Project Novel: Tongue In The Mail, Chapters 6 & 7

A friend who is reading this serialization asked me why all the characters are so talkative. That’s one of the most realistic parts of Tongue In The Mail. Law students never STFU. Some of them learn to bite their tongues but most continue to be as garrulous as hell.

In this installment, another body drops and a new suspect emerges. And the characters talk, gossip, and speculate but that’s a given.

A non-Crowded House song gets a shout-out this time around:

The plot thickens like a sticky pudding after the break.

CHAPTER 6

By mid-December, things had become almost normally abnormal at Tulane Law School. The fear that had gripped the place after Sophia’s murder had faded. The case remained unsolved, but the irrational fear of murder had given way to the entirely rational fear of fall semester exams; especially among the 1Ls.

I felt relieved when finals were over. I only had one more exam gauntlet to run but then I’d have to take the bar exam. The things you must do to become a lawyer seem unnecessarily stressful to me. Like a fraternity hazing, the idea seems to be: “If you can stand up under this deliberately degrading treatment for long periods of time then you can become one of us.”

That afternoon, I went to a party at Susan Wright’s house. Her husband and children were nowhere to be seen. Wise choice.

As far as I could tell most of my cronies were there. Unfortunately, Susan had invited all her Law Review colleagues too; some of whom were so obnoxious that I felt like writing a letter to Miss Manners every time I saw them. But Susan was different. She hadn’t let her law school success increase her hat size.

When I found her, Susan was talking about zoning laws with some future pillars of the ABA. Just thinking about it makes me zone out, so I kissed Susan on the cheek and ended up in the kitchen where Charles had Ian cornered. It sounded like Charles was talking about Hitler’s sex life again. I listened for a few minutes and drank some wine. Then, Susan rescued Ian. “Do me a favor, Ian, and go on a beer run?” she said. “We’re running low.”

A relieved smile crossed Ian’s lips. “Be glad to, Susan. Mind if I stop at the law school first? I left my checkbook at the office.”

“That’s fine.”

“Excuse me, Charles.”

“Want some company, Ian?” I said.

As we headed to the door, I heard Charles telling Susan about Hitler’s masochistic-coprophil inclinations. Once we were safely outside, Ian said, “Bonnie Raitt.”

“What the hell? Oh, “Nick of Time.”

“Man, that Charles is too much sometimes.”

“Hitler’s sex life again?”

“Yup. It’s a mystery to me why he finds it so fascinating.”

“Beats the hell out of me,” I said.

“Charles is so strange. He’s either a great guy or a pain in the ass.”

“He hates law school. And he tries not to bitch about it all the time, but it comes out after exams.”

“I know, but when he starts lipping off like that, he loses me every time.”

The drive to the law school was quick because Ian is from the West and doesn’t believe in the speed limit. As we drove past the parade ground, Bob Benjamin’s black Porsche whizzed by us; I hoped that he wasn’t on his way to Susan’s house. Then, I saw some NOPD squad cars and an ambulance parked in front of the law school. Ian pulled into the nearest parking spot. “What the hell is going on?” he said.

“A heart attack, maybe,” I said as we hurried to Jones Hall.

“Cop cars don’t come for heart attacks.”

There was a large crowd milling around on the stairs. Nobody seemed to know what was going on. Then, the ambulance jockeys came slowly out of the door rolling an empty stretcher. I heard a wailing siren getting closer. An unmarked car pulled up in front of us and Camille Doucet and Sarah Mitchell got out and headed in our direction. When I saw them, my mouth became drier than day-old toast and my stomach tied itself into a slipknot.

Detective Mitchell walked past us and continued up the stairs where Dean Granger was waiting. Camille saw me and stopped.

I started babbling, “Who is it? Are they…”?

“Maragall,” Camille muttered, shaking his head from side to side. “Killed with a blow to the head, they say.”

“Oh, my Lord! Not again,” gagged Ian. He’d broken out in a cold sweat. Big, strong Ian was scared; so was I.

Camille pulled me aside. “How strong is your stomach, NP?”

“Why?”

“I want you to come with me to Maragall’s office.”

I was shocked. “Why? You’re kidding, aren’t you?” I said. “Won’t it look unprofessional?”

