Martin Luther Martin is a hard-working New Orleans cop, who has come up from the gangland of Alligator Swamp through hard work. When he has to serve his own eviction notice, he decides he’s had enough and agrees to spearhead a police strike.
Brothel owner and entrepreneur J. B. Lafitte also finds himself in a tight spot when his whorehouse in the Garden District goes into foreclosure. Those same Fat Cats responsible for the real estate collapse after Katrina didn’t differentiate between social strata or vocation.
MaryLou Boudreau, aka Mama Legba, is a television star and voodoo queen—with a difference. The loa really do ride and speak through her.
These three, disparate people are pulled together by a single moment in the television studio by Martin, hoping for publicity and support from the people against the banks, corporate fat cats, and corrupt politicians. But no one expects Papa Legba himself to answer, and his question changes everything.
Norman Spinrad’s The People’s Police is a sharp commentary on politics with a contemporary, speculative twist—available February 7th from Tor Books!
Mama Legba, the television star, would claim to have been “born on a bayou,” why not, the lyrical line rang the musical bell of every one south of Baton Rouge so it was good for the image, as it had been when she was no more than a street act in the Quarter, and it played even better on the air as the self-styled Voodoo Queen of Louisiana.
And it was technically true. MaryLou Boudreau had been her own self-creation for about as long as she could remember, and she had indeed been born on a bayou in Saint Bernard Parish, or anyway what was left of one, and yes, to a Creole mama and a Cajun papa, and all that jazz, as the official press bio had it. But Mom and Pop hadn’t exactly been the offspring of umpteen generations of zydeco musicians keeping the faith in the swampland of beloved folkie lore.
They grew up in bayou country, all right, but as children of a skanky hippie commune inhabited by the addled descendents of the debris of the ’60s Summer of Love, growing bad grass and stunted vegetables, collecting food stamps, and whatever else they could scam out of what ever governments, while being stoned to the gills twenty-four seven.
Mom and Pop escaped to the Big Easy soon after MaryLou was born to a lowlife highlife in the Quarter: bartending, waitressing, singing badly and playing banjo and guitar worse for street change around Jackson Square so they could keep telling themselves they were in show business, dealing a little this and that on the side maybe. MaryLou Boudreau didn’t ask and they didn’t tell.
They had made her a part of the act once she was old enough to walk and pass a hat, cheaper than hiring a monkey, and cuter anyway. But such innocent cuteness couldn’t last forever, and certainly not past grade school, and seeing as how she had trouble carry ing a tune and couldn’t learn to play a musical instrument beyond the kazoo, in order to emulate her parents and kid herself that she was also in show business, her contribution to the family act consisted of dressing as tightly and skimpily as the loosely enforced law would allow to display her ripening nubility, dance rather clumsily to the music, and pass the hat beneath her wriggling pootie.
After high school she found that any kind of job beyond occasional waitressing or bartending was no more available than it had been for Mom and Pop. She couldn’t even dance well enough to land gigs stripping in any but the lowest dive, and even if she were willing to descend to hooking, which she wasn’t, even there the competition would be stiff.
So it was a life of waitressing and bartending—and when things got bad, even occasional dishwashing—and the family act around Jefferson Square when the evenings were free from employment, which was more often than not, and more often than not doin’ their stuff in weekend Secondary Parades when the weather was good and one was to be found.
Inspired by Mardi Gras, these Secondary Parades were put on all year round except in the Hurricane Season by neighborhood associations or sports fans or what ever else felt like dancing through the streets for the fun of it. People paraded in homemade costumes and sometimes there were silly homemade floats, more often not, but there were always bands hopefully auditioning for paying gigs, and assorted street acts such as the Boudreaus hoping at least to gain enough buzz to enhance their take as street acts around the Quarter.
There were even a few so-called Secondary Parade Queens who aspired to and sometimes even occasionally gained places on actual Mardi Gras Krewe floats, and while MaryLou had not even risen that far, it was the next step up the only ladder available to her.
In the pursuit of which she created a character for herself for the parades and the performances around Jackson Square and other French Quarter venues: MarieLou Laveau.
Although she knew little about voodoo except that there had been several voodoo priestesses who had called themselves “Marie Laveau,” or a singular Marie Laveau who had been reincarnated several times if you wanted to believe such stuff, “MaryLou Laveau” sounded pretty much like Marie Laveau if you slurred it enough.
