Project Novel: Tongue In The Mail, Chapters 2 & 3

I attended Tulane Law School when it was located in Jones Hall. It now has its own building not far away on Freret Street, which I referred to as Ferret Street in my law school days.

The featured image is of Julia Roberts matriculating at Jones Hall in The Pelican Brief. I’m 90% certain that scene was filmed in Room 102 on the main floor of Jones Hall, which is where the action takes place in Chapter 2.

I liked the oddities and charm of the old building but it was jam packed with law student humanity. One could even say it was a Crowded House:

If you missed the first chapter of this tawdry tale, CLICK HERE.

Our story continues after the break.

TONGUE IN THE MAIL BY PETER ATHAS. ©2020

CHAPTER 2

October 16, 1991

I was running late because I’d made the mistake of taking a siesta after a long, boring day of classes. I should have napped in class instead. It was hard to get up at twilight, but I had no choice because I had to go to the big community service meeting. To get your diploma, you had to do twenty hours of community service. I’d done my bit, but Diana had conned me into signing up people for the Program for Older Prisoners. POPS had been sold to the legislature as tough on crime because releasing sick old prisoners would free up jail cells for healthy young thugs. They bought it.

When I slipped into Room 102 of Jones Hall, a noisy crowd of law students had already gathered. By the fall of 1991, it was obvious that the three-story red brick building was too small for the booming law school. The building seemed to shrink as the size of the classes grew, which made everybody feel edgy and claustrophobic.

Room 102 was an enormous, semicircular classroom with large bay windows. Hanging like icons on the walls were the portraits of some very distinguished, and very dead, faculty members. We had a nickname for this display: the Rogue’s Gallery.

Because I was so late, I had to sit in the first row. I felt uncomfortable sitting up front. I preferred the obscurity of the back benches. My usual seat, located next to a locked broom closet in the back corner of the room, was taken. Once Jack Goodfriend and I were joking about what was behind that always-locked door. I said that it was stuffed with the skeletons of students who disappeared after offending the Rogue’s Gallery. Jack laughed but warned me that if that were the case I’d better watch out.

“Me?” I protested, and Jack said: “I don’t imagine that those gentlemen consider you the ideal product of this law school.”

I didn’t say anything, but I thought, Hell, I may not be ideal but I’m no slouch either. Maybe I’m not a Law Review jock like you, Jack, but I’m in the top third of the class. So, what if I don’t fit the pompous image of the profession as well as you do?

I laughed to myself when I heard one of the more conservative professors complain about being stuck at “the community disservice meeting.” Then, my friend Ian Carolan showed up and thumped me on the shoulder. “Let me in on the joke?” he said as he sat down next to me.

Ian was a thirty-year-old faculty brat from Boulder, Colorado. He was one of the biggest men at the law school, both physically and intellectually. His curly brown hair was so unruly that it looked like he spent hours standing in front of a fan every morning to achieve the effect. He used to be in the Navy and claimed that he’d spent most of his hitch in bars and tattoo parlors. He’d splashed down at Tulane to study Maritime Law.

Tulane Law divides its first-year classes into small groups of students. Ian, Jack, and I were in the same group and we’d been blessed with Louis Bonseigneur as a faculty adviser. While most law professors are lawyers who know a little about teaching, Louis was a teacher who knew a lot about the law. He was a handsome man in his mid-forties with cafe-au-lait skin, reddish black hair, and a salt-and-red-pepper beard. And he was headed in our direction.

“Ian? Nicholas? What are you doing here?” he asked. “I assumed you guys had finished your community service long ago.”

“Sorry for letting you down, LB,” Ian mock apologized, “but I’m a sinner in the church of Jim Granger, pro bono law giver.”

The pro bono program was Dean James Granger’s baby. He hoped that requiring twenty hours of community service would encourage corporate lawyer wannabes to be public-spirited citizens. He was wrong.

“I’ve finished my twenty. I’m just signing up people for POPS,” I said. “You here to whip the troops into an altruistic frenzy, LB?”

“That’s right. The Dean asked me to deliver an inspirational speech.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “I know that some of my colleagues would rather not be here.”

“I noticed.”

He laughed and whispered, “Most of them love humanity in the abstract and hate people.” He looked up, saw Granger entering the room and excused himself.

As more of the faculty assembled, a frazzled-looking Sophia Kostecki appeared and slid into the seat between Ian and me.