“I don’t give a shit about appearances; all I care about is results. You coming?”

“Yeah. Give me a second to tell Ian.”

“That’s all you’ll get,” he said over his shoulder.

Mitchell and Granger had already gone upstairs. I had no trouble catching up with Camille because his progress had been slowed by a crowd of rubberneckers attracted by the sirens. The press hadn’t showed up yet, but they’d be there soon; vultures always find carrion.

On the third floor, a fat white middle-aged cop  was stationed at the door. He tried to keep us out. “Where the hell you think you’re  goin’? This ain’t no freak show,” he barked. “Get outta here.”

If Camille was mad, he didn’t show it. He was too cool for that. Bogie would have been proud of him when he flashed his badge, not his temper. “Doucet. Homicide. The white dude is with me.” He pointed at me.

The cop blushed. “Sorry, sir. Just doin’ my job.”

Camille smiled. “Forget about it, son,” he said blandly. “Don’t want anybody wandering in and ruining evidence, now do we?”

“Camille, what took you so damn long?” Mitchell demanded.

Jim Granger’s face had turned a greenish blue. He was standing in the outer office with the portly and verbose Professor Mark Bouillon. Both men glanced at me and then at each other. The look on their faces seemed to say, “What the hell is he doing here?” Camille didn’t explain and that was fine with me. Camille introduced me to Mitchell and she brusquely nodded at me. “Here’s the victim’s office,” she said.

It was strange to hear the overbearing Salvador Maragall described as a victim, but now it was true. We followed her inside and found Maragall slumped over his desk. His head rested on a thick book. A thin trail of blood had oozed down the back of his skull. His ink-black hair was hennaed with his own blood. To my untrained eyes, it appeared that he’d been hit in the same spot as Sophia.

Mitchell handed Camille a pair of latex gloves. He put them on. Then she gave him an envelope. “Oh shit! Here we go again,” he said. “Sarah, ask Dean Granger to step in here.”

Because we were in an enclosed space, the acrid stench of the dead man’s urine hung in the air. I felt sick to my stomach but tried not to show it. I disliked Salvador Maragall. I’d even tried and convicted him in my head of murder, but nobody deserves to be reduced to such an undignified, smelly clump of flesh. The poor son-of-a-bitch.

Camille paced around the office, eyeballing it for clues. Granger came in. Mark Bouillon stood in the doorway, sipping from a can of Diet Coke.

“I understand that there’s another letter,” Granger said feebly. “Do we have a serial killer on our hands?”

“Maybe,” said Camille. “Or somebody who wants us to believe that. None of us took that first letter seriously enough.” He waved the envelope. He picked up a silver-handled letter opener from the desk, slit the envelope and read the letter aloud:

Dear Dean Granger and Sergeant Doucet,

Yes, gentlemen, the Kostecki and Maragall executions are linked. I would like to take this opportunity to clear Professor Maragall of Miss Kostecki’s ‘murder.’

Professor Maragall was executed because of his flagrantly immoral behavior. He abused his power and paid for it with his life. His specific offenses were adultery and sexual harassment.

Sergeant Doucet, I decided to make it easier on you this time; the ‘murder’ weapon remains in this room. Here’s a hint. It could be said that Professor Maragall was crushed by the weight of his own words.

Professor Maragall is not the only member of this faculty guilty of these crimes. Let his death serve as a warning. I am watching and I will be back.

“What the hell does this mean?” asked Camille of an obviously nauseated Granger. The smell of death and piss appeared to be getting to Granger as much as it was to me. Granger was silent, but the cool-headed Bouillon came to his rescue. “It appears that Salvador’s head is resting on a volume of his treatise,” he said.

“Thanks. And you are?”

He stuck out his chest and said: “Mark Bouillon, professor of Torts and comparative law. My office is at the other end of the suite. I found the corpus delicti.”

The lab people showed up and the four of us stepped out of Maragall’s office to make way for them. Granger led us into a conference room across the hall. I was relieved; I think that both Granger and I would have passed out if we hadn’t sat down.

Camille focused his attention on Bouillon and said, “Were you in the office suite all morning?”

