Project Novel: Tongue In The Mail, Chapters 4 & 5

The serialization continues. It makes me feel like a bargain basement Dickens.

In this installment we attend Sophia’s funeral and Edwin Edwards’ 1991 victory party. At the end of Chapter 4, a different Crowded House song is quoted:

I wrote the novel at the peak of my Crowdie fan boy period. I was an enthusiastic member of the Crowded House mailing list. It was called Tongue In The Mail. Everything is connected.

If you’re just joining us, here’s the link to Chapter 1, followed by the First Draft category thing, which will categorically take you where you want to go: Project Novel: TITM.

Our story resumes after the break.


I peered at my watch and paced impatiently in the crowded hall outside the law library. I was surrounded by noisy 1Ls and they were getting on my nerves with their inane chatter about grades. Charles was late. Where the hell was he? We were supposed to have lunch before the memorial service in Sophia’s honor at Newcomb Chapel. I felt hungry and irritable.

The library door swung open and Susan Wright came trudging toward me. She hugged me and said, “Going to the memorial service?”

“Of course, I didn’t wear a suit to impress these 1Ls.” I forced a smile. She looked as lousy as I did, but I wasn’t about to tell her that. “How’re you doing?”

“I have a few more gray hairs and I’m scared. Look around you, a killer could be standing right next to us. It could happen to any of us.” She shook her head and sighed. “Poor kid. Why her?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “I can’t shake seeing her displayed like a hunting trophy.”

Susan patted me sympathetically on the shoulder. “I’m glad Sophia patched things up with Diana before… Did you hear that she’s delivering the eulogy?”

I nodded.

“I saw you with the detective who’s investigating the murder. What’s he like?”

I tried to be as noncommittal as possible without being rude to the tired, worried Susan. “He’s very tall and very sharp.” I quickly changed the subject. “You seen Charles? I’m waiting for him.”

“Yeah, I saw him going into the Dicta office earlier.” She checked her watch. “Look, I gotta run. See you at the chapel.”

The Dicta was the law school’s student-run newsletter. It was an interesting publication thanks to its editor, Bill Sutton.

He was a thirty-seven-year-old Princeton graduate and former Washington Post reporter. Despite his fine work on the courtroom beat, his editors had treated him like a token black dude hired solely to dress up the newsroom. Bill became fed up and decided to stop covering cases and start trying them.

I went to the basement, knocked on the door and heard Bill’s deep, raspy voice bark, “Come on in.”

Bill was leaning back in a rickety chair with his feet resting on a shabby desk. He was wearing his typical Buppie uniform: a royal blue Izod polo shirt, khakis. and penny loafers.      Charles sat across from him wearing a rumpled tan suit and a gloomy expression. He looked worried and much older than forty. “Sorry,” he said. “I lost track of the time. We were talking about my session with the cops. They treated me like I’m a murderer. Is this for real, man?” He looked hopefully at me.

This time, I had a canned answer prepared. “I met Doucet in Bonseigneur’s office,” I said. “They’re old pals. I told Doucet that you are no killer. Now, I’m not sure, but I got the impression that you aren’t at the top of their suspect list.”

Charles seemed relieved. “Really? I hope so. This is so weird. You both know how fond I am, uh, was of Sophia. It’ll be so bloody dull around here without her.” He winced. “Poor choice of words, but you know what I mean.”

I did.

Bill stood up and shut the door. “Got something to show you,” he said. “It’s the last issue of the Dicta; I suppressed it.”

Bill handed us copies and pointed to an anonymous letter on page two. I would have laughed at it under normal circumstances, but these were strange times and I read it with increasing anger. It was a vicious attack on Sophia Kostecki, demanding that she be removed as class president. The writer claimed that she’d stuffed the ballot box and won her office by fraud. Sophia the ward heeler? Preposterous. The letter got even sillier. It predicted that Sophia would give an obscene speech at graduation and humiliate her classmates in front of their families.

I was flabbergasted. “Is this a joke?”

“Afraid not,” said Bill, shaking his head.

“Weird. It sounds like the letter found on Sophia’s body. Why would anyone believe that she’d give an obscene speech in front of her own family?”

“Come on, Nick,” said Charles, twirling the ends of his mustache. “You know the weasels around here never understood that Sophia lived to put them on. Maybe she died because of it.”

“Who wrote that piece of shit, Bill?” I demanded.

Bill paused to think. “I don’t know, man. I’ve got an ethical dilemma. I promised confidentiality and…”

“It could be relevant to a murder investigation,” I interrupted. “Murder, Bill.”

“Don’t patronize me, I know that,” he snapped.

Something about this letter seemed oddly familiar to me. I had a feeling that I’d heard it all before. Then it hit me. “I think I can guess who wrote it,” I said.

Bill looked relieved. “Go on, it might take me off the hook.”

“Guy Zeringue?”

Bill nodded and said, “How’d you know that, Nicholas?”

“Well, I heard him talking the same trash last spring at Ian’s house, but I didn’t take it, or him, seriously. Consider the source, Zeringue’s a spoiled frat boy with a drinking problem. Bill, you’ve got to pass this on to the cops.”