“Hi, Sophia,” I said. “You seem unusually subdued today. Pressures of office getting to you?”

Sophia was our class president. Her platform was a simple one: more and better parties. She stretched her legs and yawned. “I’m just shutting down for a bit so I can get keyed up to speak. Don’t worry, the burdens of office rest very lightly on me, darling. You know how power mad I am.”

“What program are you shilling for, Miz Prez?” Ian asked.

Sophia perked up. “AIDS LAW. You interested, Ian?”

“Maybe, but I wanna hear your pitch first.” He winked at me. “By the way, will you also be passing out condoms?”

“No, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea.” She giggled and said, “Especially for these male professors. Some of them think they’re irresistible. Look at that pompous jerk Maragall. He thinks he’s a peacock when he’s really a palmetto bug!” She practically spat out the words.

Ian raised an eyebrow. “A palmetto bug?”

“You know, one of those flying roaches the size of a streetcar!”

“Nick, you should have seen Sophia yank Maragall’s chain the other day in Admiralty. Tell him about it, Sophia.”

“Darling, you’ll simply adore this story because it involves Greeks.” She salaciously ran her tongue across her lips.

I groaned, expecting the worst. “God, Sophia, I hope it’s not another anal sex or frat boy joke.”

“Not quite, but you’re close,” she said. “Maragall called on me and I didn’t hear the question. So, I asked him to repeat it. He rubbed his tummy, the way he always does, and said: ‘Miss Sophia, this is a case that should excite you as it involves Greek sailors. You do like sailors, do you not Miss Sophia?’ And I said, Yes, I adore Greek seamen. And then…”

Ian interrupted, laughing: “Maragall asked her, ‘What about Catalan seamen?’ And…”

“I said: No, it’s way too salty.” She giggled and slapped my knee.

I laughed and said, “You should be grateful for the anonymous grading system. Hush, here’s the dean. It’s show time.”

James Granger had been Tulane Law’s dean for six years and had pushed and promoted its reputation into the upper echelon of law schools. He was a handsome, green-eyed, gangly man in his late forties who both looked and sounded like a cynical Jimmy Stewart.  I did a wicked Stewart sound-alike impression of him. My favorite Grangerism was his distillation of the legal concept of res judicata, “If you lose, you’re screwed!”

Granger leaned on the lectern and greeted the students. Then, he said, “Let me brag a little. We were the first law school to require community service and others are modeling their programs on ours, including Yale and Harvard. Our goal is to produce more public-spirited attorneys and fewer ruthless, greedy assholes!”

Sophia whispered into my ear, “He ought to start by reforming some of those faculty assholes first.”

“Quiet, Sophia,” I muttered. “I’m planning on a nap.”

I was bored and so was Salvador Maragall. He was sitting across from me on the dais and seemed distracted. He kept looking at his watch and impatiently tapping his foot on the floor until it was his turn to speak. Listening to Maragall, I got the impression that, while Granger thought of the community service program as dessert, Maragall regarded it as being more like raw cauliflower: good for you but somewhat indigestible.

The meeting dragged on as professor after professor patted the law school on the back for having such a wonderful program. Finally, Sophia hit the stage and injected some life into the proceedings. I noticed Maragall rolling his eyes as she pleaded with us to “stop allowing bigots to treat AIDS as a political issue instead of what it really is: a public health crisis. People are losing their insurance, homes, and jobs because they cannot afford sound legal advice. They, and we at AIDS LAW, need your help.”

I was impressed by Sophia’s impassioned appeal. She worked so hard at being outrageous that it was easy to forget how bright and committed she could be when she dropped the vamp act. After she sat down, I patted her on the knee and said, “Great speech.”

She smiled, leaned over, and whispered in my ear, “Coming to the party on the patio, darling?” She checked her watch. “I’ve got to go and help set up.”

“What are you serving, brie and Dom Perignon?”

“Of course not, that’s only for faculty receptions, not for rabble like us. We’re serving Abita beer and Cajun Crawtators.”

“Good, then maybe Maragall will stay away,” I said, sticking out my tongue.

“I hope so too, darling. That way fewer women will go home with his fingerprints on their butts. Ta, ta.” She pecked me on the cheek, gathered her things and quietly left the room.

