Papa Legba Has Entered the Chat

Illustrated by Manuel J. Iniesta |  Edited by L. M. Davis

Copyedited by Chelle Parker

August 2022

2037 words — Reading time: around 10 minutes

Another child stolen from us, and you allowed it. No matter that you drove straight home once you finally heard, up past the border, only stopping for gas in Tucson, ignoring your granny’s texts the whole way. No matter that you stand here now at the crossroads of the murder, pacing in the moonlight, churning over forensics and the coroner’s report.

The protests have run their course. The ink has dried on the forms for administrative leave — paid, naturally. #SayHisName and #JusticeForManny have been plowed under by other trends (#SunsInSeven and #PHXvsLA) while the family — your family — still washes cars on Broadway for the funeral and fights over the GoFundMe set up for legal fees. Sunflowers and tulips wilt on the curbside memorial beside burned out, joyless candles. Windswept notes folded in origami flourishes demand you step around them. And the photos. Every selfie, every lopsided smile refusing to give way to night, dances across your eyes like splintered glass.

This is the part where you lie to yourself. Tears slither down your cheeks and into your palms. If only you weren’t blowing off steam down at Rocky Point. If only you weren’t off patrol that night. If only you weren’t on a social media pause.

If only you weren’t full of shit.

Truly? You received an all hands on deck notification from your rooted phone, a Christmas gift from your sergeant. You’re in the inner circle. The phone’s only app will never appear in an iOS or Google Play search. Text-based, clever, assembled over a decade from DIY tutorials, base code written by a shady federal cybercrimes analyst who needed funds to close on a vacation home in Sedona. The app denies camera access and scrambles screenshots. Messages self-erase, and the chat window auto-cycles through display schemes so even secondhand recording is difficult to read. You can’t decide what makes your eyes water more, the blitz of colors or the messages from other cops.

Open it. Join the chat, please. Your hands are not yours anymore. They are mine.

          ::just_cam has entered the chat::

          MAGA_Maddie keep laying low, it’ll be fine

          bawlin_krapperquit u right. preciate it, wife just hates the attention

          sarge_joey cam you made it buddy

          rachel_from_QC hey @just_cam

          MAGA_Maddie hi cam

          just_cam hey y’all

You don’t know everyone’s name, still — only the ones you’ve lied for. You went to all the cookouts, introduced some to actual seasonings. Jambalaya. They tried but complained it was too hot. Family recipe, you explained, and some things can’t be slandered, not even for them. They guzzled beer and suggested ways to improve it anyway. Marinara — no, barbecue sauce.

          semperfi_Ty so we’re supposed to be talking payback. my address is all over the fuckin internet thx to these fkcn people

          sarge_joey too soon. be smart, there’s ways we do this

          rachel_from_QC listen to him. he walked me through mine

          bawlin_krapperquit so spill it i need this shit to be over

You tried, too. To belong. To be blind. Leaving your Kaepernick jersey in the closet on Sundays. You don’t watch football; you hate beer. So you some pale child’s godfather now? Does that make you any less of a cardboard cutout? No. You are a smudge in their eyes, the shadow behind their thin blue line, giving it definition and justification.

“I didn’t go through academy for this,” you say to the dying flowers at your feet.

Truly. You went through it for me.

Your eyes slide away from the chat and back to the scene, wasting time. Two hours, pacing and muttering when you have a real means to invoke change (of a sort). Why not give in? You know their ways better than you know yourself. Not one pebble is out of place on this block. You even uncover evidence the arresting officers didn’t need to plant — a dime sack. Three months away from legalization. Un-goddamn-believable. And still you linger, denying the lesson you’ve learned better than most:

You will never find justice here.

Footsteps approach from the south. You spin to face a lanky boy, glued to his phone. He doesn’t see your hand snap to your hip, reaching for the holster that’s back in your car’s trunk. So well trained, you are. Eyes conditioned, reflexes honed for threats of a certain hue. The orange haze of the streetlight turns the boy’s brown skin golden. He’s wearing a ?uestlove t-shirt and a black and yellow BLM bracelet. He cradles a mismatched bunch of flowers from the discount box at Fry’s; his other hand holds a blue Powerade. The grocery store is two miles from this block. Phoenix temps are well over a hundred, even with monsoons threatening tomorrow.

