Sunday, August 30, 2020

You Gotta Give Good...

Here's one of the first stories I had published (of the very small number I can say that about). I saw a call for submissions that Greg Rucka had retweeted, seeking stories of the steampunk genre set in Civil War-era New Orleans, and thought that sounded promising. I chose to include voudou in my story, and knowing little of that subject -- while also wanting to depict it in a serious manner -- or steampunk, I set to work doing my research. Luckily, I work at Fogler Library at the University of Maine. Reading furiously while taking notes, I eventually came up with a spine for my story, and once I'd completed my reading, I went to work writing. 

When it was accepted for publication in the New Orleans by Gaslight anthology, I was surprised along with being excited. It always feels good to get validation on something you've put a lot of work into. I'm quite proud of this story. I hope you enjoy it.  






By C.M. Beckett

Shadows rippled across the page of Charlotte Lacroix’s book as the flame of the gaslamp fluttered above her head.  Outside, she could hear a clamor of voices.  Charlotte closed her book and got up to investigate.  As she did, a spring released and clockwork gears churned to life in the corner of the room. 

“It’s okay T.O.M.A.S.  There’s no need for you to get up,” said Charlotte, and she stepped outside.

The heavy air pressed against her dark flesh, popping beads of sweat down the backs of her arms.  The surrounding homes were quiet, Charlotte’s neighbors more forgiving of the hot New Orleans nights than she. 

A few minutes later Charlotte came to the edge of town where a small mob had formed – as many men holding pints of beer as pitchforks and torches.  Charlotte – lean and wiry with long braids and sharp, piercing eyes – approached the men, who were focused toward the middle of their circle. 

Edmand Renaud, a large, pale man with bushy white hair and piercing eyes, turned to address Ms. Lacroix.  “We don’t need your kind here,” he said, as he moved to block her path. 

“I be goin’ through you if I cain’t go around,” said Charlotte. 

The large man hesitated, but quickly relented.  Charlotte pushed to the edge of the mob and all eyes turned to her – the vigor draining from their faces. 

Jacques Renaud – Chief Constable, younger brother to Edmand, taller and leaner than his elder sibling – stood in the middle of the group, his truncheon swinging ominously over a black man wearing a frayed Confederate uniform. 

Charlotte stepped into the middle of the circle and glared at the constable.  “I see,” she said.  “This man be some great and powerful threat, all beat and bloodied as he is.”

“You have no right being here,” said Jacques.

“I gots every right,” said Charlotte.  “We a free city and ain’t nobody turned away if they need help.”

Charlotte pushed past the younger Renaud and knelt by the soldier.  Close up, she could see welts covering his bare arms and dried blood caked on his face.  The man was haggard, struggling for breath.  She ran her fingers over his shoulders.

“He gots a hex on him,” said Charlotte.  She turned to the crowd, found a friendly face.  “Isaac.  Bring some o’ dem peaches,” she said to an older man, nodding to the tree behind him.  “Hurry.”

Jacques Renaud stepped closer, glaring down at Charlotte.  “Do not act in a manner you may regret later.”

“I gots no worries, Constable,” said Charlotte.  “What your conscience tellin’ you?”

Jacques Renaud raised his truncheon and held it for a long moment, but chose not to act on his rage.

Isaac knelt down beside Charlotte and handed her the fruit.  “Thank Papa you come,” he said.

“We see if Papa watchin’ over us tonight,” said Charlotte.  She took the peaches and passed them over the soldier’s body. 

When she finished, Charlotte threw the peaches into the tall grass, disposing of the evil spirits that now clung to the fruit.  Then she leaned in close to the beaten soldier.  “You hear me, son?” she said.

The man nodded and opened his eyes.

“What your name?” she said.

“Abram.”  His voice was hardly a whisper. 

“Okay, Abram.  We gonna take care o’ ya, all right?”

He nodded and let his eyes fall shut again.

