People in the town of Chackbay in Louisiana, never liked seeing me on their doorstep; in fact, I’m sure they hated it and hated me.
Small towns are much different than cities, if you didn’t know, to the point where every neighbour, every household, every family knows one another. If you can imagine towns where “who’s your father?” conversations happen in every corner, you could include Chackbay. That’s what made it quaint, but everybody earns a reputation in a town like this faster than in a city.
The police station had a lot of old cop families that wouldn’t touch the work I did, and they handed it to me because I’m a ship in. I’m not a generational cop nor one of the old-time townsfolk; I grew up in New Orleans to a good family with aristocratic roots. Roots I didn’t intend on watering because I was the black sheep that wanted to better society, and I grew into the role by becoming a private investigator instead of an accountant, then a cop that ended up here.
So when I come to the doors of homes in this town, I knock three times, and let the load of the messages I carried off into their open hands—whether they liked it or not. My name went down the twisted turn of being a household note that nobody wanted to read, mentioned with shudders, disdain and grief, while I paid my bills.
“That’s Henry Mollard,” was the one I heard often with voices of spite, and was likely the only sentiment that wasn’t derogatory. The worst, I’m sure, were said at my back where I couldn’t hear, or in one of the two town pubs full of drunken teeth suckers and hurting hearts.
In the end, it gave me a lot of respect to doctors, who meet with terminally ill patients and share the ticking clock of their time left on earth. It takes a hard person to carry the burden and watch the faces of people distort and stretch and morph with emotions that none of us want to watch. In my case, I was someone with enough empathy to know how badly the messages need to be carried well. That’s the part the townsfolk didn’t get.
Honest work in this town is logging or carpentry, not telling people that their loved ones no longer walk this earth. They didn’t see me a messenger, but a harbinger.
When I first started six years ago, I was called in on a warm summer morning to deliver the news to Mrs. Elizabeth Moore, formerly Elizabeth Dowel, that her husband had died in a car wreck on his way to work, just as the sun rose.
It was August 15, 1981, and I was given a file with Mrs. Moore’s address and a telephone number for Terrance Clifford, her childhood friend, and a small note at the bottom reading “heart condition.”
In another case, I wouldn’t know the details, but this was Chackbay.
Moore’s parents had married young, too young by today’s standards at the age of seventeen, and her father died of a heart attack at the age of forty, extremely shy of a full-fledged life; he didn’t even get to see grandchildren.
But I was certain the young Mrs. Moore would be different. On paper, she had done everything right. She finished school, got married, and was ready to complete a family with her new husband, Mr. Carl Moore. Without children between them I was certain the news would be devastating; she would be widowed and left destitute, with nothing to remember her beau by but a mortgaged, aging house full of unrealized dreams and promises.
That was the harder reality of the situation. It was my job to ensure the poor heart that pounded in her chest, with the same countdown inherited from her father, wouldn’t be aggravated, or time out in loneliness.
I rang Terrance, who seemed reluctant to partake, but joined me at the station.
“This is delicate work, but having you there as support might help her hear the news a lot better than if she were alone or given the news by a stranger,” I said calmly, bounding down the front steps of the station to the patrol car.
Terrance seemed meek and half-hearted, almost as if he wished he had come up with a good excuse not to come, with his arms crossed over his chest and his eyes peering at everything but me. Some friend.
“You got that, right?” I pressed, putting a hand on the roof of the car to catch his gaze.
He blinked at me and nodded, and that was it. We got in and drove in silence to the Moore’s home in the quiet suburban section of the town. The houses were relatively in sync, with small front yards and picket fences separating their perimeters, and short overhangs over their front doors enough to block an entrant from downpour.
I parked on the side of the street and we walked in unison, but technical movement, to the door. It was more awkward than I knew would be acceptable.
But before I could iterate a plan, Terrance knocked on the door softly, shaking the peeling, pale yellow paint in time with his fist. A polite, feminine, “come in!” echoed from inside. He paused, still not making eye contact with me.
“She has a pink scar over her eyebrow, please don’t mention it… or stare,” he said quietly with his eyes downcast.
“How did she come by a scar on her face?” I enquired in a mutter, but Terrance didn’t respond and instead, turned the doorknob.
I entered behind him, greeted by a regular, suburban household scene; the kind that would bring joy enough for any cookie cutter home and family. I shook off the initial adjustment to the darker lighting, and saw an open concept living room that spread into a dining room and kitchen like an ‘L,’ with a staircase to the upstairs beside us at the entrance.
“Hi Liza,” called Terrance to her as she stood in the kitchen, busy with boiling and steaming pots on the oven.
“Hi Terry, give me one second—“ she said with a look over her shoulder, then a stark pause as she caught me.
She dropped a ladle she had been using to stir a pot, and swiftly dropped down to pluck it from the floor and rinse it in the sink in one motion. I saw the colour of her ears and neck alter, turning pink, from the collar of a green knitted cardigan that covered a brown shin-length dress. She might have looked like a happy wife if it were just Terrance, but seemed disturbed by my presence in her foyer.