“Yes. Until I went to lunch at one. I asked Salvador if he cared to join me, but he preferred to grade exams.”

“What time did you get back here?”

“Oh, at about two. I looked in on Salvador and found him slumped over the desk, then I called 911,” Bouillon said calmly.

“What about the secretaries? Where were they when you left and returned?”

“My secretary had a dentist’s appointment at noon and has yet to return. Salvador’s secretary called in sick. He was in a foul mood as a result. He’s had many staff problems over the years.”

Camille ignored the innuendo. “Did you see anyone else enter or leave the suite when you were doing the same?”

“Not that I recall. It was quiet because of today’s exam schedule. Upper-class exams ended at 12:30 and first-year exams began at 1:30.” Bouillon leaned over, placed a chubby hand on Granger’s shoulder and whispered into his ear. Granger nodded and Bouillon continued, “Detective Richard, there is something quite distressing about Salvador that I must disclose.”

Camille perked up. “About what, Professor Bouillon?”

“Well, Detective Richard.”

“Sergeant Doucet.”

“I beg your pardon?” Bouillon looked perplexed.

“My name is Doucet; not Richard.”

Bouillon was bad with names; he always called me Mr. Pappan. My guess was that he’d jumbled up the names of the Cajun musicians, Michael Doucet and Zachary Richard. After a long pause while Bouillon tried to absorb this, he finally said: “Salvador’s marriage was untidy and he had many paramours. At the end of the day not long ago, I heard Salvador and his wife, Luz, having a rather loud discussion.”

“Discussion? You mean an argument, don’t you?” Camille said.

“That is correct. Now, I didn’t hear all of it but…” He paused and nervously sipped his Diet Coke.

“What did you hear?”

“Luz was screaming invective at him. Some of it was in Catalan, I believe, and that I did not understand. But I distinctly heard her say: ‘You bastard, you deserve to die for what you’ve done to me!’ At that point, I left. I was quite embarrassed, as well as glad that the staff was gone for the day.”

“That’s very helpful, Professor Bouillon,” Camille said. “Do you have anything else to add?”

“Not at the moment, Sergeant Richard. May I leave? This is most upsetting, most upsetting.”

“Thank you, sir.” Camille looked at me and rolled his eyes but didn’t bother trying to correct him again.

I looked at Granger who didn’t look seasick anymore. He smiled at me. “Can we speak alone, Sergeant?” he said. “I’m sure Nicholas won’t mind.”

I stood up. “Of course not. I’ll be on my way.”

Camille nodded to me and turned his attention to Granger. I walked downstairs in a stupor. Although Sophia’s death had affected me more personally, Maragall’s murder had literally made me sick to my stomach. I wasn’t sure whether I needed a beer or some Pepto Bismol. Poor Maragall. It seemed so demeaning to be poked and prodded by strangers after you’d soiled your pants.

I stopped in the student lounge and rang Susan. The party was still going on. I heard voices in the background. I told her I was on the way. The walk would do me good, I thought, it might clear my head and settle my stomach too.

On the way, I stopped home to pick up the mail, feed the cats and check my answering machine. There was a message from Hope Stensgard telling me that she’d try to come by the party later. It was good to hear her voice and right now I needed to see her. I was becoming putty in her hands; silly putty, but putty, nonetheless. We’d been seeing a lot of each other lately and I’d even given her a key to my apartment. Hope was the main reason that I’d decided to stay in New Orleans and take a job as an indigent defender.  And I owed it all to Diana. She was a superb yenta, for a blonde shiksa goddess, that is.

I sat down on the couch for a few minutes to try and calm down. My fluffy white cat, Q-Tip, leapt into my lap and tried to comfort me while I brooded. It didn’t work. I knew that once the news spread that I’d been in Maragall’s office with Camille that I’d never shake my reputation as his sidekick. Oh well, I thought, it could be worse: I could be a suspect or a victim.

I steeled myself for the inevitable questions and walked over to Susan’s. When I got there, Diana and Bill Sutton were outside smoking on the porch.

“Yo, Diana, thought you’d given up smoking,” I jeered.

Diana was silent but Bill said, “Blame me. Tell us what happened.” Diana nodded.