And if you danced around in a black bikini sprinkled with stardust sequins, an open diaphanous black lace cloak done up likewise, and a fake gold crown, you could at least become known around the Quarter as a street character who called herself “MaryLou Laveau,” even though no one really believed you were the latest reincarnation of the fabled Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.
“MaryLou Laveau the Voodoo Queen” might be a semi-comic character but she was generally received good-naturedly since she didn’t go so far as to take herself seriously, and at least it was an identity and a modest mea sure of very local fame.
MaryLou had partaken of the herb in the spaghetti sauce or brownies, the occasional mushroom in the tea on special occasions, for as long as she could remember—didn’t every mama’s child and wasn’t it always around the house?—though being righteously anti-tobacco her parents wouldn’t let her actually smoke anything, so even as an adult, she didn’t favor hash pipes or blunts or joints.
But one magic evening, the three of them ventured to Jackson Square to do the act, which as usual was drawing more mosquitoes than coins tossed in the hat, when a tottery and feeble old black man in threadbare tails and a comic opera top hat stopped for a moment to listen.
A patheticoid old rummy in top hat and tails wasn’t exactly outré in these environs, and of course he would be carry ing an ivory-headed cane, though the dreadlocks didn’t exactly match the rest of the costume. What he was smoking looked like a fancy cigar, but the smoke smelled more like the herb.
He took a deep drag on his spliff, if that was really what it was, meeting her eyes with a rheumy and bloodshot glance as he did, and completely changed on the exhale.
His posture was abruptly transformed from that of a feeble old drunk into that of a lithely upright ballet dancer, and those eyes lit up like icy green lasers boring into her soul with irresistible power and terrifying precision.
“You and me are gonna be like husband and wife,” he told her. “Erzuli wants a ticket to ride, and the horse she’s betting on is gonna be you. You’re gonna be a one-trick pony, chile, but it’s gonna be the best trick there is.”
MaryLou found herself opening her mouth to receive the cigar or spliff or what ever it was between her lips, and taking a long drag and—
—and the next thing she knew was the fading memory of having been dancing like a fiend on fire, with Mom banging out the same intoxicating drumbeat on a garbage can as Pop was on the body of his banjo, as the crowd around them was doing with their feet on the pavement, with the rhythmic clapping of their hands.
How long had she been there, how long had she been dancing like that? No way of telling, she hadn’t exactly been there, wherever there was, she had never danced like that before or even imagined it, and she hadn’t exactly been dancing; something or someone else had been dancing her body like a hand up a puppet.
But now it was gone, it was over, her knees were rubber, her lungs were panting, and Pop had to catch her in the act of falling down in total exhaustion.
The old man in top and tails was still there, but what he had become with a deep breath of what ever he had been smoking was gone with the wind, and he looked as dumbfounded and poleaxed as MaryLou felt as he turned and staggered away through the crowd.
There was a crowd, by far the biggest one the act had ever drawn, and the hat was fuller than it had ever been before, and for the first time ever, there were more bills than coins. And maybe a dozen of the audience were crossing themselves as they slunk away as if they had been caught watching a fuck video while a dozen more smiled knowing smiles and exited with little phantom bows, what ever all that meant.
MaryLou might not know what it meant, but Pop thought he did. “Voodoo,” he told Mom on the way out of Jackson Square. “Some loa was riding her—”
“You believe in that stuff?”
“Does it matter? Half this city does, and that’s what the act looked like and that’s good enough.”
“Good enough for what?”
“Good enough for this!” Pop declared, shaking the hat stuffed with money and shoving it under Mom’s nose.
“But how did it happen?” Mom’s hungry eyes became more suspiciously guarded. “And why? They say those loas have their own reasons.”
“Doesn’t matter. What matters is figurin’ out how to make it keep happening.”
They tried their best. The magical performance proved to be repeatable once in a while and enhanced proceeds but it was hit and mostly miss. Mr. Top Hat and Tails never showed up again, a drag on a spliff or a puff on a cigar didn’t necessarily call anything forth. It happened or it didn’t. What ever it was took charge when it felt like it and had a mind of its own.