I turned to study Salvador Maragall’s face and wondered how much truth there was to the gossip. I didn’t know Maragall at all, except as a teacher. But I knew enough to be skeptical of the many rumors that slithered like poisonous snakes through Jones Hall.

After Louis Bonseigneur finished speaking, Maragall leaned over, whispered something to Granger and then left the room.

As the meeting droned on, Ian became restless. “Aren’t they ever going to shut up?” he moaned quietly. Then he paused. “Hey, did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” I whispered.

“I thought I heard something out in the hall. You didn’t hear it?”

“Just distant voices. There’s always somebody out there yakking.”

“I swear that I heard a scream. At least I think so.” Ian’s face was taut, and his eyes were big.

I shrugged. “It’s hard to hear anything in here; the room is pretty well soundproofed.”

“I dunno…sounded like a scream to me.”

“A scream? Nah.”

“You have shitty hearing. How could you tell?”

I jabbed Ian with my elbow. “Hush, Granger’s glaring at us.”

“This is really bugging me. I’m going to slip out and see what happened.” Ian stood up and left the room.

When Granger wrapped up the program, I moved forward to sign up volunteers for POPS. Just as I stepped onto the platform, I heard a scream. Then, Ian hurtled into the room and yelled, “Dean Granger! Something awful has happened!”

“What is it?” Granger said.

Ian was short of breath. “It’s Sophia Kostecki. I think she’s dead! It’s terrible! Never seen anything like it!”

I’d always thought that the term “stunned silence” was reserved for cheap novels until I saw the effect that Ian’s announcement had on everyone in Room 102 that day. It was as if everyone’s vocal cords had been cut by his words. People who only moments before had been cocky law students were suddenly quiet, scared. I was scared too, but I refused to believe that Sophia was dead until I saw it for myself.

You could almost smell the fear as people began trying to elbow their way out. I followed the others and saw a crowd at the patio door.

“Stand back, all of you,” ordered Granger. Then his Jimmy Stewart voice quavered, “Oh my God, this is horrible!”

Sophia’s bug-eyed corpse sat upright leaning on the door to the patio. There were small spots of blood scattered on the floor between the hallway and the back of the locker room. She’d been gagged with a bright scarlet scarf. Her body looked posed, like a statue in the chamber of horrors at a cheap wax museum. Sophia was so hyper that I’d never seen her in repose before, which made seeing her like that even more shocking.

I tried to fight off the flood of nausea overwhelming me and pushed my way through the crowd. Finally, I found myself standing next to Jim Granger.

Suddenly, the body fell forward with an appalling thud, revealing a deep, bloody crevice on the back of her skull. Then, a grotesque cacophony of sounds echoed through the hallway: crying; screaming; retching. An envelope that had been on Sophia’s lap slid onto the floor. Without thinking, I grabbed the envelope, glanced at it and turned to Granger. “It’s addressed to you.”

“To me?” Granger looked numb. “It’s addressed to me?”

I nodded and handed it to him. In a state of shock, Granger ripped opened the envelope. Inside was a neatly typed letter, which Granger slowly read aloud:

Dear Dean Granger,

Miss Kostecki was executed because of her flagrantly immoral behavior. She was morally unfit to serve as class president and thereby disgrace this law school by speaking at graduation.

As a matter of professional courtesy, I will provide you with a hint. I did not use a gun because they are noisy and messy. Furthermore, I wanted to prove to Miss Kostecki and her ilk that guns do not kill, people do.

Let her execution serve as a warning. I am watching and I will be back.

“What the hell does this mean?” demanded Granger. “Executed? Professional courtesy?”

“Maybe the killer was a lawyer or a law student,” I said weakly. “But why?”

“We’re up to our necks in deep shit now.” Granger paused to regain his composure. Finally, he raised his voice and said, “Stay calm. Please clear the area, but don’t leave the building until the police arrive and give you permission to go.”

Stepping lightly, as if walking on someone’s back, the crowd slowly drifted away from Sophia’s body. It was quiet except for the sound of scattered weeping. I felt almost paralyzed with disbelief and lingered for a few minutes, staring at her.

I felt Louis Bonseigneur brush past me and join the Dean. “What a disaster,” Granger sighed. “All my work… The poor girl. And I’ll have to call her parents. But what do I tell them? That their daughter was killed by one of the students?”

Why did he assume that it was a student, I thought, why not a professor?