“Put out your butts and get them inside,” I suggested. “Then I won’t have to repeat myself.”

I wanted to assemble all the interested guests in one room and tell everyone at once, just like in an old detective story. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a solution in my coat pocket.

“Let’s go. The party’s down to the hardcore,” Bill said. “The rats all jumped ship when Ian came back. Now it’s just us, Susan, Charles, Jack and Ian.”

Inside, my friends were huddled in the living room. I immediately became the center of attention. I told them about the scene in Maragall’s office. When I finished, an unusual quiet fell over the room: feet shuffled; food and drinks were fetched. Ian and Jack went into the kitchen and stayed there. I was glad that Jack had taken Ian in tow. Ian looked better, but he was still paler than white chocolate.

It was a very drunk group, except for Susan. She looked wan and tired as she approached me. “Does Doucet think it’s a motive-based murder or a serial killer?” she said.

There it was again; I was the insider, the sidekick. Part of me enjoyed the role, but I missed being an outsider.

“Well, I shouldn’t talk about it, but I’m weak and among friends.” I took a swig of beer. “There was a letter on Maragall’s desk. It was similar to the one found on Sophia, but it could just be a copycat imitating the first letter to tie the murders together. I guess they’ll round up the usual suspects and, of course, the spouse is the first in line.”

Diana came over and sat down next to me. “Especially when the first and second victims had an affair,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to be in Luz Maragall’s pumps tonight.”

“I wonder if the murderer had any firsthand information about Maragall and sexual harassment. All I’ve heard is hearsay and speculation.”

Susan spoke up. “Well, I’ve heard a specific allegation of sexual misconduct by Maragall involving Professor Gautreaux.”

Monique Gautreaux was one of Tulane Law’s foreign professors and taught, quite badly, Civil Law Property and Torts.

Susan continued, “Gautreaux was up for tenure review this year and, as we all know, she didn’t get very favorable student evaluations.”

“And doesn’t deserve any,” interrupted Bill. “I had her for Torts and she was so damn hard to understand. She may be brilliant in French but in English, shit!”

“Well, I think she’s brilliant and beautiful,” added Charles. “Go on, Susan.”

Susan grinned at Charles. “Apparently, Maragall agreed with you,” she said. “He started off by flirting with her. Then, he tried using her job status as leverage to get her into bed.”

I leaned forward and said, “Quid pro quo?”

Susan nodded and sipped her wine. “But he was subtle; to protect himself. But the implicit deal, threat really, was that if Gautreaux slept with him he’d support her tenure bid and if she didn’t, he’d oppose her. Very simple; very devious. She said no.”

“Lovely. Did she report him?” asked Diana.

“No. Maybe she’d given up on getting tenure.”

Diana shrugged and said, “The real question is whether any of this would have led Gautreaux to murder Maragall. I doubt it. Also, I’ve heard that she has another job lined up. And what about Sophia? Why would Gautreaux kill her?”

“I don’t know, Diana. Gautreaux bothers me,” Bill said. “Wouldn’t surprise me one bit if she was crazy. There’s just something strange about that woman. Maybe it’s that weird little dance she does when she’s teaching.”

“I know what you mean, Bill,” said a laughing Charles. “She shuffles her feet very methodically. First, she takes two steps to the right and then three steps to the left. Then it’s two steps back and three steps forward.”

“You got it, man. Drove me fucking crazy. We called it the Gautreaux shuffle.”

Bill stood up and showed us how to do the Gautreaux shuffle, which turned out to be a bit like the Hokey Pokey. Charles joined in as the rest of us sang: “Yeah, yeah, yeah do the Gautreaux shuffle” to the tune of “Harlem Shuffle.”

We were all giggling like stoned teenyboppers when Jack and Ian came back from the kitchen. Ian was staggering slightly, and his face was flushed from drink.

“I can see that you’re through wallowing in gore. We’re heading out,” announced Jack to the group. “Thanks again, Susan. Nice wake.”

Diana wobbled as she stood up. “Can you give me a ride home, Jack? I have to leave my car here. I’m too drunk to drive.”

Jack gestured to Diana. “Follow me,” he said.

“You have room for me, Jack?” said Charles.