All MaryLou could remember was what Mr. Top Hat and Tails had been wearing, so she googled that. It wasn’t easy or exactly definitive, but what the old drunk had been wearing seemed to look like the Mardi Gras costume of a voodoo spirit, a demon, who called himself Papa Legba, a sort of ring. master of the super natural loa krewe, a gatekeeper or door. man at the velvet rope to their magical realm.
And that clue to the who keyed her memory of the what he had said before she had blacked out, and therefore the who or what that had taken over.
“Erzuli wants a ticket to ride and the horse she’s betting on is gonna be you. You’re gonna be a one-trick pony but it’s gonna be the best trick there is.”
Now she had the name of who supposedly danced her body around when she felt like it, so she googled “Erzuli,”and learned that Erzuli was the most powerful female spirit in the pantheon of voodoo loas, powerful enough to have Papa Legba himself by the balls when she wanted to, the power of the female spirit itself—muse and seductress, nurturing and ambitious, earth mother and vamp, loved and admired, but too complex and capricious to be entirely trusted.
Did MaryLou believe in this voodoo stuff? Mom and Pop professed to believe in it and encouraged her to do likewise, since when it happened it was great for business and when it didn’t the act stunk as usual. And something did take her body over from time to time, something that gave her dancing powers that she never remembered having, something that would seem to be having a high old time at her conscious expense.
So she googled “Voodoo” and “Vudu” and “Voudon,” for there were many ways of spelling it, and more versions of what it was supposed to be about than you could read in a lifetime, and more disagreement on the details of the loa krewe than that. But she was able to boil it all down into what seemed to be agreed on, the Voodoo for Dummies version.
Voodoo was an ancient religion brought over by slaves from Africa. Nothing to do with Jesus or Mohammed or Moses and their singular honkie God. Spirits, whole carload lots of them, with powers of this or that, and it could get pretty specific, and they didn’t care about sin all that much, in fact they mostly like to boogie, and if you did the ceremonies right and were lucky, you might be able to ask for their assistance and get it, though maybe not always exactly as you had intended.
So she bought her way into a voodoo act in a fancy back alley cellar off Bourbon Street that tourists could pay to get into as spectators but whose cast might just have been the real thing.
They cut the head off a chicken and let it run around headless and spread the blood around with a whisk. They spit rum on a fire, they beat on drums and then they danced to it, and a few of them commenced to twitch and jerk, to roll their eyes back into their heads.
But none of it summoned forth Erzuli as far as MaryLou was concerned. Seemed like she needed to connect up with the real deal to find out if there really was a real deal, and if so, what to do about it.
Having a rep around the Square and the Quarter as “MaryLou Laveau” the street character “Voodoo Queen” got her into any number of phony conversations with phonies, but wasn’t any help in tracking down a serious not-for-tourists voodoo ceremony, and while actually dancing while possessed from unpredictable time to time might fill the hat and even get her a second identity as “White Girl Who Dances With Loas,” getting to be allowed to actively participate in a serious voodoo ritual was not so easy for a white girl, chosen as a horse by a loa from time to time or not.
But all kinds of people did bear witness to these possessions, so the word did get around, so getting it around to someone who took them seriously and might be sympathetic to a White Girl Who Dances With Loas and was a who who mattered was the luck of the dice.
Well, roll the bones often enough long enough, and sooner or later they come up seven instead of snake eyes, and the time finally came when MaryLou came down from where she could never remember not being with a middle-aged black woman in a kind of white robe cinched at her ample waist and a candy-striped kerchief artfully wrapped around her head like a turban studying her speculatively or knowingly or maybe both.
“Who’s the loa been riding you, White Girl Dances With Loas?”
“I believe it’s Erzuli—”
“What gives you the right to believe that?”
“Well, uh, Papa Legba told me that—”
The woman in the white robe rolled her eyes and shook her head, and managed to do both sarcastically. “Papa Legba told you, did he?”
“Well I googled her, but—”
“You googled her, did you?”
“I mean, I never exactly met her, but—”
“Of course you ain’t, riders don’t go around swappin’ idle chitchat with their horses! Who you think you are, girl?”