“Isaac,” Charlotte said.  “Take this one ta my place.  He need rest.”

Isaac lifted the man onto his back. 

“And be quick,” Charlotte said.  “There’s somethin’ on the wind I don’t like.”



Captain Seward rode to the front of the company, which had stopped without explanation.  “Sergeant Major!” he bellowed.

The clattering of steel rippled through the blackness as Sergeant Major Campbell raced to where Captain Seward sat on his horse. 

“Yes, Captain,” said the Sergeant Major, out of breath.

“Why are we not moving forward, Sergeant Major?” said the Captain.

The Sergeant Major hesitated.

“Don’t stand there like some imbecile.   What is keeping us from our duty?” said the Captain.

“The city is a haven for magicks,” said the Sergeant Major.  “The men are scared.”

“Are they sucklings still in need of their Mama’s teat?”

“No,” said the Sergeant Major.

“No!” said Captain Seward.  “They are soldiers of the Confederacy.  And I want them moving now, or by God, I’ll know why not.” 

 “There is another problem,” said Sergeant Major Campbell.

Captain Seward could only stare at his Sergeant Major.

“New Orleans is a free city,” he said.  “We cannot just march in there without provocation.”

“Without provocation?” bellowed Captain Seward.  “They have my property, and I aim to get it back or receive reparations.”

“Yes, Captain,” said the Sergeant Major.  “But I expect Colonel Radcliffe would relish an opportunity to cite you for insubordination if we circumvented the free city ordinance.”

The Captain was silent.  He stared across the black fields to New Orleans, torches like pinpricks on the dark canvass. 

“We could send in Corporal Butters to parlay with city elders,” said the Sergeant Major.

The Captain looked down from his horse, his teeth clenched.  “You have one day, Sergeant Major.  One day.  Then we do it my way.”


Charlotte Lacroix stood off to one side, arms crossed, as Corporal Butters entered the clearing on his horse.  Jacques Renaud was at the head of the group, while his brother stood back in the shadows. 

“Ho!  I speak for Captain John G. Seward of the Second Virginia Army. Who speaks for this crowd?” said the Corporal.

“Jacques Renaud.  Constable,” said the younger Renaud.  “I speak for this group.  And what might your name be?”

“That be no need of yours,” said the Corporal.

“But it be mine,” said Charlotte, stepping over to the center of the group.  “’Spect you lookin’ for that poor man come runnin’ in earlier.” 

“Who might you be?” said the Corporal.

“Charlotte Lacroix.   And you be the one needs ta explain how that man come to be as sickly as he is,” said Charlotte. 

“He’s a deserter,” said the Corporal.  “His health means little to me.”

“He may be a deserter, but I don’t imagine he signed up hisself,” said Charlotte.  “’Spect he had nothin’ to say in the matter.”

 “You impudent bitch!”  Corporal Butters rose up in his saddle.  “How dare you address your betters in that manner.”

“New Orleans a free city,” said Charlotte.  “We don’ answer to you.”

The Corporal threw one leg over his saddle and made to jump down, but Jacques Renaud stepped between the soldier and Charlotte.  “Now, now,” he said.  “No need for violence.  I expect we can all come to some agreement.”

“Only agreement the Captain’ll grant you is one sees his property returned,” said the Corporal.

“She has a point,” said Edmand, his soft voice wending through the tiny crowd.  “We are a free city.” 

“What?”  Jacques turned on his brother, grabbing the older Renaud by his lapels.  “What is wrong with you?” 

Charlotte stepped over to the brothers.   “Jacques.”  Her voice was soft but firm as she placed a hand on his shoulder.  He turned to look at Charlotte and eased his grip on Edmand.  “Don’t try to work your magicks on me, witch,” he said. 

“I do no such thing,” said Charlotte.  “I put out good causes, good feelings.  I no wanna hurt you, Jacques.” 

Charlotte turned back to the corporal.  “That your camp?” she said, pointing past him to the fires along the tree line. 

