep him occupied. I pointed it out, and while he was making a fuss about his new evidence, I walked up to the mansion.
I’d noticed one of the servants, by the look of it the cook, standing outside a side door watching. I went up and tipped my hat and introduced myself, like my Momma had taught me.
Esther, as she introduced herself, said, “You with the police?”
I confessed to being Detective Hebert’s cousin, and hoped she’d forgive me. “Did Mr. Graham ever take a drink outside while he was smoking?” I asked.
“I already told the police. He was pretty upset about some business deal. He felt his partner had stabbed him in the back. He started drinking before supper, and told me I could go home early. I was just as glad. I saw him grab a bottle of rum out of the cabinet when he went out to smoke. No glass, just the bottle.”
“Was Major Graham into hoodoo?”
“What do you think?”
“Me?! I have no business meddling in that kind of thing. Nothing good ever comes out of that. Cooking’s all the magic I care to know.”
“What kind of shoes was Mr. Graham wearing yesterday?”
“Brogues. Hand-made. No label,” said Esther.
I borrowed a package of cornstarch and thanked her as I left.
The police had walked all over the grass, but that didn’t matter as much as you might think. Major Graham, he’d died in the evening hours. Louisiana folks like to water their lawns in the evening, so the ground stays wet all night.
The smooth soles of Major Graham’s brogues had left their marks in the wet grass. When the police had come along, they was wearing boots and trampling dry grass. I used the cornstarch to mark Major’s footprints. Where the footprints ran across the stone path, I had to make some guesses.
Cousin Stephen was a-whining in my ear like a family of mosquitoes, but a swamp man learns to ignore that. I got him to stop stepping on my cornstarch, but it would have taken God Himself and three saints to shut him up. I finished and stood back to look.
“Well! Butter my butt and call it a biscuit! What does that look like to you?”
“It looks like a mess, Tom. It looks like you sprinkled cornstarch all over my crime scene.”
“See the pattern? Seems Major’s drunken stumbling created what we in the trade call a veve.”
“A what now?”
“The pattern what you draw on the ground when you want to speak to a particular spirit. It’s like sending a letter. The veve is the address. But the Post Office ain’t going to deliver it without a stamp. And that stamp is a sacrifice.”
“No call to go that far. It don’t necessarily got to be fancy, just the right sort of thing. The loa all got different human things they want they can’t do for themselves. And, you got to pay Papa Legba to get your message to them. He likes drinking, and smoking, and cussing. And that’s what Major Graham was doing.
“The loa really want human passion. The cook told me Major Graham felt backstabbed. There’s nothing like betrayal to cook up rage. And that called up a devil he didn’t know. That called Papa Legba.”
Well, Cousin Stephen wasn’t listening properly. He was just a hound waiting to be put on the scent.
“All right, then, I want to speak to this Mister Legba. Get a statement from him.”
“That’s the most damfool idea I ever heard! You hired me on as an expert, Stephen, and in my expert opinion, you ought to stay far away from hoodoo.”
“You’re saying that because actually hoodoo is baloney, there is no Legba to call, and you’d be too lazy to call him anyway.” He gave me his best smirk. “I think we’re done here. I’ll just tell the Commissioner—”
If this was just about Stephen, I’d have left, gladly. But… that implement. It didn’t belong here and it was going to cause a powerful lot of mischief if it stayed.
“Now hold on! I’ll help you. But you’re going to need a lot of rum. Not good rum, mind. Rot-gut. And you’ll need to smoke. And cuss.” I sent him off, and got to work.
I’ve never been at ease calling on the devil. It’s a nerve-racking and worrisome business. The loa are not human, and it’s a mighty bad mistake to forget that. You don’t want to start thinking you’re in control. You don’t use hoodoo, not really. Hoodoo uses you.
Cousin Stephen sent his policemen off to get some lunch and showed me the supplies he had procured. Now, for this kind of purpose, I like to use Wray & Nephew rum and Hav-A-Tampa cigars, but Stephen took me at my word and bought the worst stuff he could find over to the Seven-Eleven. The rum came in a rectangular plastic bottle, like mouthwash, and the cigars was artificial grape flavored. It was good enough, or rather bad enough. So we set to it.
“Now look here. I need to call up Papa Legba, so’s he can pick up that implement. But you let me do the talking, understand? Loas are dangerous, but at least I know what I’m doing. You’re my cousin, so I reckon I owe it to my dear aunt to keep you safe.”
He shrugged, “I don’t expect any Hoodoo gods to show up, anyway.”
“Fine. But if they do, you let me handle ‘em. You don’t call any attention to yourself, and under no circumstances do you step inside the veve.”
“Yes, yes, all right.”
Well it was just the most pitiful hoodoo ritual you ever saw. Technically speaking, Cousin Stephen was smoking and drinking and cussing, but you’d swear he’d never done anything of the kind in his life. I would have to give him some proper motivation. Not that I took pleasure winding Stephen up.
At least that wasn’t my primary motive.
“Stephen! Is that the best you can do?”
He stopped and coughed for a bit and glared at me.