Jack nodded and motioned for him to come along.

After the others left only Susan, Bill, and I remained. I nudged him. “Susan, you want us to clear out?” I said.

“Stay put,” she said. “I don’t like drinking alone and my kids won’t be home for hours.”

Bill poured another round of wine. “Well, Maragall’s murder will transform our juicy local scandal into a national story,” he said. “Even feel the itch myself. I expect that CNN and all the tabloid shows will pick it up and hype the hell out of it. Tonight, on Hard Copy: Sex-mad Law Professor Slain.”

“I still don’t get it,” mused Susan. “If these murders are really linked, why Maragall and Sophia? They had nothing in common except their affair. Unless…” She looked right at me. “No one could really believe in that executioner nonsense, or could they?”

I shrugged and said, “Here’s one thing I do know, the first letter was faxed to the Picayune and I bet that this one will be in tomorrow’s paper.”

The doorbell rang. Susan stood up to answer it. “Who could that be?” she wondered.

“Maybe it’s Hope,” I said.

Susan smiled. “Oh, the new girlfriend. Good. I haven’t met her yet. It’s my chance to inspect her properly,” she said as I followed her up the hall.

It was Hope. She looked upset.

“What’s wrong, babe?” I said as we embraced.

“Have you heard? There was another murder at the law school.”

I nodded. “How did you hear? The Keith Archer news?”

She shook her head. “CNN.”

I caught a whiff of Bill’s tobacco/wine breath right behind me. “I’m not surprised. And CBS, NBC and ABC won’t be far behind. It’s gonna be a regular circus. I hope Granger has his whip handy.”

 

CHAPTER 7

February 1992.

Bill was right; all hell had broken loose after Maragall’s murder. The second letter had been sent to every newsroom that the publicity-crazed murderer could think of. The national press had descended on Tulane Law School like yuppies looking for the latest fad. The law school administration had reacted with a PR blitz. Dean Granger had made the talk show rounds, trying to contain the damage. Because of the media’s short attention span, the hysterical coverage had died down, but it was only in remission; it wasn’t cured.

When I got back from Christmas vacation, the mood at Jones Hall was grim. Most of the students were nervous about going in and out of the building alone; even in the morning. For the first time ever, many professors locked themselves in their offices and there were rumors that half of them had loaded guns in their desks. Several profs had threatened to quit unless something was done soon. The administration had responded by hiring armed guards to patrol the building. I doubted that hiring six moonlighting cops would deter this killer. The officers struck me as sleepy-eyed placebos, not a panacea.

In mid-January, Granger had held a meeting of the student body to try and calm our fears. It didn’t work. Several 1Ls had dropped out. I’d heard that their parents had insisted they leave school before they were butchered. It was illogical. The only victims had been a 3L and a professor. Those of us with the most at stake had the most to fear. I had only one semester left and all I could do was keep my head down and hope that nobody would hit it before graduation.

Pressure on the police to solve the case had escalated. The same people who had been indifferent to Sophia’s murder were now demanding action. In the legal community’s caste system, Salvador Maragall was the Caudillo of Tulane Law and Sophia was a peon, so his life was worth more than hers. It made me sick.

I was flattered whenever Camille called to pump me for  information. I tried to be helpful; he needed all the help he could get. The investigation of Maragall’s murder was as frustrating for him as Sophia’s had been. It was neatly done: no prints; a few alien fibers; nothing that could be used as a DNA sample. The killer’s claim that Maragall’s treatise was the murder weapon had been a sick joke; he’d been struck by a blunt object similar to the one that killed Sophia. Hardy-har-har.

One thing was clear. There were no signs of a struggle, so the killer had to be either someone Maragall knew or had no reason to fear. So far, there were three suspects but no evidence against them. Luz Maragall’s alibi, once again, was her little boy. She said that they’d gone for a walk in Audubon Park and then to the dentist at three. She was trying to convince Camille that her marriage had improved before her husband’s death. But Luz had a motive and it was a classic: The scorned wife kills her cheating husband for vengeance and his money. She also had a motive to murder Sophia: the tale of the scorned wife redux.