Corporal Butters said nothing.

“I be there in an hour,” said Charlotte.

“Not without me,” said Jacques.

“You free to go where you want,” said Charlotte.

The Corporal nodded in Renaud’s direction, then turned his steed and slipped back into the night.

Jacques moved up behind Charlotte.  “I hope you don’t believe that soldier will be getting out of this city alive,” he said.

“We see ‘bout that,” said Charlotte.  “We see.  I best go get T.O.M.A.S.  Then we head out.”


Captain Seward strode through the tall grass with Corporal Butters at his side.  “Well, what do we have here?” he said.  “A man of worth and…”  His voice trailed off as he eyed Charlotte and the large automaton by her side.  T.O.M.A.S. was a collection of gears, springs, and formed sheet metal that resembled a seven-foot-man in the abstract.  He (it) was Charlotte’s assistant and her confidant – one for which loyalty was never a question.

“Sir,” said Corporal Butters.  “These are the two who have come to speak on behalf of the city.”

“That is quaint,” said the Captain.  “But I see no reason to negotiate for what is rightly mine.”

“Cain’t own a man ‘ceptin when he wants ta be,” said Charlotte, taking a step forward. 

“Is that so?” said the Captain.  “You are an uppity one.”

“Captain,” said Jacques.  “I believe there is a way for us all to prosper here.”

“You do?” said the Captain.  “I find that almost humorous.”

“You aims ta kill that boy, don’t ya?” said Charlotte. 

“What?” said the Captain.

“I know what you be,” said Charlotte.  “How you treat us.”

“What exactly do you mean?” said the Captain.  “What am I?”

“A killer,” said Charlotte. 

“But isn’t that a soldier’s job?” said Captain Seward. 

“Yes,” said Jacques, trying to wedge himself into the conversation.

“I din’t know we was the enemy,” said Charlotte.  “Unless you ain’t got the courage ta go North.”

Captain Seward stepped right up to Charlotte, his breath hot on her face.  “You overstep your bounds,” said the Captain, resting a hand on the hilt of his saber.

T.O.M.A.S.’s gears screeched to action beside Charlotte, startling many of the soldiers.  The clockwork automaton raised its arms and aimed the miniature steam cannons housed there at the Captain and his corporal.  Seward took a step back.  “Do you truly believe a single tin man can stand against an entire company of Confederate soldiers?”

“What I believe is that you plan ta kill that boy,” said Charlotte.  She stared hard at the Captain, as she squeezed the gris-gris in her hand.  The small pouch was filled with secret herbs, and it radiated a warmth across Charlotte’s palm.  The silence built for a long minute before Charlotte finally reached out to T.O.M.A.S.  The automaton lowered its arms and powered down. 

Captain Seward looked from Charlotte to the clockwork man and back.  “You do a disservice to the honor of the uniform I wear,” he said.  “As much as I might like to be rid of my problem immediately, there are protocols to follow.  A deserter may speak on his own behalf.  For whatever good it will do.”

“That don’t reassure me none,” said Charlotte.

“I care little about your reassurances,” said the Captain.  “But,” he continued, “You’d be foolish not to consider the persuasive quality of a hundred armed soldiers who would do whatever their captain ordered.” 

“You plan to kill him, yes?” said Charlotte.

“Will you stop,” said Jacques.  “That slave belongs to the Captain.  It is his, by right, to do with as he wants.”

Captain Seward acted as if he didn’t hear Jacques.  “I expect I will kill him,” he said to Charlotte. 

“Why you so venomous?” said Charlotte.

“I only want what’s mine,” he said.

“And then you’ll leave us be?” said Charlotte.

Captain Seward nodded, his eyes twinkling in the firelight.

“Let me give the boy some comfort first,” said Charlotte. 

“If you try to whisk him away, I will bring my company of men down on your head,” said Captain Seward.

“We be back at first light,” said Charlotte. 

“No later,” said the captain.

