Prologue: Bayou St. John
Corporal Grace Jividen, riding shotgun, stared out the squad car’s passenger-side window. Yet another dreary December night in New Orleans, with dampness clinging to Mid-City like a cold washcloth. She put her hands in front of the heater vent, glad she had drawn patrol duty and wasn’t walking a beat. Giant red letters identifying the Rouses Supermarket on North Carrolton Avenue beckoned potential shoppers through the fog. But a nearly deserted parking lot signaled that it was almost midnight—closing time. Three days before Christmas. Maybe everyone would stay home to keep warm. Drink hot chocolate. Wrap presents. The usual holiday crap. An uneventful shift would be great, but not likely.
The radio crackled. Jividen looked at her partner, Officer Silas Michaud. She sighed, then cursed under her breath. Goddamn gut feelings.
“Report of excessive noise. Twelve hundred block of Moss, between Desoto and Bell. Neighbors advise no response after knocking. Nearest unit, respond and investigate. Code One.”
Jividen picked up the handset. “Roger, Dispatch. Unit Four-One-Two. E.T.A. three minutes. Over.” She sighed. “All right, rookie. You know what to do.”
“Affirmative,” Michaud said, his tone officious and precise. “Police Regulation Three-One-Six Point Two. Code One. Routine response. Proceed directly to the scene, obeying all traffic laws.”
She nodded and smiled. “Straight A’s at the Academy. Right?”
Michaud’s face flushed, the change in color noticeable despite an eerie, pale-green patchwork cast by the electronic displays. Combined with his high-and-tight haircut, it made him look like a cartoon Martian, or one of those scaly, absinthe-hued anti-heroes in an Avengers comic book. God, these rookies were young.
A vanilla noise disturbance. Their shift wouldn’t be totally uneventful, but noise complaints were usually routine. Tell the party animals to tone it down, or at least invite their neighbors to the bash. A patrol officer’s life could be boring, but boring beat the hell out of being shot at by some mile-high perp any day of the week. Besides, having an eager beaver like Michaud to train helped break the monotony. It probably wouldn’t be long before he preferred boredom as well.
Their vehicle sliced through the darkness, down Orleans Street toward Bayou St. John. Few cars and almost no pedestrians. Nothing out of the ordinary, especially considering the time and the lousy weather.
“Seems odd,” Michaud said. “Not a lot of decibel violations in this part of town. Not like the Quarter or Marigny. Pretty quiet, all in all.”
“Right, ” said Jividen. So he was studying crime stats. Good. “Keep on your toes. One call gone bad and the numbers won’t mean squat.”
“Roger that.” Michaud nodded. “Understood.”
He turned left off Orleans onto Moss.
Jividen activated the flashing blue lights mounted on the roof and in the grille. “Might as well let the locals know that N.O.P.D.’s got their backs.”
St. Philip Street. Almost there. She lowered her window. A slight, musty breeze tickled her nose. The heavier fog from before had dissipated into a thin, patchy mist. To their left, lights from the surrounding neighborhood reflected off the bayou’s ebony surface. All seemed calm, except for the reason for their visit—loud music emanating from a house about a hundred feet ahead on their right.
“Hear that?” Jividen asked. “It’s coming from the double gallery on the corner.”
Michaud eased their sedan to a stop in front of a two-story house with a wide front porch and a gallery above. No signs of life, except for Christmas lights flickering on the ground floor and Louis Armstrong’s voice—gravelly, slow as molasses but also as sweet—blasting from an open window. Backed up by an orchestral arrangement of strings and woodwinds, Louis announced to everyone within earshot that it was a wonderful world.
Jividen winced. It wasn’t surprising that people had complained. And why would anyone leave a window wide open on a night like this? “I recognize this house. It’s Dr. O’Malley’s place.”
They exited their cruiser.
“Don’t forget to switch on your body camera,” Jividen said.
The music fell silent.
“That’s it?” Michaud said. He sounded disappointed, irritated, like a teenager who’s just been cheated out of doing something fun. “We show up and it ends?”
But, as suddenly as it had stopped, the music started again—the same song. Jividen gritted her teeth. “Must be on repeat,” she said. “Something’s going on.”
The windowpanes rattled in the renewed sonic assault.
“Rookie, hang back a few feet and be ready to hit the rear entrance—but only on my signal.”
“Got it,” Michaud said, happy again. He un-holstered his sidearm.