“You look like a fool! Taking timid little sips of rum, coughing on every puff of them cigars. And that’s the most fainthearted cussing I ever heard. You want to see Papa Legba, you got to put in some real effort.”
“Oh? That’s rich coming from you, Tom, real goddamn rich. I’ve been putting in some real effort my whole life. I went to Tulane on a Dean’s Honor Scholarship, because my family could never have paid for it. Every night, every weekend, studying and sports and extracurriculars, to get that scholarship and keep it. And I graduated with honors, because I put in some real effort.
“Do you think it’s easy to become a detective, Tom? I’m not the Mayor’s cousin. I’m a good detective. I have a folder full of commendations. But every family gathering Ma goes on about you, how you’re such a respected hoodoo man. While you sit on your butt out in that rotting shack in the swamp. Well, I hope you rot away with—”
And just like that the world around us burst open and the Otherreal poured in. Stephen’s curse was drowned in a cacophony of car horns and train whistles and horse neighs. My hair stung like needles in my neck.
Papa Legba had arrived.
To Papa Legba, all crossroads is the same. He’s always there. Just his attention changes. So when I say he arrived, it was not he came to this particular point from somewhere else. It’s like we got his full attention. This one particular crossroads became every crossroad.
We was standing at every place in the entire world where two roads crossed. We was there, on that garden path. We was at Haight and Asbury, where them hippies hang out, over to San Francisco. We was at that big go-round in Paris, with the marble arches. We was at a place where two dirt tracks met in the middle of a lonely desert, in a night so empty you could see the Milky Way over your head. All of it at once, and if you think that’s too much for the human mind, you’re right.
Then it fell shut again and we was standing on the garden path looking at a smiling old man with a long pipe, wearing a straw hat because the sun down here is so bright not even the spirits want it in their eyes. He was standing smack in the middle of the crossroad with his wrinkly hand curled around his walking-stick, right next to the implement,.. The one looked like natural wood and normal size, the other was empty black and unreal.
Direct encounter with the divine was enough to shut even Stephen up for a while. He took a few steps back and stared with his mouth open. Then, once he’d gone through being stupefied, he got just regular stupid. When in shock, the human brain falls back on what it thinks it knows. He flashed his badge and opened his notebook.
“Detective Stephen Hebert, NOPD. Sir, please state your full name, age, and occupation.”
Papa Legba chewed on the end of his pipe and cocked his head. Then he smiled a friendly smile.
“Damn it, Stephen! You must be outside of your mind! Stop talking!”
But Stephen kept talking. And that’s when I realized that little bit of rum had been far too much for him.
“Where were you between 4 p.m. yesterday and 8 a.m. this morning?”
Legba gestured to all the space around him.
My cousin tapped his little notebook. “Sir, this is a murder investigation. You can answer me here or I can take you down to the station!”
For a second I saw a tiny smirk in the corner of Papa Legba’s mouth.
“Stephen you can’t arrest something like Papa Legba!”
“He’s got wrists, don’t he?”
“No, he don’t! The hat, the pipe, the whole body, that ain’t him! That’s just… politeness! He’s just looking human so we have something to look at.”
“Occupation?” Stephen gritted stubbornly.
“His occupation is standing between our world and theirs. Anybody wants to deal with Commander Agwe or Baron Samedi or Mama Erzulie, they got to give him his cut. And he always collects!”
“Well, Mister Legba, if you expect to collect from the NOPD, you need something worth striking a deal for! Now, how did Major Graham die?”
The air thickened like we was underwater. Papa Legba raised his head and looked at Stephen.
Stephen stepped unsteadily towards him.
“Don’t step in the veve!” I yelled, and went grabbing after him.
At first, I felt solid. On the edge of the Otherreal, your body feels more alive. Every breath deeper, every object sharper, every word means more. But the Otherreal is always hungry, and wherever it touches our world, it sucks the reality plumb out of it. Dissolves it, drinks it dry. Already, the grass under my feet was crumbling into a colorless dust.
Stephen waved his finger at Papa Legba. “I want the exact events! The exact events of Major Graham’s death!”
And that was all it took. No long negotiations. No tricky wording. No oaths. Just strong emotion and a hungry devil.
Papa Legba grinned.
A big old gator grin, with too much mouth and too many big white teeth.
He nodded once, his hand closed around Stephen’s to seal the deal, and it was done…
Night fell. Sweltering night, muggy and humid. Just the light of them little lamps on the garden path to see by.
I couldn’t move or breathe. I was too light. No, I just wasn’t. Cousin Stephen wasn’t. The grass and the air and the path weren’t. I wished it was a nightmare, but it was the Otherreal. Never had I been in it so fully.
And then here comes Major Graham. Staggering, kicking up stones. But I was seeing him the way the loa see – a thunderstorm of emotions raging inside his skin, the eye of the storm swirling around his heart. Colors no human can name bursting like fireworks in his chest with every breath.
He came to a wavering stop dead in the middle of the crossroads, and tried to put that bottle to his lips. But he was so drunk he spilt half on the ground, and commenced to hollering and a-screaming.
The implement appeared, shooting up from the ground like reverse lightning, an endless streak of pure jagged blackness. It skewered Graham through his chest and gigged him like a frog.