Professor Monique Gautreaux told the police that she was in her second-floor office grading exams, but no one saw her between 1:25 and 2:00. This gave her plenty of time to climb the stairs, kill Maragall and return to her office. Gautreaux’s motive was vengeance and she had much to avenge if Maragall had really messed with her career.

There was one thing about Gautreaux that heightened Camille’s suspicions of her, but I thought that he was overreacting. She was being treated by a psychiatrist for depression. And she freely admitted that she had been in a psychiatric hospital for three weeks six years earlier.

The letter left on Maragall’s desk had raised the most terrifying possibility of all; that the murderer believed he was  executing sinners and would kill again. If the killer was insane, then speculating about motives was futile because it could be almost anyone. We all began to wonder who was so well versed in our many sins. But Camille didn’t buy it. He was sure that these were cold-blooded murders and that the letters were red herrings. “Somebody’s been reading too much Agatha Christie,” he told me. But to hedge his bets, he’d assigned Detective Mitchell to investigate the mental health of the suspects in both murders. Monique Gautreaux was the only one with any known psychological problems.

By the middle of February, the bad publicity had faded. The satellite trucks had vanished, and the tabloids had raked their muck and moved on to the next target. It was the middle of the Carnival season and the law school murders were out of the news. The local press had turned its attention to an anti-discrimination ordinance aimed at the parading krewes. It was the Thursday before Mardi Gras and there was no parade: Momus had canceled. It was a pity. I was looking forward to introducing Hope to their satirical parade. One of the never-to-be-seen floats was rumored to have ridiculed the NOPD’s handling of the law school murder case. Camille was probably glad that Momus didn’t roll.

It was around 11 when Ian and I dropped in on Bill Sutton at the Dicta office to catch up on the latest gossip. We found Bill involved in a serious conversation with John Easter. John was a small, muscular, and almost pretty man with a pencil thin mustache. He claimed that being a gay African American made him a “two-time loser.”

They stopped talking when they saw us. Bill leaned forward and tapped John on the shoulder. “Can we let them in on this?” said Bill.

John took a long look at us and nodded.

Bill stood up and closed the door. “Take a seat. It’s a long and involved story. Want some coffee?”

We did. Bill grabbed two mugs and poured. “You guys like it strong and black, right? Good,” he said with a nasty cackle. “The way I like both my coffee and my women.”

I felt impatient but Bill wasn’t someone you could rush. Timing was everything to him. He handed us our coffee, then sat down in his chair. “Hold onto your hats and bite your tongues,” he said. “I’ve got a helluva story to tell you. You gotta swear not to let it get out. And Ian, you can’t even tell Jack. Not a peep.”

Ian grinned. “Okay, okay.”

“Come on, Bill,” I said irritably. “This office is gossip central. We should be swearing you to silence.”

John laughed softly, his tense shoulders relaxing slightly.

Bill ignored me. “Well, since September,” he said, “some scumbag has been putting hate mail in the files of African-American students. Got one myself.” (There were hanging files in the lounge that served as mailboxes for the students) “It’s no coincidence that it happened during the governor’s election.”

A grim-faced John handed me a typed letter with the salutation: “Dear Queer Quota Queen.” It threatened to kill the “cocksucking Nigger who wants to butt-fuck normal people and give them AIDS.”

As I read the letter, I felt soiled and in need of a bath. I passed it to Ian who reacted as if I’d handed him a turd. He glanced at the letter, placed it face down on the desk and slid it as far away from him as possible. Ian scowled and said, “You guys have any idea who’s behind this filth?”

Bill grinned slyly. “Guy Zeringue.” He cocked his head in my direction. “It’s flashback time, eh, Nicholas. Here I am telling you again about Zeringue writing anonymous letters.”

My mind, and stomach, churned. Was it really another anonymous letter from Guy Zeringue? His earlier anti-Sophia letter had led to a session with the cops and they’d accepted Zeringue’s claim that all he’d done was express the unspoken views of many of our classmates. I was surprised that Zeringue might be behind this hate letter campaign; his father was a prominent State Senator with ambitions for higher office. Exposure of the son as a hatemonger would damage the father’s career. This was the kind of mud that stuck to even the cleanest reputation.