“I don’t know,” Bill said. “It’s a flimsy motive for murder. It’s no secret that Zeringue isn’t the only one who thought Sophia was an embarrassment.” He shook his head. “Hell, I wasn’t too crazy about her myself.”

“As a possible suspect,” Charles chimed in. “I’d like to point out that my so-called motive is equally feeble.”

I proposed a compromise. “How about if I tell Doucet about the letter? I’ll tell him I guessed. Then you can confirm it was Zeringue. Okay?”

“Well…okay, okay. Handle it as you see fit,” sighed Bill. His tone of voice said: Fuck it, I don’t care.

I checked my watch. “Charles, I’m ravenous. If we go now, we’ll have time for a quick bite. Want to join us, Bill?”

“Got a class at one.” Bill seemed glad to be rid of us.

The cafeteria was buzzing about Sophia’s murder; it was still the number one topic of conversation on campus. I overheard a spiky-haired woman at the next table say: “Did you hear about that totally crazy letter that the killer left? What if he’s, like, some weird-ass psycho who wants to, like, kill one person in every building at Tulane? What if he, like, hits the dorms next? I’m thinking of buying a gun.”

I looked at Charles. He’d heard it too. “It’s like that everywhere,” he said. “It’s the execution idea; punishment for sinners. Everybody’s a sinner, so everybody feels vulnerable.”

We finished lunch and headed over to Newcomb Chapel. As we walked across campus, I realized that Charles was right. Fear is like a highly contagious virus and it had infected everyone at Tulane. Because of this pervasive fear, the students seemed to have a hard time looking each other in the eye. Death had intruded into their privileged young lives and forced them to think about their own mortality.

When we got to Newcomb Hall, we ran into Jack Goodfriend and Ian Carolan. Jack, ordinarily calm, looked agitated and his grip on his umbrella was shaky. We walked quietly until we were outside the chapel and Jack said: “I hope that Sophia’s murderer is speedily captured, tried and executed.”

I lost my temper. “Executing the killer won’t bring her back!” I snapped. “What good will it do?”

Jack’s eyes flared angrily. “It will satisfy our need for vengeance and justice.”

“Aren’t you confusing two different ideas? Justice and vengeance don’t always go hand in hand.”

“They do in this instance.”

Ian stepped in between us. “Down, boys,” he said. “This isn’t the time for a debate on the death penalty. Everyone wants this killer caught and punished as soon as possible. Let’s leave it at that. Okay?”

“Agreed,” said Jack as he opened the door to the chapel. “But I have my doubts that they’ll catch this murderer. The NOPD is better known for its brutality and venality than for its competence, after all.”

Ian was right, of course, but I was still seething and said, “Isn’t it too early to be so certain the killer will get away with it?”

“And Jack, believe me,” added Charles, “the cops are on top of it. My interrogation was certainly very exhaustive… and exhausting. That Sergeant Doucet is whip-smart.”

I looked around the chapel and was impressed by the large turnout. I saw Dean Granger escorting Sophia’s parents to the front of the small chapel. Amalia was sitting with Susan, right behind Diana. I was glad that Amalia had come. I hoped that it wasn’t just for show. Bob Benjamin crossed himself as he slipped into the pew behind us. He was wearing a black Armani suit, which matched his slicked back, jet black hair and dark eyes. He was the sort of too-handsome guy who thought that he was God’s gift to women. A few of the women at the law school agreed with him, but most didn’t. He coolly nodded to me, then leaned forward, and whispered to Charles and Jack.

The service was very moving. Diana delivered a heartfelt tribute to Sophia. She concluded by saying, “She was a loving and generous woman who hid behind a flamboyant facade. She was often misunderstood but she never hated those who criticized her. Instead, she reached out to them and tried to win their friendship. We were all shocked by her senseless murder and pray that justice will soon prevail.”

When she finished, I pulled out a handkerchief and blew my nose. I noticed that nearly everyone else in the chapel had been moved to tears too, even Amalia. I wondered if her weeping was motivated by grief or guilt; perhaps both. I turned around to check Bob Benjamin’s reaction, but saw him slipping out the door. I wondered whether he’d shed even counterfeit tears for a woman who had once loved him. I doubted it.

Outside, a cloudburst began, as if on cue. I stood, temporarily dry, under the roof outside the chapel and cursed myself for forgetting my umbrella. I turned and saw Diana beckoning to me. “That was beautiful,” I said as we embraced. “Everyone was crying…”

“I struggled to finish before losing it myself.” She put her hand on my shoulder. “Can we share an umbrella and talk? Privately. It’s important.”

“Sure. I need to find Charles.”

As I looked for Charles to explain, I wondered what Diana wanted to talk about. The tone of her voice had alarmed me. What was it? Did she know something about the murder?

I rejoined Diana outside. She smiled wanly and pointed at the soaked lawn. “It’s already stopped. Coffee at PJ’s?”

“Which one?”

“Maple Street. Where else?”

Maple Street’s shops, bars, restaurants, and cafes are a quaint mixture of upscale yuppie chic and neo-hippie funk. Law students are all caffeine junkies and PJ’s is the best place Uptown to score a fix. I fetched some iced coffee and muffins while Diana found a table.

I was worried about her.  “How do you feel?” I said as I sat down.