“Hold on,” Jividen said. “It’s just loud music.”
“Understood.” Michaud re-holstered his weapon. “But be careful. I’m not ready for a promotion yet.”
She headed for the front porch. Wise-ass. A middle finger would be an appropriate response, but not now; business now. The baby Martian would pay for his comment later.
Michaud proceeded slowly, five feet behind and to her right, but staying within her peripheral vision. Louis kept belting out the tune. Who cared if there were trees of green and red roses too? Screw it. Jividen stayed focused on the main point—seeing Dr. O’Malley’s smiling face and getting him to crank down the volume.
No lyrics for several seconds, but the orchestral accompaniment vibrated through her teeth and jawbone. She had to make it stop before she went deaf.
“Dr. O’Malley.” She pounded on the screen door with her fist. “It’s Corporal Jividen from N.O.P.D. We received a complaint about the music.”
She’d need to make more noise if she wanted to get the attention of anyone inside. The butt of her baton should fill the bill—loud knocks on the door jamb without breaking her hand.
“Dr. O’Malley, it’s N.O.P.D. Is everything okay?”
Returning the nightstick to her utility belt, she stepped to the right and drew her sidearm, then motioned for Michaud to advance and deploy to her left. After another series of hand gestures, Michaud opened the screen door as far as it would go, holding it with his foot, weapon in a high-ready position. The front door was ajar—barely but definitely open. Worrisome.
Jividen glanced at Michaud, then touched the kick-plate with her foot. The door swung open slowly. Dr. O’Malley must be a trusting soul. With Michaud near her right shoulder, she proceeded inside, walking toward the music. Their flashlight beams illuminated the way ahead. The house reeked of Christmas—evergreen and cinnamon, as if someone had been baking cookies after decorating the tree. Louis was singing about hearing babies cry and then watching them grow.
Jividen sighed. Finally, the culprit: a disc player in what appeared to be an unlit family room. A blue indicator light flashed “Repeat.” Beside it flashed the number “42.” Probably the loudest possible setting. Just as Louis had proclaimed—for the umpteenth time—that it was a wonderful world, Jividen hit the off switch with her elbow, weapon still at the ready.
Silence. The lyrics echoed in her head. Satchmo was the greatest, but the last few minutes had been torture.
“Okay, let’s clear the rest of the house,” she said, turning on the lights. “Dr. and Mrs. O’Malley must be around here somewhere.”
“Corporal,” Michaud said, his voice cracking. “Over…over there.”
She put her flashlight away and moved toward the sofa. On the other side, next to a sturdy wooden coffee table, was a man in his mid-seventies—lying face up, motionless, his arms crossed neatly on his chest. Books and papers were strewn all around the room, but there was no blood. His eyes were wide open, staring God knows where, looking at God knows what.
“It’s Robby O’Malley.” Jividen knelt and placed her hand on his neck for several seconds. Still warm, but no pulse. She shook her head and sighed. “He’s gone.”
“Jesus,” Michaud said, with an inappropriate grin. “What a night. My first home entry with weapon drawn, first dead body. Guess we should call the Coroner and let him know this one’s headed straight to the morgue.”
“Wouldn’t do any good,” said Jividen, her face cold, the blood draining away. Maybe Michaud hadn’t paid attention at the Academy after all. “This is the Coroner.”
Chapter One: The Morgue
Driving northwest on Earhart Boulevard, Jonathan Gray approached his destination, a nondescript, plaster and faux-brick building with an equally nondescript sign proclaiming to the world: New Orleans Coroner. The bottom portion of the sign announced that the complex also housed the city’s Emergency Medical Services Department.
It had been a long, emotional, and exhausting day. Emma was probably right: he shouldn’t have taken an overnight shift so soon. Maybe he did need some downtime to adjust. But the schedule had been set before Robby died. If Jonathan backed out now, someone would have to carry his water. Besides, giving the staff extra time over the holidays was good for morale. Emma was upset and worried, and he couldn’t blame her; it was a wife’s nature to worry. But he’d be fine. He would adjust—downtime or not. He didn’t have a choice.
In the parking area in back, he hesitated, then pulled into the space with a dark blue sign that read “Coroner” in silver reflective paint. As he reached for the ignition, a piece of duct tape covering Robby’s name caught his attention. Finally, nearly ten years after Katrina, the city had finished construction on the new morgue a few weeks ago. Robby had had hardly any time to settle into the new facility.