“Hey, young blood.” He trusts you. You’re not in uniform.

“Sup.” He arranges new flowers around the central lump of melted wax. They’re almost as wilted as the old ones. “Looks like shit.”

“Nah, it’s good.” He squints up at you at the lie. “You knew him?”

“Yeah…. We used to squad up on Fortnite, until he got me into this coding club around the way.” His hand gestures vaguely toward Roeser, the next street up.

Your throat tightens. You know who lives around the way. “Saturdays at six sharp? No breakfast if you forget to lock your screen?”

“‘Control alt delete, or you ain’t finna eat.’” He laughs, and the squint evaporates. “It’s not like my class at South. It’s…. I don’t know. It hits different. Manny was better at it than me. I’m gonna keep at it, though. For him.”

You see? If you won’t do what must be done, there is another. There is always another.

“I can help you with it, if you want?” You can’t tell which of you is more surprised to hear you say it. “That old lady is my granny.”

His eyes widen as you pull out your phone — your normal phone — and swap social media. “If she’s your granny, that means….”

“Yeah. We was cousins.”

“I didn’t want to say nothing….”


“It’s just…. You look like him, is all.” He closes the distance, hugs and releases you before you can react. “I’m Dameco.”

“Cam,” you say.

“…I’ll hit you up.” He frowns down at the memorial, then pours a swallow of his Powerade beside it. Then he’s striding back the way he came, scraping knuckles across his face. You remind yourself the evidence is seamless. Change will take time. People need to work inside the system, too.

          sarge_joey remember B? problems with that black councilman awhile back?

          bawlin_krapperquit oh shit i forgot about that! cuffed him in front of his own house ahahaha

          rachel_from_QC he just got a medal right

          MAGA_Maddie true true let PLEA work its magic

          sarge_joey this to shall pass. so do urself a fvor and delete those plate #s you looked up

          semperfi_Ty but but its opposition research ;)

          bawlin_krapperquit LMAO

You slide the rooted phone into your pocket, done with the private chat despite everything your grandmother raised you to be. Go, drink your beer.

Halfway to your car, a ground-level spotlight steals your night vision. Your hands fly up. Compliments again. So very well trained. “Officer, I—”

“Save it,” a brusque voice behind the light commands. “Hands where I can see them.”

They already are.

Two silhouettes snake out of the glare. Hands snatch a phone from your pocket.

“So tired of you people stirring shit up. Not tonight.”

You allow what comes next. Asphalt scrapes your cheekbone. The street only grudgingly releases the sun’s heat; even so late after nightfall, it still burns. Grit sinks into your beard. These men are weak and slow, pasty and afraid. Above all, they are wrong. Almost as wrong as you.

But you obey commands because, down the block, Dameco’s eyes are wide as crab cakes in the moonlight.

Your gazes lock. In that moment, you are the same… until he raises his phone. Arm shaking, terrified, skulking closer to record. To bear witness. For your life.

He, at least, knows when to do what must be done.

One of your brothers in blue returns to the car with your wallet. The other keeps his knee on your back, sweaty and swearing because he dropped the zip ties. Back and forth, you shake your head, although your face scrapes against the street. No. Go home, you will the child.

“Shit. Shit.” The floodlight winks out. The one at the squad car calls, “Why didn’t you tell us you were plainclothes?”

Would it have mattered? The knee disappears like magic. You rise slowly. Regulate your breathing. Smother what little pride remains. Dab blood from your cheek while the sweating cop regards you.

“Do you know that kid?” he asks instead of apologizing.

“Yeah. He just misses his friend.”

“Maybe. Better call him back here. Past few weeks been hard enough for everyone.”

Dameco is just as smart as he looks and nowhere to be seen. Better to call him before these two try to pick him up. Best grab your phone.

          BD_Nick we got a problem boys. at the crime scene

          sarge_joey no we don’t

          sarge_joey wait what where are you

Through the windshield, you spot the unmistakable glow of the chat app’s color-cycling display. Nick. He’s the one in the fucking squad car. Somewhere you hear a dog growl.

          BD_Nick the kid had a friend. with a phone

          bawlin_krapperquit JFC @BD_Nick what

          semperfi_Ty YOU SAID WE WERE GOOD @sarge_joey

          ::rachel_from_QC is typing::

“This is above me,” you whisper.