She grimaced. “Sort of okay, about as well as you, from the looks of you. You been able to sleep?”

“Not much. Every time I try, I see Sophia’s dead body. I can’t get it out of my head,” I paused and sipped my coffee. “Poor Sophia. You know I was talking to her right before it happened. About refreshments of all damn things.”

Diana stroked my hand. “Glad I wasn’t there,” she said. Her eyes misted up again and so did mine.

“Sorry for rambling on about myself,” I said. “You said we needed to speak alone. What’s up?”
“Well, I hear you have a pipeline to the detective in charge of the investigation. Is that true?”

I hesitated, “Well, I wouldn’t call it a pipeline. But, yeah, I met him. His name’s Doucet, an interesting guy; very clever. Boy, the law school rumor mill never stops grinding.”

“Never.” She managed a weak smile and nervously drummed her long fingers on the table. “I understand that the police questioned Maragall. Was it because of his affair with Sophia?”

“Affair? The rumors are true?”

“You didn’t know? Didn’t you hear all the talk?”

“Yeah, but I don’t take law school gossip seriously. Is that what you wanted to tell me?”

Diana shook her head so hard that she nearly dunked her long blonde hair in her coffee. “Do they know about the big row between Sophia, Maragall and his wife?” she said.

I was jolted by this news. “Maragall’s wife found out about the affair? How?”

“Sophia told her.”

“Sophia told her?” I repeated.

She nodded.

“No shit? Why?”
“Believe it or not Sophia fell in love with Maragall this summer.” Diana stuck out her tongue. “Repulsive, isn’t it? He made all the usual promises. You know that he’d leave his wife for her and all that shit. Sophia fell for it.”
“It’s news to me. Why was she suddenly so discreet?”

“She’d convinced herself that it was true love,” said Diana, shaking her head. “Sophia had a dirty mouth but she was unsophisticated. She thought he was the most brilliant and exciting man she’d ever met. I always thought that Sophia had an addictive personality and this affair was like an addiction. Maragall affected her like cocaine. He laid out a line of promises and she inhaled them all.”

“Well, that explains a lot, Diana,” I said.

“Like what?”

“She kept making nasty remarks about Maragall that day. Not her style at all. She was out to shock, not mock. And according to Doucet, Maragall was defensive when asked about Sophia.” I paused and took a bite of my sweet potato muffin. “Tell me, when did Sophia talk to his wife?”

“Oh, about a week before she was killed. He’d finally stopped stringing her along. He denied ever making any promises, but she swore he was talking about divorce in Spain. Did you know that Luz Maragall teaches Spanish at Tulane?”

“No. And I seem to know less and less every minute.”

“Well, Sophia went to her office and told her everything.”

I was amazed. “Sophia dropped by her office?”

“Yup, as you can imagine, Luz Maragall was mad but more at her husband than at Sophia. Sophia got the impression that Luz was sick of his shit and intended to call him on it.”

Diana reached into her purse and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. “Thought you’d quit,” I scolded.

“Yeah, but I need one right now,” she said, firing one up. “Because, believe it or not, Nicholas, there’s more.”

“Go on.”

“Sophia threatened to charge Maragall with sexual harassment.”

“To his face?”
“And in his face. I finally convinced her that it was an empty threat since the affair was consensual.”

“Wise choice. You never tell someone like Salvador Maragall to go to hell unless you can actually make him go.”   Trying not to annoy me too much, she blew smoke over my head. “Exactly,” she said. “And who do you think they would have believed, Sophia or Maragall?”

“Did he know that she wasn’t going public?”

“I’m not sure. I think she wanted to make him sweat.”

Diana’s news had the potential for blowing the lid off both the case and the law school itself. I thought about it for a second and drew the obvious conclusion. “This gives Maragall a motive,” I said. “Both his marriage and, in theory, his career were threatened. Of course, there’s a big problem. The person with firsthand knowledge is dead. Objection, hearsay.”

She nodded. “Sustained.”

“This is a long shot,” I said, “but do you think his wife is disgusted enough to rat him out?”

She shook her head. “They have two kids and I doubt that   she’s eager to hand their father a one-way ticket to prison, or worse. And she may have something to hide too.” She sipped her coffee and sighed. “Frankly, I’m not thrilled about taking on Salvador Maragall. Just because he had a reason to be pissed off at Sophia doesn’t mean he murdered her.”

“And the legal establishment will leap to his defense.” I bummed a cigarette from her, took one drag, coughed, and stubbed the nasty thing out. I was tense but not that tense. “You’ve got to talk to the cops.”

“Um…that’s where you come in, Nicholas,” she said, nervously clearing her throat. “Could you please leak this to Doucet and leave my name out of it, for now?

I flinched. She was asking a lot of me. “Why? Where do you think you are, Capitol Hill?”

“Nicholas, it’s my in-laws. They hate publicity, you know that. It’s not fair to Tom for me to embarrass his family again; not after that mess at the reception.”

“I understand but…”

“For their sake, I wasn’t going to mention any of this, but today I realized that it all has to come out; for Sophia’s sake,” she said, tears streaming down her cheeks. Sniffling, she dug in her purse and found a tissue.