“Don’t you worry.  You get what’s yours come sunup,” Charlotte said.  Then she turned and, with T.O.M.A.S., headed back across the dark field to the city.  Jacques hesitated but soon followed.

None of the soldiers noticed the gris-gris she dropped into one of the campfires as they left.


“How you feelin?” said Charlotte.

Abram sat up a little straighter on the simple bench in Charlotte’s front room.  “Better,” he said.

“Good,” said Charlotte.  “Cuz we got some work to do.”  She opened her front door and motioned for him to join her.

Ten minutes later they returned to the clearing where they first met hours before.  A group of citizens, larger than earlier with more women than men, was already gathered – some faces familiar to Abram, ones who had watched Jacques Renaud beat him. 

Abram stopped short of the circle, shunning the illumination of the torches.   

“What is it?” said Charlotte.

“I won’t do this again,” he said.  “You offered help.  This ain’t no help.”

“These my people” said Charlotte.  “You gots nothin’ to fear.”

Abram refused to move.  Charlotte waited before continuing into the circle, where a simple altar became visible beyond the parting crowd.

Charlotte nodded to the darkness beyond the altar.  Jacques Renaud was led into the circle by T.O.M.A.S. – the clockwork man’s metal arms holding the struggling man with little effort. 

Charlotte reached behind the altar and produced a rooster.  She turned toward Abram and nodded in his direction.  A shiver ran up the man’s back, and Abram walked over to the altar.

Charlotte held the bird like a chalice, its red crest a stain of blood in the flickering light, and ran it over Abram’s body, drawing away the evil spirits. 

Jacques strained against the automaton.  “You witch!  You’ll pay for this!  My brother will see to that.”

“Your brother done seen to this already,” said Charlotte.  “You want good, you gotta give good in this world.” 

She turned to the altar and began to chant, raising the chicken high above her head as she prayed in Yoruba to Elegba, Ogun, Obatala, and Oshund.  Others joined in, a soft chorus that sailed into the darkness.  And then…

Charlotte held the rooster away from her body with one hand and twisted the bird’s neck with the other, followed by a second quick motion that ripped its head from its body. 

Charlotte dropped the head and held the body above the altar, blood pouring over it all. 

Then Charlotte turned and walked to Abram, the decapitated rooster in her left hand.  She dipped the middle finger of her right into the neck socket and placed the bloody finger onto the soldier’s brow, tracing a line all the way around his head.  Dipping the finger again, she knelt down to mark each of Abram’s big toes with the rooster’s blood. 

Charlotte rose, turned on Jacques Renaud, and did the same to him.  Renaud struggled, spitting in Charlotte’s face multiple times, but he couldn’t hope to break from T.O.M.A.S. 

When she finished, Charlotte laid the carcass on the altar, offered more prayers to the spirits, then plucked some feathers and scattered them over the altar.  Next, she took up a jug of homemade gin – the favored libation of Elegba – sucked deeply from its neck and spattered that across the altar.  Charlotte took another long draught of the gin and misted that over Abram’s feet and the top of his head.  She did the same to Jacques, who continued to struggle as he spat expletives at the voudou priestess. 

Charlotte set the gin down and washed her hands in a small bucket off to the side.  In the water were floating four coconut shells – divination implements known as obi – which she retrieved and threw.  The first throw was black – all four husk side up, Oyekun – a bad omen.  She threw them again.  And again.  And again.  These next three times, they came up ejife – two black and two white – a very good sign.  Charlotte was pleased. 

She rose and placed the rooster into a small gunnysack in front of the altar.  She then poured palm oil and honey into the sack and spit another mouthful of gin over the rooster.  Charlotte brought the sack to Abram.

“Seal it,” she said. 

Then she walked back to the altar and retrieved a small bucket filled with a thick grayish liquid.  Charlotte handed it to Abram.  “Take this,” she said.  “You bring it back to my place, where you be staying tonight, and you clean yourself with it.  Pour it all over your naked body and don’t wash it off until just before dawn.  And make sure you throw away that gunnysack on your way back to be rid of them bad spirits.”