“Well, uh, maybe that’s what I’m trying to find out, I mean—”
“I know what you mean, White Girl Dances With Loas, and maybe we all might like to find out what they up to if we can,” the woman in the white robe said, handing her some kind of business card. “Tomorrow at midnight, I’d tell you don’t be late, but this is New Orleans, so don’t be too early.”
“Where N. Villiere crosses Congress” was all MaryLou saw written on it when she looked down, and the woman was gone when she looked up.
When she got there at more or less the appointed hour by electro-rickshaw, N. Villiere crossed Congress in a neighborhood that was not quite ominous at midnight, but not someplace where it seemed prudent for a white girl or any girl to hang around looking lost for very long. Rickety shotgun houses and bungalows and suchlike up on stilts, earthen sidewalks that had long given up on post– Hurricane Season repaving, working streetlights and lights in the windows, but nobody on the streets.
Fortunately, or more likely by design, a middle-aged black man in clean blue jeans and a Saints T-shirt emerged from an alley and beckoned.“This way,White Girl Dances With Loas,” he said to reassure her when MaryLou hesitated, and she followed him up the alley into what had no doubt once been a garage.
No cars, of course, about a dozen people, all of them black, standing around, none of them under forty to look at them, all of them plainly dressed as if for a day of hand labor, except for the woman in white. Strange African-looking masks, Indonesian shadow puppets, colorful flags of unknown and maybe nonexistent countries on the gray walls. A round barbecue grill turned into a brazier with a wood fire flaming in it. Something that looked like a homemade Hindu altar to something that looked vaguely like a cross between Shiva and a vampire Buddha.
Three guys squatting on the floor, in fact an act she had seen around Jackson Square, an African bass drum, ancient hippie bongos, and a nameless instrument that was a vacuum cleaner hose you whirled around while playing the thing with a saxophone mouthpiece.
Every one stared at her but nobody said anything.
The woman in white threw a big handful of herbs mixed with incense on the fire, and billows of white smoke smelled like a mix of pot, jasmine, and patchouli perfumed the room. The band began to play, a heavy regular beat on the big drum, something strange at nearly tap-dancing speed on the bongos, something even stranger coming out of the whirling vacuum cleaner hose as if a jazz sax were being played through an Aussie didgeridoo, which in fact it more or less was.
A bottle of rum was passed around, just enough for everyone to have a single swallow, including MaryLou. Cheap cigars were passed around, not every one took one, and MaryLou passed.
People started dancing. No one danced with anyone, free-form old hippie style and nothing particularly special about it, and after hesitating for a bit, MaryLou joined in. The woman in white finished the rum and spat a mouthful into the fire.
The bongo beat quickened, the dancing got somewhat frenzied, but nothing more than what you’d see in a crowded Bourbon Street disco. A few eyes began to roll. The bass drum became insistent and dominant.
The bongo beat faded into the background. The whirling sax-hose became a deep bone-tingling mantric hum. More eyes began to roll. A few of the dancers began to groan, and moan, and twitch.
Someone produced a chicken from somewhere and slit its throat before the altar, showering it with blood, and the chicken ran around for a few bars as the music got louder and louder, as three or four of the dancers went into full spastic like the chicken, shouting and hollering in what might have been speaking in tongues.
MaryLou felt herself swept up in it, but there was nothing super natural about it, the only difference between this and the family act during the usual performance was that what would have been the skeptical audience was dancing with her, and she was sure nobody was going to pass the hat.
A gray-haired man who must have been in his sixties jerked and twitched up to her with his eyes rolled back in their sockets and the whites showing, waving a lit cigar. He took a big puff, maybe even a lungful drag, and blew a huge cloud of smoke in MaryLou’s face. As he did, the eyes rolled back to where they belonged, but were red and glowing as they stared right through her from—
—the next thing MaryLou knew, she was lying on her back on the dirty concrete floor, panting to catch her breath, her legs achingly sore, her face dripping sweat, and a circle of people staring down at her with little knowing smiles and looks of dreamy satisfaction. Or maybe stupefaction. Or maybe both.
The woman in white glided through the circle, reached down, and helped MaryLou to her feet. “Well?” MaryLou demanded in a hoarsely breathless whisper.
“Well, White Girl Who Dances With Loas got a new name for herself. You her horse, all right… White Girl Who Dances With Erzuli.”