“We don’t know that, Jim,” Louis said, putting his hand on Granger’s shoulder. “We have to leave that to the police.”

“But I’ll have to deal with the press. They’ll be all over us soon like flies on shit.”

“Do you want me to draft a statement for you?”

Granger nodded and said, “This may sound cold-blooded, but we have to think about the impact this will have on our reputation.”

“It’s not cold-blooded, Jim. It’s your responsibility.”

“Thanks, Louis. This is a tragedy, but we can’t allow Tulane’s good name to be sullied by it. Can you get on it right away? I’ll wait for the police.”

I overheard this exchange as I leaned against the wall and tried to calm down. It made me feel like yuppie-scum-for-a-day, but I didn’t want to see my degree devalued by scandal either.

A grim-faced Louis nodded to me as he walked by. Then, the hall echoed with the sounds of footsteps running past me and toward Granger. The police had arrived. The first wave was led by uniformed officers from both the University and New Orleans Police Departments. The cops immediately started examining the area for evidence. Then, a very tall man and a very short woman in street clothes arrived, flashing their badges.

“Dean Granger?” asked the man.

“Yup,” he said, sounding more like Gary Cooper than Jimmy Stewart for a change. “And you are?”

“The officer in charge of this investigation. This is Detective Sarah Mitchell. I’m Sergeant Camille Doucet, NOPD; Homicide Bureau.”

CHAPTER 3

I felt dreadful the morning after Sophia’s murder. I’d barely slept; every time I closed my eyes, I saw her body displayed like a macabre effigy. I felt groggy, angry, and confused. Why Sophia? Who had hated Sophia enough to kill her? When the shock had faded enough for my brain to work, I realized that the killer must be an insider. It had to be someone who knew the building and who also knew Sophia’s schedule that day. This couldn’t have been one of those random, senseless murders that people fear most. This was a deliberate and carefully planned execution. Worst of all, I probably knew the executioner.

With that happy thought propelling me, I dragged my ass out of bed and stumbled into the bathroom. The guy in the mirror looked only vaguely familiar. Above the black stubble on the chin, my face was puffy and pasty white. I’d been crying and it showed.

The detached facade that I’d built over thirty-three years was crumbling like halvah. I’ve always armed myself with humor to keep people at a safe distance without driving them away completely. Despite my attempt to distance myself from others, they instinctively trust me as a confessor. Perhaps my wariness inspires confidence. I’m sure that a shrink would trace all this back to my childhood. My parents had their own real estate firm and no apparent plans to breed, when, surprise, I showed up. Lefty and Inga were totally involved with one another. I was the outsider. They were generous with their money but stingy with their time and praise. I’d always found comfort in having a few close friends, but I’d been burned by some of them too. Maybe that’s why I tried to hold the world at arm’s length. But my arms weren’t long enough to distance myself from Sophia’s murder.

Poor Sophia, I thought, with so much energy, so wild about life, murdered without a chance to put out the fucking potato chips for her fucking party. I pictured the back of her head crushed like a pecan shell and began to cry again. There should have been more blood, I thought as I stepped into the shower.

I stumbled around for an hour and tried to shake off my grief hangover. I fed my cats and poured some coffee and a handful of Tylenol down my throat, then headed out the door to Jones Hall.  The halls were empty. It looked as though I wasn’t the only student who was boycotting classes. The word had already spread. A killer was among us, was one of us, and if his intention was to inspire terror and paranoia, he had succeeded. Why do I assume that it’s a he, I thought; it could have been a woman.

What had that bizarre letter really meant? Did the killer really think that he or she was some sort of executioner?

I wanted to talk to someone else who had seen poor Sophia’s lifeless body, so I dropped by Louis Bonseigneur’s office. For three years, we’d traded student and faculty gossip just like I used to trade baseball cards when I was a kid and they weren’t worth anything. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out why all the relationships at the law school duplicated the adversarial system: The administration, faculty and students were all at each other’s throats. But no one had ever taken it literally before.

“Why would anyone want to kill her?” Louis said while pouring two cups of strong, black coffee. “I hear that she was a flake, but bright and generally well-liked.”

My headache was relentless. I’d hoped that more coffee would help. It didn’t. “I don’t know,” I sighed. “She had enemies, but it’s hard to imagine any of them committing premeditated murder.”

He leaned forward in his chair. “Enemies? Such as?”