I thought about it. I felt like saying “The Police” so that she could reply: “Wrapped Around My Finger.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll pass it on to Doucet. But you’ve got to see him if he asks to talk to my source. And he will.”

“All right. Thanks a lot, you’re a good friend.” She was holding both of my hands. “I know this isn’t very admirable of me. Hope you don’t think I’m a coward.”

I shook my head. “Of course not,” I fibbed. “Anybody else know that she confided in you?”

“I haven’t told anyone.”

“Did she?”

“I don’t think so. She said I was the only one she could talk to without it getting out. She wasn’t protecting Maragall, she was protecting herself. She said she felt like such a fool.”

There was a long silence. “I don’t know, Diana,” I began slowly. “I find it hard to picture Salvador Maragall killing Sophia and then posing her body like that. And that letter, would he write anything like that?”

“Who knows?” She shrugged. “He’s smart enough to do something to make them think he couldn’t have done it. And someone wants the police to think that the killer’s a lunatic.”

She was quiet for a moment and then lit another cigarette. “Just thinking about Sophia,” she said, exhaling smoke. “The reason she was such an exhibitionist was that she craved attention. When she and Amalia were roommates, Sophia told me: ‘we’re just like sisters.’ They were too. And I think Sophia was the one who suffered the most from the meltdown.”

“I’m glad that you two made up before it happened,” I said.

She nodded. “Coping with her death has been hard enough,” she said, “but it would’ve been impossible if we hadn’t made up. She was sorry about the trouble she’d caused and I’m glad…”

“I understand.” It was time to change the subject. “I’m curious about something, and I hesitated to ask before. But I’ve got some leverage now, so…”

It seemed almost like a normal day when she laughed and said: “Shoot, counselor.”

“What did your in-laws say about Amalia and Sophia’s little dust-up at the reception?”

“Absolutely nothing. My mother-in-law believes in ignoring certain unpleasant things and that was one of them.”

“What about Amalia? Have you made up with her?”

“Sort of,” she said indifferently. “I’m sure she’s sorry but she considers apologizing a sign of weakness.”

“I know. She’d rather wade naked through a snake-infested bayou than admit to a mistake. And speaking of…” My chair faced the door, so I saw Amalia before Diana did. What timing. I used to think that coincidences like that only happened in bad old movies. I was wrong.

Amalia spoke first, “Nicholas, Diana, hello. That was a beautiful eulogy, Diana. I feel awful about everything. I wish that I could undo all of the damage I did to you and to…”

Diana wasn’t satisfied. “You can say the name, godammit! If you could come to her memorial service, you can say her name!”

Amalia was startled by Diana’s flash of temper. “Yes, I can. Sophia. I miss her,” Amalia said. “She used to be my friend. And now they imply that I killed her! That’s ridiculous!” She sat down between us. “You must tell Sergeant Doucet that, Nicholas! You know me better.”

I was beginning to feel put upon by the law school gossip mavens, but I was also feeling decidedly warm. I was uncomfortably aware of a faint, but very familiar, whiff of cologne and of Amalia’s pouty mouth only inches from my own. I drew back, “I’ve only met the man once.”

Amalia looked genuinely frightened. “Niko, agape mou, they keep asking the same questions over and over again. I’m so scared…” Mascara tears began to roll down her face.

I felt manipulated, but I still wanted to believe Amalia. I looked across the table and saw Diana’s sad brown eyes casting a sympathetic look at Amalia. Diana was hooked. “I believe you, Amalia.” Diana placed her hand on Amalia’s and then looked over at me.

Amalia looked up at me and cried, “I know that I have a big mouth and a nasty temper, but I am not a murderer!”

She slid her chair closer to mine and buried her shaking head on my chest. I held her tightly. I’d never seen her so unguarded before. I knew that I’d either witnessed the performance of the century or, for perhaps the first time, heard the unembellished truth from the lips of Amalia Chavalas.

As I rocked her back and forth, as you would a sobbing child, I realized that the cafe had grown quiet as the other patrons observed the drama unfolding at our table. Embarrassed, I took a deep breath, smoothed Amalia’s hair from her forehead and straightened up, disengaging myself from her arms. I surrendered.  “I believe you too, Amalia,” I said.

Now that the excitement was over, the other customers had stopped staring at us. I looked around PJ’s, studied the faces and wondered if the murderer was sitting at a nearby table. Was I becoming as paranoid as that undergraduate that I’d heard raving in the cafeteria? I closed my eyes and saw it again: a close-up of Sophia’s glassy, blue-eyed stare. This ghastly image, and the whole terrible day, reminded me of the Crowded House song, “Never Be The Same,” “Don’t stand around, like friends at a funeral. Eyes to the ground, it could have been you.”



November 17, 1991

It was election night-Duke versus Edwards; the Klansman against the crook-and the polls had just closed. The election from hell was over and David Duke had lost badly. I heard the news while I was sitting at the bar at Napoleon House, waiting for Louis and Camille, nursing a beer, and listening to “Rigoletto.”

It had been over a month since Sophia Kostecki’s murder and all the hysteria about David Duke had taken my mind off the murder; at least occasionally. The investigation seemed to have hit a dead end, but things at Tulane Law had gotten weirder and weirder. I’d unwillingly become a one-man rumor clearinghouse. Everyone had heard that I knew Camille and they all had a theory about the murder; most of them ridiculous. It was all gossip, conjecture, and hearsay; nobody really knew anything, but they couldn’t stop talking.