She turned back to the oven to tend to some burners, the gas kind with blue flames, and wiped her hands on the black apron at her front as she turned to us. Her expression was a mixture of perplexion and worry, with a hint of I-wish-you-weren’t-here.
“Terry, it’s good to see you,” she said with a kind smile.
To me, I didn’t receive the pleasantry. Her eyes swiftly scrutinized my waist, as if searching for a gun, one I didn’t have, and her posture showed that she might remain on edge.
“Something must have happened. I’ve heard about you,” she whispered at me, just loud enough for us to hear over the dying kitchen sounds, her demeanour turning dark.
I let my eyes touch Terrance’s for a moment and detected hesitation, unwelcome from his end. Her mood could obstacle our efforts to keep her calm. I sighed.
“Mrs. Moore, I’d be happy to talk with you civilized-like. Feel free to set the stage for what would make you most comfortable.”
She thought for a moment, and turned. Her hand moved over a pot, testing the intensity of heat, of what I could guess contained boiled potatoes with green onions by the smell, and she looked at the wooden clock hung above the oven. She composed herself, in a robotic manner and turned to us again.
“I’ll set the table and you both can join us for supper. Carl will be home soon,” she chimed, lighthearted again. “It’s funny, I made extra as if I knew you’d be coming—cooking is my love language you see,” she beamed.
We nodded politely, but I made the mental note that arriving to ensure she would be consoled and fed the news gently might play out differently than anticipated. She was spinning in the kitchen as if she was mad.
We parked ourselves at the large, mahogany table and the clock chimed five o’clock; regular quitting-time for most of the townsfolk, including Carl. I decided I had let Moore’s mood and Terrance’s passiveness clog the drain long enough. I cleared my throat.
“Mrs. Moore, if you don’t mind, please take a seat,” I said, motioning to the chair at the head of the table.
She turned and raised an eyebrow inquisitively, with a dash of decline, as if I was damming the current of her cooking flow. But she relented stiffly, moving toward the same chair I was sure Carl normally sat in. She was much like a machine, well rehearsed and oiled, but like a cat at the same time, ready to puff its fur and put its ears back. It felt like walking on a tightrope over eggshells.
I cleared my throat, ready to begin. But Terrance cut me off.
“Carl won’t be joining us, love,” he interjected softly but quickly, his face emotionless. “Car accident, on his way to work.”
He gave a millisecond of an upturned mouth, I wouldn't call it a smile, and I wanted to wring his neck.
But Moore froze. She passed through the valley of being a shining Stepford wife to a petrified tree in the seconds between Terrance’s words. Then she changed again, her face seemed to ripple like water trying to decide which direction to take after a rock broke its surface. Then it bubbled, a boiling kettle.
“You two need to leave, now,” she ordered, slamming a hand on the table as she stood.
“Now Mrs. Moore, we were—“ I started, making the universal calming motion with both hands, palms moving downward and up, then down again.
“Out!” She hollered, pointing to the door.
I could have predicted it a mile away that Terrance wasn’t a good addition. It didn’t help any that Moore didn’t seem to give a damn about her heart condition either. I’ll get flack at the station for this. I raised my hands, gave a slight eyebrow raise to Terrance and did as the lady said.
In essence, we fled, leaving the poor widow to console herself. I turned to Terrance and roughly grabbed his shoulder, squeezing my fingers into the meat in the most nonchalant way possible, lest we were seen by a neighbour.
“That went against everything we were supposed to do—that damned woman could have a convulsion with no one but you and me to blame. She’s likely in hysteria as I speak!” I hissed lowly, shoving him from me and watching him stumble over the cobbles of the walkway.
He corrected himself and shook his arm, as though regaining feeling from my grip, exaggeratingly so.
“Actually, you daft bloke, I think… she’s laughing,” he said coolly, stilling himself to listen as we came to the end of the walkway.
At eleven o’clock on August 16, 1981, right before my lunch break, I was paged by the station.
A call had come in concerning Mrs. Moore. I stood up, concern and guilt gripped me, as I listened to the coroner, Angela Vandyck, on the other end.
Angela said that a neighbour had visited Moore, having read the morning paper with the news of Carl’s passing, and found her, lying on the floor at her bedside. Moore had taken off the cardigan Terrance and I saw her wearing the day before, and the neighbour identified yellowing bruises on her arms. This inferred abuse and that she had passed shortly after we left. The dinner she had painstakingly made was left behind, cold but plated, as if to feed an imaginary family.
“Was it a heart attack, or was she beaten?” I insisted, putting my face into my free hand, pangs of uncertainty spreading throughout my chest.
I hung onto Angela’s voice as she cleared her throat.
“It was a heart attack. Her bruises were defensive and in a late healing stage. It’s quite interesting though, Mollard: she died with a smile on her face, not a single tear. We think… the heart attack was triggered by excitement, happiness even,” she said.