“Her ex-roommate, Amalia Chavalas, for one. Do you know her?”

“Not personally, but she took my Con Law II class.” He sipped his coffee and then winked at me. “I understand that you two were, how shall I put it…involved at one point.”

My jaw dropped like a Slinky down a stairwell. My affair with Amalia had ended almost two years before and I’d never told Louis about it. Amalia and I were incompatible. After a few weeks of intense lovemaking and even more intense squabbling, we called it quits. She was proud of our amicable break up. It was the first time she’d ever remained friends with a former lover.

I didn’t know what to say to Louis at first. Gossip was a way of life at the law school, but I’d never thought of myself as being the subject, especially among the faculty. At first, I was annoyed, but when I took a closer look at him, I realized that he was teasing me, trying to dispel some of the gloom.

I tried to keep my answer light. “Yeah, but aberrant behavior caused by stress is completely normal for a 1L.”

He laughed and leaned back in his chair. Then he grew serious and shifted into the Socratic method. Law professors love it because it allows them to interrogate students within an inch of their lives. It can be used as an instrument of torture. Salvador Maragall has been known to turn even well-prepared students into cowering wrecks. But Louis uses the Socratic method to teach the law and not to trick his students into saying something foolish; most of the time, that is.

“What leads you to think that Ms. Chavalas wished Ms. Kostecki dead?”

“Nothing except the huge fight they had at a wedding reception back in August.”

Before Louis could ask his next question, there was a knock on the door. He shrugged and said, “Come in.”

Sergeant Camille Doucet’s husky frame filled the narrow doorway. He was 6’8″ and built like an overripe power forward. “LB, what’s happenin’?” he boomed. “Hope I’m not interrupting anything important.”

Louis shook his head. “We’re just swapping lies. Have a seat. Camille Doucet meet Nicholas Pappas.” He looked at me. “We grew up together and marched side by side in the St. Aug. band.”

Louis belonged to an old-line black Creole family. Since he went to St. Augustine, I guessed that Doucet did too.

Doucet extended his powerful right arm. “Nice to meet you.”

I shook the detective’s hand and took a long look at him. He had straight black hair and blue-gray eyes. His skin was light enough that he could have passed for white as more than a few Creoles did back in the Jim Crow days.

“Camille here is a Creole renegade,” said a smiling Louis. “Believe it or not, his daddy let him go to Georgetown but made him come back and work in the family undertaking business. Camille was the worst mortician you’ve ever seen. Eventually, he walked out on his daddy, joined the police force, and ultimately became a homicide dick. But death remains his business.”

“Very funny, man,” Doucet said. “It’s true. My Daddy plants ’em and, if need be, I find out who whacked ’em and why.” His smile faded. “I’m here to talk about the Kostecki murder. You know the players around here, LB, and I don’t even know where to buy a score card.”

Louis was surprised. “I didn’t know you did any field work now that you’re a big muckety-muck in the department.”

“I’m just a Sergeant, LB.” He rolled his eyes. “I assigned this case to myself. It could be sensitive, and I didn’t want any of our bloodhounds peeing on the wrong bushes. I also know you, LB. So, it’s your fault.”

I stood up, excused myself and began to leave. “Wait a minute,” said Louis. “Camille, I think you might want Nicholas to stay. He could be a big help.”

“Oh yeah?”

“He knew Sophia Kostecki and I didn’t. And he sat next to her at the meeting.”

I could feel Doucet’s icy blue eyes assessing me skeptically. He looked me directly in the eye, as if we were having a staring contest, but spoke to our mutual friend and not to me. “Can he be trusted to keep his mouth shut?”

Louis grinned. “As much as any lawyer can be trusted.”

“Mr. Pappas, would you mind talking informally about the case and some of the individuals involved in it?” he said in bureaucratic cop-speak. Then, he continued in what I would come to think of as Camille-speak: “I want y’all to keep your mouths shut tight and I know how hard that is for you, LB. Okay?”

I felt nervous because I was in such a small office with such a big cop. I didn’t care if I had a roomful of alibi witnesses; I figured I better watch my mouth.

“Mr. Pappas…” began Doucet.

“Nicholas or Nick, please. Mr. Pappas is my pappy,” I joked, hoping to disarm the formidable looking cop. But from the look on his face, I knew that it wouldn’t be that easy.

“Okay, Nick it is. Notice anything strange about Sophia Kostecki yesterday? She seem nervous or distracted?”