Jonathan’s last, brief contact with his mentor of more than thirty years had taken place just over a day ago. The memory weighed on him unbearably. He tightened his grip on the steering wheel, as if he were trying to strangle the life out of it. “Damn it, Robby. Why did you pick now to bleed out on me?”
He released his grip. Thankfully no one was around to witness his outburst. He exhaled, as if sighing would cleanse him of despair and grief. Of course Robby hadn’t chosen to have a stroke. (That was where the evidence thus far pointed—a stroke.) Jonathan’s eyes moistened. Don’t cry. Not now. Once he started, he wouldn’t stop. Now was the time to hold it together.
After so many years of playing second fiddle as Chief Deputy, ready or not, he was about to take up the mantle of leadership. But hell, he was a former Navy Combat Surgeon. He had rappelled from helicopters into Godforsaken shitholes to patch up Marines with little more than catgut, gauze, and a prayer. Stepping into the first chair as Coroner should be a cinch. Should be. But his gravity-defying days had been so damned long ago. Now, in the Navy Reserve Medical Corps, the most heroic thing he had done lately was give routine physical exams at the Special Amphibious Operations Center in Mississippi, during his monthly military drills. He probably couldn’t even spell helicopter anymore, much less do anything so bold—or so reckless—as shinny down a rope from one. What if, at age fifty-one, he had lost his edge? What if he couldn’t measure up to this latest challenge?
He opened his car door, then just sat there, staring ahead. His nose crinkled at the odor of the breeze coming from upriver. Though the city was surrounded by petrochemical plants, the strongest scent came from the concentration of refineries between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Downriver there were industrial plants as well. The smells had an almost salty taste, reflecting the predominant fisheries and agricultural land of the Mississippi Delta and surrounding wetlands.
Mostly the cool night air didn’t register, though. He felt as if he were somewhere else—with Robby still alive—engaging in another of their heart-to-heart discussions. Jonathan would rail against the inequities of a system that forced the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office to conduct more than twice as many autopsies as the St. Tammany and Jefferson Parishes combined, though they had fewer personnel and a much smaller budget. Robby, as always, would talk him off the ledge, assuring him that legislative fixes were a priority. It was never much of a debate. Robby came armed with stories of New Orleans in the sixties and seventies and how things had changed for the better. He had a knack for getting you into his corner. His flowing silver hair, beard, and round tortoiseshell glasses made him look like what he was—an old Cajun Flower Child. A smooth talker too, his light Southern accent peppered with witticisms and anecdotes. No wonder Jonathan had believed him. Anyone would. Yet the timing had never been quite right: various crises and election campaigns had pushed each of those legislative initiatives off the front burner.
Back to reality. Reforming the system was a long-term commitment. Tonight Jonathan was simply another staff pathologist, grinding out an overnight in the morgue. He got out of his car, slammed the door, and headed toward the entrance. Seven forty-five, time to see what awaited him inside. He sure as hell could have used some of Robby’s blarney to keep him going.
Chapter Two: The Garden District
Fifteen-year-old Hunter Dejarnette stumbled, then righted himself without falling as he raced along Chestnut Street. He was big for his age and athletic. Pap said he could be a championship wrestler, or maybe a linebacker. He had walked through this neighborhood dozens, maybe hundreds of times before, so he should have remembered the spot—just past Washington Avenue—where tree roots made the sidewalk bulge upward. But it was nearly nine o’clock, the first time he had ever come through here after dark, and the first time he’d been in such a hurry. He needed to get to Gram and Pap’s on First Street as quickly as possible.
Christmas was supposed to be a time when family got along, even those relatives you didn’t see that often, or fathers and sons who disagreed and fought like, well, fathers and sons. Before the argument the holiday party had been so much fun—playing Mario Party, singing carols, eating. The food had been all of Hunter’s favorites—the Haldeman family recipe for boudin balls, Aunt Evie’s Polish poteetsa. He felt as if he could hibernate for a month, like a bear, he was so full.
But his face warmed when he thought about the confrontation. Why did his cousin Joe and Uncle Ben have to yell at each other? Hunter hadn’t meant anything by it, not really, when he threw the wine on Joe. They could have gone into another room to talk. But they hadn’t.