At last. You realize what your granny prepared you for. The code is but another language, and language is in your blood. All you must do is allow it.

Allow me.

I will cleanse out the dark corners where internal affairs, Black Lives Matter, and Black Jesus can’t reach. Your brothers in blue speak of retribution. Well. I will make the proper introductions. Manny and untold others would like a word. The price was paid — in libations or souls or Bitcoin, in tears and prayers and Saturday car washes on Broadway.

“Two phones?” the cop drawls. “Ain’t you fancy. Head on home. We’ll give that kid a lift. Person of interest and all that.”

“The hell you will.”

“What was that?”

You type furiously as he strides closer, lip curled. Shame lends speed to your fingers. You lost your way, but not the purpose your granny envisioned for your life. You still know the coding. Old words blended with new things, despite the academy’s best efforts to leach it out of you, despite the twelve-hour shifts and the loathing in your own people’s eyes. You still know how to open the door.

My door.

                    ::just_cam is typing::

“I said, ‘What was that?’” The sweaty one fondles his baton. Ignore him, please. Yes. You’re nearly there.

          ::papa legba has entered the chat::

          MAGA_Maddie this app can’t support video. are you guys seeing this?

          rachel_from_QC Joe ain’t that your house?

          ::several people are typing::

You avert your eyes, rightly so. Baron Kriminel been waiting for this door to open. Too far? Maybe. Probably. No need to soil your dreams or turn your gentle stomach.

          sarge_joey OMFG

          bawlin_krapperquit is this a joke. is tht blood

          bawlin_krapperquit is this serious

          ::sarge_joey has left the chat::

          semperfi_Ty guys these pranks aren’t cool

          BD_Nick nononono wtf that’s chandler high my kids scrimmage

          ::rachel_from_QC has left the chat::

          ::semperfi_Ty has left the chat::

          ::MAGA_Maddie has left the chat::

          ::BD_Nick has left the chat::

          ::bawlin_krapperquit has left the chat::

The squad car’s sirens flash on. “Get in!” Nick screams.

“What happened—”

“Mike, fucking do it!

Officer Mike tosses your phone back and hustles off. They tear down the street. You remember to breathe again. You remember Manny’s ready, mischievous smile.

Your phone’s screen is cracked, but you can still see new texts. You tell Demeco you are safe and thank him for his bravery. You apologize to your granny for allowing this wickedness and abandoning your heritage; old words bound to new code. And finally, you leave your badge among the dying flowers beside two unlit cigars. You have more work to do. We have more work to do.

© 2022 DaVaun Sanders

About the author

DaVaun Sanders resides in Phoenix, Arizona. His short fiction has appeared in venues such as Escape Pod and PodCastle, and in anthologies such as Ride the Star Wind: Cthulhu, Space Opera, and the Cosmic Weird (Broken Eye Books, 2017), Cooties Shot Required: There Are Things You Must Know (Broken Eye Books, 2021), and Black Boy Joy (Delacorte Press, 2021; a New York Times bestseller), among others. His novella She Who Hears All Whispers (Dancing Star Press, 2019) is available from most e-book retailers. He currently serves as the executive editor for the World Fantasy Award-winning and Hugo Award-winning FIYAH Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. His most recent editorial project is Breathe FIYAH, a flash fiction anthology collaboration with, and his debut middle-grade novel, Keynan Masters and the Peerless Magic Crew, is planned for publication in fall 2023 through Inkyard Press. He hopes to continue expanding his body of work in children’s fiction, for his own twins and kids everywhere who deserve to enjoy inclusive stories. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @davaunsanders.

About the artist

Manuel J. Iniesta

Manuel J. Iniesta was born in Andújar, Spain. Ever since he was born, he’s had a pencil in his hand, so it was natural for him to study art. He studied in Jaén, at the José Nogué Art School. After he finished his studies, he started doing exhibitions in Andalusia (Jaén, Córdoba, Málaga, without forgetting his hometown). Hid path took him to Málaga, where he currently works as a fashion illustrator, editorial illustrator, and tattoo artist, and although his path has only just begun, he plans to dedicate every last drop of his ink to this profession.