To my surprise, I’d been hanging out a lot with Camille and Louis. I was single and unattached, and they were both recently divorced. They had rediscovered the pleasure of each other’s company and they let me tag along. To them, I think that I was an amusing but compatible oddity.

As I bathed in the florid sounds of Italian opera, I felt a hand gripping my shoulder. It hurt like hell, so I knew it had to be Camille; I didn’t know anybody else that strong, not even Ian. I spun my stool around and barked: “Let go or I’ll call the cops.”

“Just trying to wake you up, NP.” Camille grinned and released me from his clutches. “You heard the news? CBS just called the election for Fast Eddie. Now Louis and I won’t have to pick cotton for a living.”

Louis rolled his eyes. “Sorry for being so late, Nicholas,” he said. “It’s impossible to find a parking space.”

“I’m hungrier than a fifteen-year-old boy,” announced Camille. “Let’s see if we can get a table. I hear a Muffuletta calling me.”

A Muffuletta is a huge sandwich on sesame seed-encrusted French bread with mounds of meat and cheese and a spicy olive salad dressing to top it off. Most people can only eat half of one, but Camille’s appetite is as big as he is.

“We’re on the list, but it’s a long one,” I groaned hungrily. “Maybe we should go somewhere more off the beaten track.”

Camille grinned and said, “Don’t sweat it, man. I’ll just flash the old crescent-shaped badge. They always give cops cuts; it’s one of the few perks of the job. Should I panhandle a free meal too?”

“Please don’t.” Louis was cranky. “But by all means get us a table if you can. I need another beer.”

A few minutes later we were sitting on the patio, ordering dinner. “I’m glad the election’s over,” I said. “Duke never had a chance, but the press made that little bastard a national figure.”

Louis nodded. “I hope the racial tensions will cool off now,” he said. “There’s a lot of anger that a racist like Duke could get any votes at all.”

“I think that things will calm down,” I said. “The voters were in a shitty mood and saw Duke as a protest candidate. What’s more outrageous than voting for a guy who celebrates Hitler’s birthday?”

“I hope you’re right, but I’m pessimistic,” said Louis, stroking his beard. “Stereotypes were really flying around in this campaign. Welfare mothers; crack dealers…”

“And lots of whites believe that bullshit applies to all black folks,” added Camille. “They act as if there’s no such a thing as an African-American middle class.”

“That’s right, we’re invisible. Almost makes you nostalgic for the racial stereotypes of the Sixties, doesn’t it, Camille? Back then we were all either civil rights marchers, soul singers, star athletes or Sidney Poitier.”

“Speak for yourself, LB. You were the Poitier clone, the kid all the parents loved. Mine sure did.”

We all laughed because Louis was still too good to be true.

Our waiter arrived with dinner. We ate in silence for a few minutes, too hungry to slow down for conversation. Finally, I looked at Camille and said, “Anything new on the Kostecki case?”

Camille paused to finish chewing. “Not really,” he said.    “We’ve been checking out your leads and it’s hard to tell where they’ll take us. These bastards will talk their heads off about other people, but never say a damn thing about themselves.”

Louis shrugged and said, “You’re dealing with trained equivocators. Don’t expect any confessions. Even if any of them are guilty, they aren’t that stupid.”

“What about Salvador Maragall and his wife?” I said. “They both have classic motives, an affair, a spurned wife, threats of revenge between them and the victim.”

“Maragall the assassin?” Louis asked. “Seems farfetched to me. Yes, he had an affair with a student. Now, I don’t approve but it would have blown over. So why kill Sophia Kostecki?”

I was impatient with Louis. He was always defending Maragall and he didn’t even like the man. It had to be professorial solidarity.

“But what if the sexual harassment charges are true?” I said.

“A complaint has never been filed against the man.” Louis gave me a look that would have frozen a funeral pyre. “I shouldn’t have to tell you, Nicholas, rumors aren’t admissible evidence. They’re just hearsay.”

Camille snorted with disgust. “That’s the problem with nearly every tip on this case. They’re all hearsay…gossip. And most of them are from people with an axe to grind: McConkey, Chavalas, Benjamin.” He bit into his Muffuletta as if it were a recalcitrant suspect.

“What about Diana Hiller?” I shot back. “She confirmed that Maragall lied to you about sleeping with Sophia. What axe is she grinding?”

“A small one, like you, she was Kostecki’s friend. And her reluctance to come forward without you as a go-between bugged me. Who the hell are you, her agent? Seemed more interested in covering that pretty ass of hers than in anything else.”

“That’s unfair. She did that to protect her in-laws.”

Camille’s face flushed with anger. Louis stared down at his plate and tried to ignore us.

“I don’t give two shits about those people’s reputation,” Camille snapped. “When murder is involved, people forfeit their right to privacy. Hell, I don’t enjoy looking in people’s closets for dirt, but it’s my job.”

“You’re right,” I admitted. “Tell me, what sort of an alibi does Luz Maragall have?”