They must have known it would upset Gram and Pap. Gram was so sick. Hunter’s eyes moistened. They had left the party early so Gram could rest. At least that’s what they said. But he knew the real reason—they were upset about the argument. Hunter wiped his eyes and moved forward, more slowly now but still hastening toward his great-grandparents’ house. He would apologize for what had happened and tell them how much he loved them. He saw his breath in the chilly December air and exhaled frosty rings of moisture. Just a few more blocks. Not much longer.
The corner of Chestnut and First Street. He could turn right and go home now, across Magazine Street, back to his mom and dad’s camelback. Or he could keep going, to Gram and Pap’s. It wasn’t a difficult decision to make. Left up First Street for just over a block, a couple of houses past Coliseum. He would tell them everything. He had to make it right. Then he could go home.
Gram and Pap would understand. They always did. Maybe Pap would give him another lesson in how to repair jewelry, while Gram napped. She was so sick, but napping eased the pain, and working with jewelry helped Pap not to worry so much.
Hunter paused at his great-grandparents’ driveway. Their Buick was there, but why hadn’t they left the front porch light burning or turned on the Christmas tree in the front room? Maybe they didn’t want to be bothered by anyone. A flickering, multi-colored glow from the back of the house caught his eye. They must be in the family room watching TV. Anyway, he wasn’t just anyone. He was Gram’s Special Angel. He was always welcome at Gram and Pap’s.
Three rings on the doorbell, counting to ten-Mississippi after each. No answer. By now there should have been a light in the hallway, signaling that they knew someone was outside and were on their way to answer the door. Despite the cold air, sweat dripped from Hunter’s face. His heartbeat seemed to move from his chest to his throat. Something was wrong.
A few steps carried him from the porch along the gravel walk toward the family room in the back of the house. The small stones crunched underneath his shoes.
“Pap, it’s me. Hunter,” he called, six feet from the window.
No response, except for the voices coming from the television. Maybe he should move closer and talk louder.
“Pap. Gram. Are you—”
It was as if he had stepped into the Arctic Circle and been frozen in place. He stood like a statue, staring through the hand-blown windowpane.
There they were: Gram sleeping peacefully on the couch, Pap a yard or two away, on the floor. He looked unconscious, but then he moved slightly. Maybe he was sleeping too.
Warmth spread across Hunter’s cheeks. His eyes stung. Everything was surrounded by a fuzzy corona of rainbow colors. Maybe he was having an episode. Maybe it was a dream. Maybe—
A quick blur. Two figures were standing off to the right in the family room. One was dressed in black clothing, a ski mask, gloves. A Ninja? Why would a Ninja be at Gram and Pap’s? The other—the larger of the pair—wore a ski mask and gloves too, above a hoodie and baggy jeans. Why hadn’t one of them answered the doorbell? They spoke, but Hunter couldn’t hear the words. The smaller one—the Ninja—held a shotgun. Pap’s favorite shotgun, his L.C. Smith double barrel. Hunter’s jaw quivered.
“Pap! What’s wrong?”
The figures looked at one another, as if surprised. Hunter flattened himself against the outside wall of the house. Maybe they hadn’t seen him. But he couldn’t take a chance. He had to leave.
One thought burned in his mind as he ran, helter-skelter, down First Street: get across Magazine and head for the camelback. He would be safe there. He could think about his great-grandparents then, and how to make everything right. It was his fault. If he hadn’t thrown the wine on Joe and made Gram and Pap leave, none of this would be happening.
Chapter Three: Snow White
Detective Lieutenant Mary Elizabeth Sprance—Betsy to those who knew her best—pressed the backlight on her wristwatch, revealing her official time of arrival: 10:17 p.m. An impressive record, from district headquarters to the scene within thirty minutes of the radio message of a domestic disturbance. She would have been there sooner, but the officers, following proper protocol, had waited to radio for Homicide until they had confirmed that there were fatalities involved. Then they had cleared the premises, searching for other victims and the perpetrators.
Being first on the scene and doing whatever it took to solve the crime had become Betsy’s hallmarks. Maybe it was the efficiency and doggedness she had learned in the military. Or maybe it was her grandmère telling her she had to be better than everyone else if she wanted to succeed in a world where people with testicles and lighter skin were often in charge. Whatever the reason, here she was—a Police Lieutenant and Chief of Detectives in the Sixth District, charged with protecting the mansion-dwellers living in the picture-perfect haven called the Garden District.