That was the exit line, but after that, MaryLou became an occasional participant and she was ridden by Erzuli maybe half the time. But no one except the woman in white would deign to tell her anything of significance—it seemed partly a race thing, and maybe envy too.
But from her, over time, MaryLou got a little beyond the short course in voodoo. Yes, brought from Africa, come to America, along with the slave trade, settled in New Orleans and vicinity for reasons no one human knows, and seems like the loas maybe don’t know either.
What are the loas?
Spirits, you might call them, spirits with powers or the spir. its of powers, not demons or angels, nothing to do with some. thing called Satan, not the sons and daughters of some singular honkie God, not exactly gods themselves, not like in the super. hero films, don’t look like anything, ’cause they ain’t got no bodies. Whole boatloads of ’em, somewhere which is nowhere, with all sorts of powers, they don’t care about sin, they ain’t good or bad ’cause they don’t even understand what that is ’cause they ain’t got no morality neither.
What do they want from us?
Same sort of thing we want from them. We don’t have their powers so we want them to use them for all sorts of our own purposes. They don’t have bodies, and they like to boogie in the flesh, so they borrow ours. Sometimes you might get a favor if you asked for it, but it might not be exactly what you wanted, they got what some folks might call wicked senses of humor.
How can you… summon… invite… ?
You can’t, White Girl Who Dances With Erzuli. You the horse, she’s the rider. A loa don’t ask, and you can’t tell.
Well, how can I… talk to her… ?
Well, sometimes a loa might ride a horse to use his or her lips to speak to a human, but they talk first and you usually just listen.
I mean, while she’s… riding me… so I can tell her I want to experience what’s happening.
You can’t, chile, nobody can. It just don’t work that way.
Because they rule what they want to and that’s the way they want it.
This was not sufficient for a street dancer who needed to tell Erzuli to show up for performances when called upon and allow her her own awareness when being ridden. MaryLou was far from being satisfied being ridden by Erzuli; she wanted to be Erzuli—what red-blooded American girl wouldn’t, or at least be there with Erzuli to enjoy the experience and the memories.
She went to more and more ceremonies. She even tried Santeria a few times but that didn’t work either. Erzuli rode her when she felt like it, and that was it, tough tittie, White Girl Who Dances With Me.
The quest got really obsessional and her parents were of mixed mind about it. Pop wanted her to give it up, it wasn’t improving the act any further, and it was in danger of driving his daughter crazy. But Mom, being a mama, had a less jaundiced attitude to her daughter’s determination to strike some sort of karmic deal with Erzuli, and it was she who suggested the acid.
“Time to give white man’s medicine a try, MaryLou. Turn on, tune out, drop in.”
So MaryLou dropped 500 mikes half an hour or so before entering the garage for her next attempted séance with the loa, timing it so that she would peak if and when Erzuli chose to ride her.
By now, MaryLou was familiar with the ritual, the drums, the rum, the incense on the fire, the garage filling with the sweetly pungent smoke, the sacrifice of the chicken, the sprinkling of the blood, the beginning of the dance, the rolling back of eyes, the twitching and jerking.
But on acid it was the same on one level, but quite different on another. The clouds of incense pulsed to the beating heart rhythm of the bass drum, strobed up and down a rainbow spectrum of colors to the flicker-flacker of the bongos, and the whirring mantric drone of the sax-hose entered her, whirling and swirling her around as she began to dance, and MaryLou began to lose contact with the borders of her body, if loss it was, or rather the gaining of their opening up, opening out, opening wide, to a space that was not a space—
—to a here that was not exactly here nor there, and she was dancing in it, dancing through it, it was dancing through her, there was something inside of her like a second set of bones, like her nervous system gone neon electric with a will of its own.…
And she sensed that this was somehow Erzuli, and then she was sure it was, because there was a part of MaryLou that remained in her body this time, that could feel that body dancing like a demon on the floor, dancing as she had never experienced dancing before.…
Who dat come knock-knock-knocking on my heaven’s door supposed to be a horse and nothing more? said a voice in her head. Only it wasn’t exactly a voice and where it came from wasn’t exactly inside her head, more like an invisible childhood companion talking into her thoughts.
So MaryLou talked back in the same manner as any human chile, any conscious manifestation of what ever might be behind the masks of the dance, might converse with what was now dancing unmasked with and within her.