“Well, she was tired when she got there. But she rallied later because her speech was a hit.” I shook my head. “Poor Sophia. You have any ideas yet about who did it?”

Doucet said, “Well, it wasn’t a robbery; her wallet was stuffed with cash and credit cards. So, the killer probably knew his way around both Kostecki and the law school.”

“I know,” said Louis, picking up a newspaper. “I read this.”    Doucet shook his head. “Son-of-a-bitch is either stupider than shit or has cast iron balls,” he said. “Faxed the sucker right to the Crimes-Picayune newsroom.”

I couldn’t bear to read the Times-Picayune that morning, so I was surprised. I was also astonished by the killer’s audacity.

“Where was it faxed from?” asked Louis

“I can’t be specific,” Doucet said warily. “All I can say is this, it was sent from a public place and it’s a dead end.”

“Why?”

Doucet shrugged and said, “It was a cash transaction and none of the employees remembers a damn thing.”

“Too bad. Looks like gibberish to me,” said Louis stroking his beard with the newspaper. He began to read aloud:

“As a matter of professional courtesy, I will provide you with a hint: I did not use a gun because they are noisy and messy. Furthermore, I wanted to prove to Miss Kostecki and her ilk that guns do not kill, people do.”

“This garbage mean anything to you, Nick?” Doucet said.

“Yeah, that line about guns reminds me of one day in Mark Bouillon’s first year Torts class.”

Louis was irritated. “Do you think this is an appropriate time for law school war stories?”

Before I could speak, Doucet stretched his long legs, kicking me in the shin. He was strong and it hurt like hell, but he was a cop, so I just smiled at him. “Sorry about that,” he said. “Shit, is this an office or a phone booth? I can tell that you’re junior faculty, LB. Go on, Nick. I’m all ears if it involves Sophia Kostecki.”

“It does.” I glared at Louis as if he’d praised famine as the solution to homelessness. I went on: “Bouillon gave us a hypo about a product liability suit filed by the family of a murder victim against a gun manufacturer. The class degenerated into a shouting match after Sophia called some gun nut in the class an NRA sleazebag.”

Doucet leaned forward with interest. “Really? How many people were there?”

“It was an intimate gathering of 125 or so. And this place is like a small town, so everybody heard about it.”

“Even so, it’s still useful.” Doucet pulled a small notebook out of his coat pocket and began taking notes.

Louis said, “What do you think the letter means, Camille?”

“I’m not one of your students, LB, I’ll ask the questions.” He smiled and looked at me. “What about you, Nick?”

I shook my aching head. “I have no idea.”

“Bet you have an opinion,” Doucet said. “Let’s hear it.”

“Maybe it’s the killer’s idea of a joke. I don’t know.”

I felt my eyes misting up again and paused until I could continue without breaking down. “All I know is that if he’s trying to scare the shit out of us, it’s working.”

Doucet licked his lips and stopped to check us out one more time. “Here’s how y’all can really help. I need some feedback about the people I’ve questioned so far.”

“Is this standard police procedure?” asked Louis.

“Hell no,” said Doucet. “It’s like making a cake, it always tastes better when it’s made from scratch.”

“But mixes are faster.”

All this talk about cake was making me hungry; I could hear a low rumbling sound coming from my stomach. But this was too interesting to pass up.

Doucet told us that Charles McConkey had been the last one to see Sophia alive. “McConkey said he saw Kostecki in the foyer right after she left the meeting,” Doucet said. “They talked briefly, then she headed down the hall in the direction of the patio. Either of you know anything about him?”

I nodded. “He’s a friend of mine,” I said. “He adored Sophia. He’s harmless.”

“Maybe so. Now, McConkey says that Professor Maragall walked down the hall in the same direction as Kostecki a few minutes later. But he isn’t sure where Maragall went: out to the patio, into the locker room or upstairs to his office.”

Doucet watched our faces for reactions. I tried to keep my face as blank as a teenager’s stare, but it was hard. Doucet continued, “So, McConkey lowers his voice and says: ‘I hate to pass along rumors, but I’ve heard that Sophia and Maragall had an affair.’ Then he told me about the ongoing catfight between Kostecki and Amalia Chavalas. Something about that joker bugs me.”

I felt concerned. “Sergeant Doucet…”

“Call me Camille. Sergeant Doucet is my granny,” he said without changing expression.