“Luz. Great name isn’t it?” Camille paused and wiped his mouth before continuing, “I understand that Luz means light in Spanish. I like saying the name. Luz. Very poetic.”

“What’s her alibi?”

Camille shrugged. “I shouldn’t tell y’all, but I will,” he said. “Claims she was home alone with her 5-year-old son. And small kids aren’t the best alibi witnesses in the world; especially for their mamas. But how would Luz know Sophia Kostecki’s schedule? The killer did. Anyway, Luz claims that it was old Sal that she was pissed off at and not Kostecki.”

I nodded. “That’s what Sophia told Diana.”

“Luz told me that Kostecki did her marriage a favor by ratting out Sal. Claims that they had a huge fight about his tomcatting and that he not only promised to stop but begged her to give him another chance.”

“I’ll believe that when he’s been neutered,” I said.

“Now, now, let’s not be testy, as it were,” said a grinning Louis. “You really think Maragall did it, don’t you, Nicholas?”

“My bet is on either him or Bob Benjamin.” I didn’t have a clue at that point, but I like speculating as much as anybody. Maybe I should give up the law and become a political pundit.

“But why? That’s the key.” Camille gestured with his large hands. “Maybe you’re right, but what’s the motive? Experience tells me that people who commit premeditated murders have a motive. Think of that letter and the way the body was posed. Someone gave it a lot of thought.” He winked at Louis and then said to me: “You’re posing as an expert tonight. So, it’s your turn to play Name That Motive.”

I stopped to think. I wondered if I should tell him what I knew about how Bob Benjamin financed his legal education. “Well, with Bob,” I said, “it’s possible that Sophia had something on him. I don’t know if I should mention this but…”

Camille leaned forward and put his elbows on the table, drilling holes in me with his glare. “But what?” he said.

“Bob’s been known to sell cocaine. And I hear he’s pretty well-connected if you know what I mean.”

“Really?” Camille leaned back in his chair. “Is there a lot of drug use at the law school?”

“It’s news to me,” Louis said. “I’ve heard about drinking and marijuana, but hard drugs?”

“Louis, don’t be naive,” I chided him. “People who use coke don’t run around advertising it to law professors.”

Camille began to press me. “Lemme get this straight, man. You think that Benjamin has ties to big-time dope dealers?

“That’s what I hear,” I said vaguely.

“Oh shit, more gossip! Just what I need. Do you really know anything or are you just passing along more rumors?”

“Well, I, I, I…” I seemed to be developing a stammer.

“You’re not stupid enough to do cocaine, are you? That shit is poison!”

I shook my head. “I do know first-hand about Bob, but I don’t want to say more.”

Camille laughed and said: “I don’t care if you bought some weed from the dude, if that what you’re stuttering about.”

I was relieved. “Okay. That’s how I know about Bob and drugs. He also offered to sell me some coke.”

“Have you two finished with the therapy session?” Louis said.

“Just the first step,” Camille said. “Here’s the second step. What’s the connection between Benjamin’s illegal activities and Sophia Kostecki’s murder?”

I said, “Maybe she knew about it and he was afraid she’d talk. Coke makes people paranoid. Maybe he went over the edge.”

Camille was visibly disgusted. “Maybe, maybe, maybe. It’s y’all’s favorite word.”

Louis raised an eyebrow and said, “Nicholas, I see a pattern emerging. You keep encouraging Camille to check out the suspects that you dislike and steer him away from your friends.”

“That’s right. Don’t hear much from you about McConkey or Chavalas. And they don’t have the best alibis in the world.”

“But do any of the suspects have good alibis?” I shot back.

Camille smiled and said, “That’s not as unusual as you seem to think. Who can testify to where you were, say, last Wednesday night, NP? Nobody but your cats, right?”

I nodded nervously; he was right.

“Alibis are rarely conclusive,” he continued. “Alibi witnesses are people we’re trained to doubt spouses, kids, parents, friends. Hell, you’re more suspicious than a copper. If we used your standard, nobody would ever have an alibi, man.”

Shaking his head over my ignorance, Camille waved the waiter over and ordered another round. “What bothers me the most is how little physical evidence we’ve come up with,” he said. “We’ve ripped the suspect’s houses apart and haven’t found a damn thing. Shit! Haven’t found so much as a bloody shirt in any of the dumpsters at Tulane.”

“Are you still under pressure to make a quick arrest?” asked Louis.

“Less than when we started. Once Duke made the run-off election, the heat went down. The brass have been more worried about a riot. And who the hell can blame them? In fact, there’s been a helluva lot less outside pressure than I expected.”

I was puzzled. “Really? Why?”

“Well, I think the dean is afraid that the killer will turn out to be someone he doesn’t want it to be. Don’t think he’d mind if the whole thing was forgotten.” Camille looked at Louis for an answer.

Louis rose to Granger’s defense. “Come on, Camille, that’s absurd. Jim’s a good man. And he’s taken this murder as a personal affront.”

“Maybe so. But I don’t think Granger minds it being out of the limelight. And we’ve heard almost nothing from the D.A. either and Mason Nash loves publicity more than a yuppie loves Brie. It’s like everyone wants it kept quiet and low key.”