Ian looked shocked; he and Zeringue were drinking buddies. “Wait a minute,” said Ian. “Are you sure? As far as I know, Guy is a Reaganite, not a racist. Got any proof?”

Bill longingly fondled an unlit cigarette; the rest of us were the beneficiaries of Tulane’s smoking ban. Bill looked scornfully at Ian. “Of course. We have a witness.” He paused. “In fact, Ian, it’s your buddy, Blaze Jones.”

Bill looked triumphant. “Blaze went drinking with Zeringue last weekend. When Zeringue got wasted, he bragged about writing the letters. Apparently, the stupid asshole was really proud of the alliterative greeting on the one to John.” Bill shook his head, appalled by both Zeringue’s ideas and his stupidity.

“The next day,” continued John, “Blaze told me what he’d heard. I’d only shown it to Bill, so I was shocked when Blaze repeated the ‘Dear Queer Quota Queen’ greeting word-for-word.”

Bill interrupted, “And I intend to nail Zeringue to the wall and make him bleed.”

I said, “Have you told the administration about this yet?”

“Only Granger.”

“Have many black students gotten letters like that…” Ian stopped, searching for the right word, “…thing?”

“Yeah, but we’ve kept a lid on it.”

Ian scratched his chin and gazed vacantly at the floor. “Sorry, I was so stunned when you mentioned Guy that my mind wandered,” he said softly. “Tell me again how you’re going to prove that he did it?”

Bill did and added, “And don’t forget-we don’t need to prove Zeringue’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to get him expelled. Blaze’s testimony gives us the hammer and we’re going to use it to nail the lid on Zeringue’s coffin nice and tight.” He looked at Ian. “The motherfucker deserves whatever he gets. Right, Ian?”

“Oh, yeah, certainly,” sighed Ian. “It’s such a shock. I just hate to assume the worst about anyone. Too many people around here are like that and I don’t want to become one of them. I thought that Guy had orthodox conservative views like Jack. Guess I’m wrong.” He shook his head and forced a smile. “But I still have a hard time picturing Guy in a pointy-headed outfit bought at a white sale.”

If Ian had hoped to break the tension with his quip, he’d failed. John, who was obviously both scared and angry, shook his finger at Ian. “Believe it, man,” said John, “this psycho’s threatening people. He said he’d kill me if AIDS didn’t get me first. He hasn’t acted yet, but what if he brings some skinheads in here… What if…”

“I know you’re scared, John. But don’t let your imagination go berserk,” Ian said. “You know, Guy drinks too much. Some people get in fights when they’re drunk, maybe he writes hate letters.”

“Gimme a break, Ian,” I snorted. “He sits down and writes letters when he’s blotto?”

“You’re right, Nicholas, that’s ridiculous. But I still can’t imagine Guy bringing in any goons.” Ian shook his head. “I don’t understand it. It’s so stupid. He’s got it made; there’s a job waiting for him with his father’s law firm in Shreveport.”

Bill nodded. “Ian’s right about the skinheads, John. But when I get through with Zeringue, his legal career will be toast.”

It was suddenly quiet. I looked over at Ian and John. They were both subdued to say the least. I wanted to say something amusing to break the tension, but I couldn’t think of anything.

Bill was ready to shoot some more poison darts. “Speaking of Senator Guy Zeringue, Senior, I’ve dug up some dirt on him too. Any of you heard of the Tulane legislative scholarships?”

“Never heard of them,” I said. Neither had John or Ian.

Bill smiled. “Well, don’t sweat it, not many people have,” he said. “Every member of the state legislature has the power to grant an annual scholarship to Tulane.”

“Really? But it’s a private school. Why?”

“Tax breaks for Tulane. And guess who got Senator Zeringue’s scholarship for the last three years? You guessed it, Junior. It’s a cozy little set-up. They get a substantial financial benefit. Tax free. These scholarships usually go to cronies, relatives, and campaign contributors. No surprise there.”

I laughed and said, “This is hilarious.” There’s nothing I love more than a juicy Louisiana political scandal, especially one involving such blatant hypocrisy. “I saw Zeringue’s father on the news the other day denouncing gambling and he’s been feeding at the trough himself.”