“Touché. Look, Camille,” I said, “the only way Charles could murder anyone is by talking them to death.

“He is a long-talker, I’ll give you that. But he was eager to point the finger elsewhere. And he had the opportunity and a guy named Bob Benjamin gave McConkey a possible motive.”

I exploded in rage. “Why that two-faced son of a bitch! Benjamin is a lying prick! Charles idolizes Benjamin.”

Bob Benjamin had come to Tulane from Chicago where he ran a bar rumored to be mob controlled. I didn’t know if that was true, but he was like many Mafiosi in one way; he claimed to be a devout Catholic when he was really a practicing hypocrite. Bob and Sophia had been Tulane Law’s reigning odd couple off and on during our first two years. At the end of the previous semester, he’d dumped her three days before finals. She hadn’t forgiven him, and he’d rubbed it in by taking Amalia’s side in the feud.

“That’s odd,” said Louis. “Why would Charles idolize Benjamin?”

“My theory is that Charles sees Bob as a romantic outlaw like, say, Bogart or Gatsby. Now, Bob claims he was a pretty fair jazz pianist and told Charles that he sold his piano to help pay for law school. And Charles thinks that’s noble.”

“Noble? Doesn’t Benjamin drive a Porsche? If he’s so noble, why didn’t he sell his car instead of his piano?” Louis said.

“If y’all are through trashing him, I’d like to talk about the interview,” said Camille, annoyed.

“Sorry.” I blushed, ashamed of gossiping while Sophia lay dead in the morgue.

“This Benjamin was colder than a frozen daiquiri; didn’t seem to care that his ex-squeeze got whacked.” Camille wrinkled his nose like he’d just stepped in dog shit.

“Does he have an alibi?”

“Not exactly. He was in the Law Review office and isn’t sure if anybody else was there. That’s here on the third floor, right?”

“Right around the corner,” I said. “Set your bullshit detector on maximum for that guy.” Camille was silent, so I went on. “What did Benjamin claim was Charles’s motive?”

Camille looked me in the eye. He was still testing me and probing for weaknesses. He’d found one. I disliked Benjamin as much as I liked Charles. Camille spoke slowly, “That McConkey had a thing for Kostecki and she kept shooting him down.” He chuckled. “Benjamin told me that he even asked permission to date her.”

“That’s bullshit,” I snapped. “Benjamin is pointing at Charles to save his own ass!” My stomach growled and I growled with it. “I’d like to punch that lying bastard’s lights out!”

Louis stood up and patted me on the shoulder. “Calm down. Camille’s not out to frame anyone. Right?”

Camille nodded. “Now, try and forget you hate his guts. Does Benjamin have any reason to want Kostecki dead?”

I paused for a second. I hated it when my temper got away from me like that. I knew that my being emotional couldn’t help Charles, so I put on my lawyer face. “I think Bob’s capable of murder and even more capable of lying to the police,” I said, sounding like a prosecutor. Then, I argued the other side. “But he’s ambitious and calculating and I don’t think guys like that commit crimes of passion, if that’s what this is.”

Camille stood up and began pacing back and forth from the door to the window. “Don’t mind me, do my best thinking when I’m pacing,” he said. “Either of you know Amalia Chavalas?”

Louis smiled wickedly. “Nicholas does, very well indeed.”

Camille briefly stopped wearing a groove in the carpet and grinned at me. “She is quite a flirt, that one,” he said. “Told me she was home alone last night. Admitted that she and Kostecki had a nasty public falling-out. Nick, were you at that party?”

I told Camille about the fight at Diana Hiller’s wedding reception. “You need to understand something, that day was typical. If you take those two literally, you’ll drown in a sea of hyperbole,” I warned him.

Camille leaned against the wall. “Since you know her ‘very well indeed,’ Nick,” he mimicked Louis, “suppose you tell us what the chances are of Chavalas being involved.”

I dropped my eyes and paused to choose my words carefully. I didn’t want to get Amalia into any more trouble than she deserved. Should I mention that she owed Sophia money? No, I decided. I didn’t know how much and maybe it was chump change.

“Amalia talks a lot of trash,” I said finally. “But I doubt she has the strength to bash in an unsuspecting victim’s head from behind. If Amalia were mad enough to kill you, she’d look you straight in the eye when she pulled the trigger.”