Camille was right. I’d been so preoccupied with the election that it hadn’t occurred to me. “Do you think they know something?”

“No, no, no. Just no enthusiasm. Haven’t heard a peep out of the Bar Association. You know, Kostecki was from away. I don’t think that they care as much as if she were a local.”

“That’s ridiculous, Camille,” Louis scoffed. “Jim is from Minneapolis and there are plenty of lawyers downtown who think that he’s a dangerous radical.”

They were shadowboxing, avoiding the real reason for the legal establishment’s silence. “Salvador Maragall is a suspect,” I said.

“Bingo!” Camille said. “Give that boy a prize. If only students were suspected, they’d be out for blood. As it is, Granger calls me up once a week and sympathizes with our lack of progress, but never pushes me. I don’t know if he wants it all swept under the rug or if he’s just a helluva nice guy.”

Louis said: “It’s Jim’s job to protect the law school’s reputation.”

“Reputation has nothing to do with it,” Camille said. “Blood doesn’t wash away that easily.”

Louis had clearly had enough. “All right, you two. I’m fed up. Can we please talk about something else? Say, Nicholas, how did your blind date go last weekend?”

Camille perked up. “Blind date, eh? Who’s playing matchmaker?” Despite his complaints, Camille loved gossip as much as any law student, if not more.

“Diana Hiller,” I said. “But it really wasn’t a blind date. We had dinner at Diana and Tom’s house.”

“So, tell us, is she as hot as Diana?” leered Camille.

Louis laughed. “Please, tell us about it. Give us broken down old divorced guys some vicarious pleasure.”

I really didn’t want to discuss Diana or my new friend, Hope Stensgard, right now. I made my answer as bland as possible. “Very nice woman; smart; attractive,” I said. “Hope is one of Tom’s grad school colleagues; a microbiologist.”

I hoped that my lack of enthusiasm for the subject would make them back off but, of course, it didn’t. Interrogation was a big part of both of their jobs, and they carried it over into their personal lives. Maybe that’s why they were both divorced.

“Microbiologist? Well, well.” Camille’s eyebrows shot up. “What do you two talk about or do you plan to do much talking?”

They were both smirking, enjoying my obvious discomfort.

“Hope likes movies and all kinds of music. Oh yeah, and we’ve read some of the same books,” I rattled on. “And she’s not a law student.” That was a major plus. As far as I’m concerned, Jackson Browne is right: nothing is worse than lawyers in love.

“So far,” I continued, “we haven’t been at a loss for conversation.”

“Ah ha!” crowed Camille triumphantly. “You’ve seen her again, haven’t you?”

“We met for coffee the other day.” But I didn’t tell them that coffee had progressed to wine and wine to dinner and dinner to a couple of goodnight kisses.

“But is she good-looking?” asked Camille.

“That’s shallow,” I sputtered.

“So, sue me. Well, is she?”

“I give up. Yeah. She’s a tall, leggy redhead with big blue eyes and skin like butter. Satisfied?”

They were both laughing too hard to say anything.

“By the way, Camille, “Casablanca” is Hope’s favorite film. You’re a big Bogart fan too, right?” I said, changing the subject.

Camille nodded.

“I’m surprised that you’re such a fan of old movies,” I went on. “They didn’t exactly treat black folks well on the silver screen back then.”

“Or anywhere else.”

“And you love Bogie. But except for Sam in “Casablanca” there weren’t many blacks in his flicks.”

“Bogie was black,” said Camille with an enigmatic smile.

I was puzzled. He had to be putting me on again. “Say what? Black?” I said. “His father was a New York society doctor.”

“Don’t be so damn literal, NP. I mean that Bogie was existentially black. Think of him in “The Maltese Falcon” or “The Big Sleep.”  He was so tough; so hip; so smart. Bogie had soul.”

“Why, Camille, I didn’t know you were interested in metaphysics,” observed a grinning Louis.

“It’s that Catholic education we got, LB.”

Louis seemed to be lost in thought for a moment. “Yeah, they did a number on us, all right,” he finally said. “That’s why it was so hard for me when I got divorced. Now, I’m a cafeteria Catholic and I don’t think divorce is immoral but still…”

“You feel guilty about it all the same. I know the feeling.” Camille turned to me. “At St. Aug. they took us on frequent guilt field trips. I’m on one right now. My ex said that I’m hitched to the force and maybe she’s right.” He looked at Louis. “At least you’ve got two beautiful daughters, I got nothing to show from my marriage except for a mutt who pees on the bathroom rug.”

“I miss seeing the girls every day,” said Louis as he tidily folded his napkin into smaller and smaller squares. Even when he felt morose, Louis was a neat freak.

It was time to change the subject again. “So, Camille,” I said, “you said you could get us into the Edwards victory party with a wave of the badge. Let’s check it out.”

Louis glanced at his watch. “Excellent idea,” he said. “Edwin will probably tell us, yet again, that he’ll be a good, honest, public servant this term.”

Camille roared. “And if you believe dat, I got some religious relics for sale,” he said in a broad Cajun accent. “Well, I’ll give the old bastard one thing, he was the first governor of Louisiana who treated black folks like human beings.”

Louis waved to the waiter and asked for the check only to learn that it was on the house. Louis was embarrassed. “Camille, I thought you weren’t going to beg for a free meal.”