About time, the horse told her rider. About time you let me be here now. You and me gotta have a little girl-to-girl talk.
Let you? What makes you think I’m letting you do anything, White Girl Who Eruzli Chooses For The Dance? I can choose who I dance through where and when, hon’, but this is the first time a horse ever talked back to her rider. We got the power over most every thing that’s not what y’all call matter or maya or atomic particles or what ever, but we ain’t got no bodies, we ain’t made of matter, so we ain’t got no power over matter, we can’t even touch it, ’cause we got nothin’ t’touch it with. We wanna dance, we gotta do it through you, hey girl, we want to fuck, we want to come, we want to get stoned, we need your flesh to do it through. So what’s happening now is human magic, not ours. And we been waiting for you to work it for a long, long time.
Oh yeah, hon’, we been waiting for a Talking Horse like y’all been waiting for the return of Jesus or Elvis, so’s we can save our mutual asses material and other wise. We’re not where y’all would call anywhere, but let’s just say we’re connected to New Orleans and environs because we love it like maybe you would say this would be our homeland in America if a homeland we could have, an’ you people here are our chosen horses, in case you haven’t noticed.
I don’t understand. MaryLou tried to think back, but she didn’t, because she did. She understood that these loas were souls without bodies, consciousnesses floating in the quantum flux, avatars of the Atman, as zombies or most fictional versions of the Living Dead were bodies without souls. Whether that would make sense to Albert Einstein and the Pope or not, it was a no-brainer in her current state of consciousness.
An’ I’m sure y’all have noticed you have royally screwed up the matter of our mutual homeland, and it ain’t gonna be happy days for us either if you don’t get your material shit together before there’s nothing left of Louisiana but Alligator Swamp and rednecks. We do have good taste in pickin’ our horses, as it now no doubt pleases you to believe. So me and Papa Legba, or just me, between you and me, girl, we ain’t a democracy, and I’d have him by the balls if he had them any time I wanted, decided to lead us loas out of the closet to get you horses some horse sense so’s y’all can handle the material end of the bargain better than you been doing.
What bargain? MaryLou demanded. You do what ever you want to do with us, and we don’t even get to enjoy being there! What kind of a bargain is that?
Well, you got a point there, hon’ and we been waiting quite a while for human material magic to deliver us a talking horse we can make a deal with. Because we need a willing horse we can talk to who knows more about where we wanna ride in your material world than we do, and this is gonna be a bargain you gonna love too much to refuse—
I’ll be the judge of that, thank you very much, and before you go any further, your end of the deal has to at least be that I’m there with you when you ride me or else—
Or else what?
Or else there’s no deal, Erzuli. You just told me you need a willing horse to get where you want to ride, now didn’t you?
Well, I gotta admit you got me there, hon’—
And if you get to call me up when you need to ride, I get to to call you up when I need you, that’s only just—
Don’t push your luck too far, girl, I don’t know what this just might mean, and I don’t really want to—
That’s a deal-breaker, MaryLou told the loa. After all, wasn’t that what she had been after in the first place?
Well, bargaining with each other to get what we want is something we all have to do all too often, material girls or not.…So…
So the deal is you can call, but whether we come when you do is our choice each time.
Not good enough.
That’s our deal-breaker, girl.…
Well… I guess I could live with that, Erzuli, but then, I’ve got to agree to let you when you want to ride too.
“No way, White Girl Who Erzuli Chooses To Ride, your cowboys don’t take that from their horse flesh, and we ain’t never gonna take it from you!
Well, then, I don’t know—
You haven’t even asked where we’re gonna be goin’, hon’, which is why we need you to make this deal, and which is why you’re gonna love it too much to be able to turn it down.
And why are you so sure of that?
Because where we’re goin’ is where any girl who finds herself stuck dancing around Jackson Square for spare change wants to be more than anyplace else in her material world, where what is matter and what is not ride to into the bright lights of show business, hon’, Erzuli told her.
That’s where we’re goin’, MaryLou Boudreau Who’s Gonna Become Mama Legba. That’s where we’re gonna ride together, girl, think you can say no to that? We all are gonna be stars, sister! We are gonna be on television! Think just might even sell what you might call your soul for that?
Excerpted from The People’s Police © Norman Spinrad, 2017