All those nameless colors flashed brighter and fiery intense. I tried to shield my eyes, but it wasn’t my eyes I was seeing with. Papa Legba’s cane hit the thunderstorm raging in Graham and blew it up into a hurricane, battering the inside of his chest, pounding with every heartbeat.
Graham made a soft sound. His arms and legs twitched. He pawed at the streak flaming through his chest, but his fingers couldn’t close over it. The power running through him flared up and then snapped down into nothing.
He fell stone dead.
Papa Legba had a little puzzled twist of a smile. He reached out to reclaim his cane… and his hand passed right through it.
…Reality flashed back.
Muscles that had been wanting to move had power again. We was back in our bodies, and able to move, but only just. The Otherreal takes its toll on mortal folk, and we had been deep in there. I felt like a worn-out old man. Cousin Stephen slumped over, looking all wilted like. I staggered over and helped him up. Papa Legba stood and watched us, patient as a hunter.
When he could speak again Stephen whispered. “What the Hell was that, Tom?”
“Seems Major Graham had the same bad luck as if he’d stumbled onto train tracks.”
“I can’t tell the Commissioner Graham was run over by a hoodoo train.”
“You won’t have to tell the Commissioner nothing. Do you see the implement of murder?”
Legba leaned forward, looking straight at me like a cat getting ready to pounce. If he’d had a tail, it would have twitched. I had his attention, that was for sure.
“Is this a trick question?”
“Yes, because you don’t see it.”
“What do you mean — I see the damn thing.”
“That’s just a…a conductor that connects the Otherreal with this specific place. That’s why it appears before Papa Legba. He can conjure a hundred of them, a thousand, all at once … but he never leaves one behind. ‘Cause, an open line between reality and the Otherreal? Somebody with the right knowledge could talk to the other loa directly and cut him out.”
But there was another reason too, one I had no intention of speaking. Somebody with more knowledge than sense might use the implement to tap into the Otherreal and draw on its power.
Legba followed my every breath and movement. He understood what I was saying, and what I wasn’t. The loa don’t like being at a disadvantage, and he was surely calculating just how much my understanding would cost him.
Stephen didn’t understand, but at least he was listening now.
“Physically it’s not here, that’s why nobody can move it. We don’t even see it. We see an empty line and feel it across our hearts. Major Graham’s death cut it off from the Otherreal and got it stuck in our world. So this ain’t a murder scene.”
Stephen looked down at his little notebook. “‘Impaled with a sharp implement.’”
“Is your little notebook the Bible, Stephen? Are you Saint Francis now?”
“Saint Francis didn’t write the—”
“Listen, Graham’s heart was full, pounding fit to beat the band! Papa Legba’s signal shot enough Otherreal power into it to fill it up all over again. Major Graham died of heart attack, just an angry millionaire who got drunk and cussed hisself to death.”
But you don’t never get nothing from the loa for free. I looked to Papa Legba, and he nodded. His mouth was crooked in a pleasant little smile, but his eyes were sharp as a shark’s.
We were tangled in the barb wire now, and there wouldn’t be no getting out without some scratches. But we had us a bargaining chip. Papa Legba needed that implement back and he couldn’t take it without help from the mortal side.
But then Stephen said “And what about this!” And grabbed the staff.
I yelled, but too late. Papa Legba’s hand shot out and closed around Stephen’s.
Stephen’s eyes widened, he went pale, and sweat popped out on his forehead. He looked like a landed fish, breathing in shallow gulps.
Then Papa Legba’s hand passed through Stephen’s and closed around the implement.
For a moment the noise swole back up, a wave of sound like a brick wall. Then all felt silent.
Papa Legba was gone.
The implement was gone.
The Otherreal was gone.
We were standing at the garden crossroad.
Stephen rubbed his palm, then stopped and stared at it. Not the hand he’d curled around the implement. No, his right hand, still holding his badge. He’d been gripping it so hard it left an imprint in the palm of his hand. But where it should have said NOPD and his name, red marks on his flesh spelled out:
Detective Stephen Hebert
You can’t say the loa don’t have no sense of humor! It seemed Cousin Stephen had a new job, like it or not.
He was welcome to it, I thought… for a second. Then I had to face facts. Cousin Stephen got my hackles up, but he was family. Papa Legba would want help with things Stephen didn’t even know existed, things that would bring him more trouble than he could imagine.
A wise man wouldn’t have got himself into this position. A crooked man would be thinking how to use it to his advantage. But Detective Stephen Hebert was a righteous man. The loa would be back to involve him in their affairs, and Stephen would try to do the right thing.
And he’d find himself in need of a man who knows how to do nothing. And I’d have to admit I was just the right man for that.
“Major Difficulties” © H.B. Stonebridge. First published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, March 20, 2022
H.B. Stonebridge is the writer team Helena and Byron
Helena pursued her obsession with the magic of words by studying literature and philosophy. When she is not trying out new recipes for exotic sweets, she is reading her stories to her prime audience – her brown spotted Dalmatian dog.
Byron is a writer, history professor, and Game Master who lives in Florida with his two sons and two dogs.