“I didn’t, LB,” said Camille. “They just respect law and order here at Napoleon House. Probably something to do with the Napoleonic Code.”

“Louisiana doesn’t have the Napoleonic Code,” sniffed Louis. “We have our own Civil Code; drafted and revised to fit our unique needs and that’s all I know about it. Ask Salvador Maragall, he’s the civil law expert.”

We left Napoleon House and headed over to Royal Street. The Monteleone Hotel had been Edwin Edwards’s election eve haunt since he was first elected governor in 1971. Edwin seemed to be a political vampire. Every time one thought he was dead; he’d reappear because his foes had neglected to drive a stake through his heart.

A large crowd had gathered outside the Monteleone to celebrate Duke’s defeat. Another crowd was gathered inside the hotel to celebrate Edwards’s political resurrection. As we came to the ballroom door, Camille flashed his badge and we walked right in. It looked like every hustler in Louisiana had assembled, hoping to bask in the reflected glory of the moment and to start scrambling for state contracts. But since Edwin’s opponent this time had been the junior fuhrer, there was a surreal mixture of good government types, priests and even Republicans alongside the political hacks.

Louis and Camille both saw some friends and wandered off in opposite directions. I scanned the room and then did a double take worthy of Buster Keaton in his prime. Could that be the arch-Reaganite, Jack Goodfriend? I weaved my way through the densely packed crowd. It was Jack. I sneaked up on him and couldn’t resist hugging him just like Sophia had at Diana’s wedding. He flinched, turned around, then looked relieved when he saw that it was me.

“C. Wellington Goodfriend, what’s your Republican ass doing here?”

Jack peered over his glasses and said, “You’re a minute too late. I just stopped holding my nose after voting for Edwards.”

I had to raise my voice to be heard over all the racket. “Lots of people like you voted for him. Who knows, maybe this time EWE won’t be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

“I doubt it. That bumper sticker about le Guv says it all. Vote for the crook, it’s important.”

I chuckled and said: “What brings you here tonight?”     “Filial piety. My father wasn’t feeling well earlier, but he insisted on coming. So, I’m here as his chauffeur. He’s been involved with a group of ministers who worked on the campaign. As you know, he’s as depressingly liberal as you are.”

My knowledge of Jack’s family history was sketchy. He was an only child whose mother had died when he was in high school. It was bound to be a painful memory and law school had inflicted enough pain on all of us, so I avoided talking about his mother. Jack and his father, Cyril, were close. Jack was worried about Cyril’s health, which seemed to be failing. Jack kept his feelings hidden. Ian Carolan and I were among the few people at Tulane he allowed to see past the reserved exterior. Jack had been shaken by Sophia’s murder and seemed preoccupied with death ever since. It was understandable given his father’s age and bad health. He’d even told me about Cyril’s wishes for his funeral. Poor Jack. I didn’t envy his situation, but he seemed to be in a good mood even if he was swimming in a sea of Democrats.

We were soon joined by the avuncular and diminutive Reverend Goodfriend. I’d only met him a few times before, but he looked frail and tired, tired, tired. It was so loud in the ballroom that we had to gather in a tight little circle in order to hear each other; barely.

“Dad,” Jack hollered over the din. “Do you remember my classmate and token liberal friend, Nicholas Pappas?”

“Of course, I do,” shouted the smiling preacher. “Nice to see you again. Mercy, it’s loud in here and I’m worn out.” He shook my hand and then delivered a brief homily. “But I want to hear the Governor speak before we go, son. There’s much healing to be done in this state and it must start tonight.”

“I’m glad that you’re feeling better,” I said. “By the way, I’m not really Jack’s token liberal friend. There are several of us, but we haven’t been able to do a thing with him.”

Jack arched his right eyebrow. “And you never will, I was deprogrammed years ago. Are you here with anyone?”

“Yeah, Louis Bonseigneur and Camille Doucet.”

“Oh, the law professor. Who is this Doucet fellow?” Cyril asked.

“He’s the police detective who’s investigating the murder of our friend, Sophia Kostecki,” I said.

“Oh my, that was so tragic,” Cyril said grimly. “I met her last year at a fund-raiser for the N0 AIDS group. Such a sweet child. She spoke so highly of Jack.” He patted Jack’s arm. “He’s been terribly upset by her death. Such a waste. What a pity.”

Jack leaned over, “Is Doucet any closer to solving the case?”

I shook my head. “Unfortunately, not.”

Jack looked upset. “I’m sorry to hear that.” He looked up with a frown that quickly changed to a thin smile. “Uh-oh, hide the women and watch your wallets. Here comes Edwards.”

Cyril wagged a finger in Jack’s face and said: “Now, son, we ought to give the man the benefit of the doubt.”

The crowd surged forward, and I lost track of Jack and his father in all the commotion. As Edwards began to speak, I mulled over Reverend Goodfriend’s reaction to Sophia. I wasn’t surprised that she’d been on her best behavior when she met him. That was the way she was: wild and outlandish one moment; thoughtful and kind the next. Jack’s dad was right. It was a pity.

©2020 by Peter Athas

The next installment will be posted on Friday. See you then.