Abram nodded.

“Now scoot,” said Charlotte.  She turned and looked at Jacques Renaud.  “We got other business to finish here.” 


Mist burned off the grasses as Charlotte and her two companions – T.O.M.A.S. and Abram, whose face was hidden by a gunnysack as he struggled against the grip of the clockwork man – approached the soldiers.  The sun, a deep orange that burned the eyes, broke over the tree line – dawn, when the spirits are most restless. The trio stopped a hundred yards from the edge of the Confederate camp. 

Charlotte stepped over to Abram and placed a gris-gris in his shirt pocket as she leaned up and whispered through the gunnysack, “I sorry for this.  But to get good you need to give good.”  She kissed the rough cloth and then turned for the encampment. 

Charlotte searched the faces, but did not see Captain Seward.  One of the soldiers, working to get his suspenders over his shoulders, locked eyes with her and immediately took off into the woods. 

Shortly, Captain Seward arrived in full uniform, clean-shaven, and more alert than any of his company.

“I must admit,” he said, “I am mighty surprised.”  The Captain looked as if he’d just screwed a two-dollar whore and then gotten her to return the money on his way out. 

“We all get what we deserve,” said Charlotte.  “And I ‘spect that’s as should be.” 

“That’s wiser thinking than I would have given your kind credit for,” said Captain Seward.

Charlotte, ignoring the knot forming in her stomach, said, “You be killin’ him this morning?”

“If that were your business, I might feel obliged to share,” said the Captain.  “But…” 

He let the word trail off as he turned his attention to the bound refugee in the automaton’s steel arms.  “I do not mean to cast aspersions,” he said, “but might I be able to see the face of that which you brought?  Just to make certain this is indeed the one I seek.” 

Charlotte turned and nodded to T.O.M.A.S.  The clockwork man lifted the sack, revealing the bloodied visage of Abram.  A thick stitch of cloth was tied around his mouth, stifling protests.

“That be him?” said Charlotte. 

“Indeed it is,” said Captain Seward.  He walked over and punched Abram hard across his face. 

Blood trickled from the slave’s nose as he pulled his head back up, eyes wide, fear trying to claw its way out. 

“Corporal Butters!”  The young soldier came running, his saber rattling against his leg as he worked to keep his balance through the tall grass.  “Yes, sir,” he said. 

“Take this and prepare for the ceremony.  We need to meet up with Captain Jackson’s company in Baton Rouge by mid-afternoon, so we haven’t much time.”

“Yes, sir.”  The corporal motioned for two soldiers to take the deserter away. 

Abram shook his head fiercely, eyes pleading with Charlotte as he disappeared into the forest shadows. 

“You best leave now, before I forget my manners,” said Captain Seward, and he turned and walked away.

 “’Spect you’ll hang him,” said Charlotte.  “’Spect that’s right.” 


That afternoon, Charlotte Lacroix returned with a handful of others to the soldiers’ deserted encampment.  She peered into the shadows as she cautiously stepped into the forest.  Soon enough, Charlotte found what she was looking for.

The creaking of an oak branch shuddered across the silence, a limp body a pendulum at the end of a thick noose.

“Damn.”  The muted exclamation came from just over Charlotte’s left shoulder.  She turned and looked at Abram.

“Yes,” she said.  “But you give good to get good in this world.”

“How will Edmand feel about this?” said another of the group.

“He knows,” said Charlotte. 

“Yeah, but –” 

Charlotte cut off the statement with a searing look that urged the rest of the group back a step.  Then she turned back to Jacques Renaud, in a tattered Confederate uniform, hanging above her.

“Someone hoist me up so we’n cut him down,” she said.

“Why?” said Abram, the venom obvious in his voice.

“Cuz,” said Charlotte, “every man deserve a proper burial.”