Murders didn’t happen here. Mayor Jamerson and Police Superintendent Bondurant wouldn’t tolerate it. Let the lesser humans in the outer wards bludgeon one another to death; the Garden District was pristine. And the two apparent victims tonight made the scene especially disturbing. William and Margaret Haldeman, both in their mid-nineties, prominent, upstanding citizens. Who would want to kill these two pillars of the community?
Betsy approached the uniformed officer guarding the wrought-iron fence surrounding the yard. “Evening, Vogel.” Her words seemed to hang in the cold air before dissipating.
“Evening, Detective. Great night to be out.” Vogel rolled his eyes.
“At least it’s not raining.”
“True dat, Lieutenant.”
“Were you one of the responding officers?”
“Yes, ma’am. Me and Corporal Templeton. She’s inside. We called the CSTs—they’re on their way. And Sergeant Broussard should be here before too long.”
“Good. First impressions?”
“Looks like a murder-suicide.”
“Great.” Betsy sighed, her stomach feeling empty. What was the world coming to? Kill your life-partner, then yourself. It was always a gut-punch. “Guess there’s nothing to do but get started.”
“Right,” Vogel said. “Bodies are in the back of the house. Some sort of family room off the kitchen. Best entrance is down the driveway and through that wooden gate.”
Inside, Betsy greeted Corporal Templeton, the other officer who had responded to the domestic disturbance call, and surveyed the room. “You and Vogel did a good job protecting the crime scene.”
“CSTs should have a lot to work with. Ought to make everyone’s job easier.”
“Agreed.” Templeton pointed. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Betsy had lost count of the times she’d arrived at scenes of murder followed by suicide. Regardless of the supposedly calm, calculated act it was supposed to be, the real event was always messy. Bodies didn’t fall neatly. Blood touched everything, its telltale copper scent invariably draping the room. Empty liquor bottles or scattered pill containers, sometimes both, underscored thee need for extreme sedation before being killed or pulling the trigger. Yet the Haldemans’ house contained none of these tell-tale signs.
Margaret Haldeman lay on a couch in the family room, as if she were taking a nap. The only problem was a small-caliber bullet wound on the top of her head. There were no indications of a struggle, no blood spatter, no coppery odor. Her arms lay folded, undisturbed, across her torso—as if she were in a coffin waiting for her funeral, or Snow White waiting for her Prince.
“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to look on and do nothing.” So it seems to former Navy Combat Surgeon Jonathan Gray, who has become complacent in his position as Chief Deputy Coroner for the City of New Orleans. His attitude toward his career is simple: Keep his nose to the grindstone as a pathologist conducting autopsies in one of the most prolific killing fields in the country, and let others—especially his boss, Dr. Cletus Robillard “Robby” O’Malley, a friend and mentor for over thirty years—deal with the political intrigue and corruption.
Everything changes shortly before Christmas, when police investigate an excessive noise complaint and discover Dr. O’Malley’s body in his home by Bayou St. John. Louisiana law mandates that Dr. Gray, as Chief Deputy, take over as Coroner, unless he declines the appointment. Gray accepts the mantle of leadership, and his sense of duty demands that he investigate how Robby died. He owes at least that much to Robby and his family.
Within hours of taking over as Coroner, Gray must also address three emotionally charged cases—an eighteen-month-old female found dead after being abandoned in the Tulane Hospital Emergency Room and the murders of a politically connected elderly couple. Gray’s inquiries ultimately involve the Mayor, the Catholic Archbishop of New Orleans, a state Appellate Court Judge, and a nosy reporter from The Times-Picayune. As Gray digs deeper, he, his family, and others are put in harm’s way.
Voices of the Elysian Fields follows Dr. Gray’s rapid evolution from an average medical bureaucrat into a dogged investigator and impassioned advocate for speaking truth to those in power. My hope with this book was to use a straightforward mystery-thriller to illustrate how an individual can reach deep inside and find the wherewithal to overcome complacency, effect statewide reforms, and bring justice to those who have suffered injury or death.
M. D. Rigg is a retired Navy Judge Advocate, currently employed as an attorney for a Federal Government Agency, as well as being a life-member of Sisters in Crime, the Southeastern Virginia Chapter of Mystery by the Sea, and Hampton Roads Writers. He is the author of a short story in the Mardi Gras Mysteries anthology published by Mystery and Horror, LLC, and has Virginia-themed short stories scheduled for publication in two upcoming anthologies. He lives with his wife in blissful obscurity in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Embark, Issue 14, April 2021