“Oink, oink,” cackled Bill.

Ian leaned forward in his chair. “How did you find that out?”

“Well, it’s legal-for now-so I just did some research,” Bill said. “I found out about Zeringue and some others who’d done the same thing.” He shook his head. “The working press sure dropped the ball on this one. It’s not a secret, but it will be a scandal. And you heard it here first.”

“What’re you gonna do with the story?” asked John.

Bill smiled greedily. “Well, I could use some extra money so I’m going to shop it around.”

“What about the hate letters?” asked Ian.

Bill shook his head. “I’m just going to file a complaint with the honor board. When they get through with Zeringue, he’ll be kicked out of here and never get his sorry ass into another law school. Hell, I might just confront that Nazi bastard later today after class.”

John was alarmed. “You think that’s a good idea?”

Bill looked smug. “Oh shit, John, I can take care of myself. Hell, I’ll probably wring a confession out of him. He’s a goddamn coward, always hiding behind anonymous letters and creeping around in the dark like a cockroach. It’s time to squash him.”

He looked at me and smiled. “So, Watson, has the Creole Sherlock come up with anything new and amazing?”

I shrugged. “Haven’t seen much of him since that poker game at my place.” I laughed and looked at Bill. He’d lost fifty bucks that night and Camille was the big winner.

“Don’t remind me of that poker game. Doucet is one lucky bastard; at cards, that is.”

“Doucet must be under a shitload of pressure to solve this case,” mused John. “Have the brass threatened to replace him?”

“Not as far as I know,” I said. “I think Camille’s safe, he’s got some serious juice in this town. And it’s not what you know, but who you know that counts in New Orleans.”

“And everywhere else,” added Bill.

I looked over at John. He’d sunk down low in his chair and was staring at the wall. I was worried. “You okay, John?”

“I guess so,” he muttered. “I was just thinking about the two murders and Guy Zeringue. Maybe there’s a connection.”

“Connection?” said Ian.

“Think about it. What do the killer and Zeringue have in common? They both write sick, anonymous letters. Zeringue wrote that letter about Sophia and then, bang, she’s murdered. Now he’s writing threatening letters to outsiders and, wham, the foreigner Maragall is murdered.” John looked at me. “Shouldn’t the cops be investigating Zeringue?”

“He’d kill Maragall because he was an immigrant?” Ian said.      John stood up and screamed, “Why do you keep sticking up for the motherfucker, Ian?”

Ian’s face fell. “I’m not defending him. Just chill and listen,” he said. “Maybe I’m shell-shocked after hearing about the Guy Zeringue who writes hate letters. And maybe I’m scared just like you.”

Ian bit his lower lip and continued, “Guy deserves whatever he gets for writing those letters but that still doesn’t make him a killer. That’s it, John.”

Ian smiled and offered his hand to John who accepted the gesture. John let go of his hand and looked at me. “I want to talk to Doucet about this,” he said. “Think he’ll be interested?”

“Yeah,” I said. “What do you think, Bill?”

Bill had been oddly silent. He stood up and said: “I think that it’s time to wrap up this coffee klatch, girls.”

“Speak for yourself,” John said. “I feel like a new man.”

“No. You like to feel men.”

A laughing Ian stood up and said: “I need to get up to the third floor. Coming, John?”

John followed him out the door. I was glad that he and Ian had made up. We all needed all the friends we could get.

I picked up my backpack and hoisted it over my shoulder. “Later, Bill. I’ve got Rydingsword next and he freaks out whenever anyone’s late.”

Bill stepped in front of me. “There’s something we need to talk about.” He looked at his watch. “Oh shit, no time now. Can you come back later? I’ll be around between three and five.”

“Sure. What’s up?”

Bill lowered his voice. “I’ve got a new theory about the murders that I want to run by you and it’s too involved to go into right now. But it’s so strange that I think only you’d believe it. I think I may have figured out who killed Sophia and Maragall. I just don’t know why.”

©2020 by Peter Athas

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

2 thoughts on “Project Novel: Tongue In The Mail, Chapters 6 & 7

  1. Lex says:

    Just for the record, I’m enjoying the bejeebers out of this.

    Like

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