“Very colorful,” Camille said. “But this murder didn’t require great strength. Kostecki was struck at the skull’s weakest point. All the killer would need is access to some good books on cranial anatomy; no problem here at Too-lane.”

Camille returned to his chair and pulled a small tape recorder out of his coat pocket. “I also questioned Salvador Maragall this morning. A real sweetheart,” he said, shaking his head. “He pissed me off and it threw me off my game. Now, I really shouldn’t do this, but I want y’all to hear the tape; especially you, LB. But if you tell anyone we’ll all be SOL.”

Louis didn’t swear, so he looked puzzled. “SOL? Is that cop lingo?”

“Nope. It means shit out of luck,” I said.

“Whatever.” Louis shrugged. “Don’t worry, Camille. Believe me, neither of us wants to take on Salvador Maragall.”

I nodded. “He has no idea who I am and that’s fine with me.”

Camille nodded and pressed the play button.

Maragall: “I left Room 102 and went upstairs to my office. I did not see Miss Kostecki. That is all I know. May I go now?”

Doucet: “No sir, you may not. I understand you were acquainted with Ms. Kostecki. How intimately did you know her?”

Maragall: “How dare you address me in that manner! Don’t you know who I am? Don’t you realize I could make or break you with a single phone call?”

Doucet: “Salvador means savior in Spanish, doesn’t it? I suggest that you stop taking your name so goddamn literally! I have a job to do and I don’t need your approval to do it!”

Maragall: “I apologize, Officer Doucet. I had no right to address you with such discourtesy.”

Doucet: “That’s okay, sir. I’ve heard some rumors and I just wanted to give you a chance to respond. Did you have an affair with the victim?”

Maragall: “You are clearly unaware that lawyers love to gossip. They desire knowledge of everyone else’s business and what they do not know, they create. It is the lawyer’s black art, argument for its own sake. As for Miss Sophia, I was acquainted with her from classes and Barcelona. But these rumors of a sexual liaison are scurrilous lies. I am a happily married man.”

Camille stopped the tape and looked at Louis. “He’s your colleague, what’s your reaction?”

“I don’t know him well at all,” hesitated Louis. “But I do know that he’s not a man to be crossed.”

“He was defensive when I mentioned Kostecki. If he’s got nothing to hide, why did he chew on me like that?”

Louis said, “You can’t tell me that you suspect Maragall of murder? Why would he sabotage his career by killing anyone?”

“Maragall lied to me about Kostecki. He was fucking her. Let me ask you this, is McConkey the only one in this place who thinks Maragall walks around with his pants unzipped?”

“It’s not just Charles,” I said. “That’s the buzz among the students. But I haven’t met anyone who’ll say she slept with him. One thing Maragall said is true, about gossip in this place, some of these people lie every time they open their mouths.”

Camille looked at Louis. “What about you, LB, what’s the faculty scuttlebutt about Maragall?”

Louis looked as uncomfortable as a Christian Scientist at a hospital. “Well, I’ve heard rumors too, but nothing solid.”

“Rumors? What sort of rumors?”

“Well, he seems to go through secretaries faster than Murphy Brown. And they’re all young and attractive.”

Camille nodded, looked at his watch and stood up. “I’ve gotta get back to the office,” he said. “Thanks boys, I may call on y’all again. Bye, LB. Nice to meet you, Nick.”

“I’ve got to get going too.” I stood up, looked at Camille and said, “I’ll walk downstairs with you. Later, Louis.”

As we walked down the stairs, we passed Charles and Susan Wright who both nodded at me. Now, everybody would know that I’d met Sergeant Doucet.

Something had bugged me ever since I saw Sophia’s body and I didn’t want to blow this chance to ask Camille about it. Finally, as we reached the first floor it slipped out, “Can I ask you a question?”

He paused in the foyer. “Shoot,” he said. “But I may not be able to give you a straight answer.”

“Understood. It looked like Sophia’s skull had been crushed…so why was there so little blood?”

“Most of the blood flowed internally. The killer didn’t want to dirty his hands with blood. He, or she, knew what they were doing.”

©2020 by Peter Athas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Project Novel: Tongue In The Mail, Chapters 2 & 3

  1. LarrytheRed says:

    Maragall seems too obvious. I think we haven’t met Sophia’s killer yet. Or have we? When’s the next installment?

    Like

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: