The present has been so relentlessly hellish that it’s been pleasant spending time in the 1990’s while processing Tongue In The Mail for publication. I had more hair and a smaller belly back then, but times are *always* tough. Something hellish is always going on somewhere in the world. The difference in 2020 is that the pandemic is everywhere. It gives new meaning to the term hell on wheels.
In this installment of my previously unpublished law school murder mystery, Carnival approaches and another body drops. Since our characters are incapable of silence, there’s much conversation about both.
The latest letter from the murderer mentions busy bodies but not this Elvis Costello song:
Our story resumes after the break.
Despite my best intentions, I was late for class because I’d stopped to gossip with Jack and Susan. Charles was standing outside Room 102, muttering to himself and looking at the door. He shrugged when he saw me. “Dare we enter late?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Rydingsword might not mind, but, then again, he might burst a vein.”
Richard Rydingsword was Tulane’s environmental law expert. He was a brilliant man with a tongue sharper than his name. He was a pioneer in his field and like all pioneers he was a prickly customer.
Charles looked at his watch and put his hand on the doorknob. “We’re only two minutes late and he said it’s okay to slip in if we’re less than five minutes late. Let’s go for it.”
He opened the door and we entered, tiptoeing like soldiers through a mine field. I thought Charles was far too charitable; Rydingsword’s rules changed daily depending on his mood. His mood swings reminded me of the rich guy in “City Lights” who befriended the little tramp when drunk and turned on him when sober.
The vast classroom was half empty. It was tense; heads turned, and eyes anxiously watched us sneak in. I saw Diana across the room, shaking her head, warning us that Rydingsword was in a foul humor.
Then, Rydingsword swiveled on his ostrich-like legs and pointed at Charles. “This is the point that I was trying to make,” he said. “Students who are late to class have no respect for the rights of others. How can I teach in an atmosphere like this?”
To my astonishment, Rydingsword threw his notes on the floor and stormed over in our direction. He sat down on the table in front of us and got in my face. I thought he was going to bite my nose off. “Why are you late?” he demanded.
“I’m very sorry,” I said. I hoped that apologizing might placate the irate tree hugger and end his tirade.
“Sorry? Sorry isn’t good enough! Why should I bother teaching today?” he said over his shoulder as he stomped away.
I was appalled that this forty-two-year-old lawyer was acting like a spoiled three-year-old. Charles was seething over being treated like a wicked child by a man his own age. I leaned over to whisper in his ear, but he waved me off and raised his hand.
Looking like an aggrieved owl, Rydingsword glared at Charles over the top of his half-glasses. “Yes? What is it?” he hooted.
“Last week you said that we could come in late if we met a three-prong test.” Charles used his fingers to count off the points he was making but resisted extending his middle finger first. “First, we must be less than five minutes late and we were. Second, we must enter quietly, and we did. Third, we must sit on the side out of your direct view and we did,” he said, waving three fingers in the air. “I’ve never been late before. It’s your class and you can set the rules. But we’re all adults and should be treated with courtesy and respect. If you don’t want us to come in late, please tell us so unequivocally.”
A scowling Rydingsword leaned on the podium, chewed on the bows of his half-glasses, and surveyed the room. He was a prima donna, not a fool. He’d gone too far this time and he knew it. “Your interpretation is correct,” he said. “Forgive the outburst. From now on, everyone must come to class on time or not at all. No exceptions. Is that satisfactory?”
“You have the makings of a fine attorney,” added Rydingsword with a grudging smile.
A steady flow of people came over after class and thanked Charles. There had been a lot of complaints about Rydingsword behind his back, but only Charles had the guts to do anything about it.
Diana walked over, smiling broadly, carrying both a briefcase and an enormous red purse. “Well done, Charles,” she said. “Were you a lion tamer in a past life?”
Charles blushed. “I never would have done it if I’d thought about it,” he said with a wide smile.
Diana’s compliment had made his day.
“The words just popped out,” he continued. “I expected him to leave. I was shocked when he apologized.” He grinned at me, nudging me in the ribs with his elbow. “See Nick, the Sword’s basically a good guy. He’s just like a temperamental artist; no worse than your average opera diva.”
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” I said. “He’s too skinny.”
Diana looked at her watch and groaned, “Oh shit, I’m late. I’ve got a Law Review editors meeting to go to.” She shook her head. “Never seen such egos in my life.”
Charles smiled as he watched her walk away. “Boy, I wish she weren’t married,” he lamented. “But I guess every man around here is in love with her. She’s got it all; brains, beauty, and a sense of humor. What a woman!”
I had to grin. He was still flying high from his triumph over Rydingsword and Diana’s compliment.
“Want to get some coffee?” I said. “My treat.”
He shook his head. “Sorry, I can’t now. Do you want to meet at the Dicta office later? Bill’s usually there at the end of the day talking trash and dishing dirt.”
Oh shit, I thought. How do I weasel my way out of this one?
I knew that Bill wanted to talk to me alone. As much as I hated to, I lied to Charles. “Sorry, can’t make it. I saw Bill earlier,” I improvised, “he said something about going to the CBD today.”
Charles shrugged. “Oh well. But I may still try to catch him. I’d rather gossip than grind away in the library any day. Hell, we’re 3Ls; they should give us a free ride after working us to death for 2 1/2 years.”
“Especially at these prices,” I added, thinking of Tulane Law’s fifteen grand a year tuition.
“There’s that too. I wouldn’t know.”
Charles was lucky. He could afford to be a professional student because his father taught at Tulane and faculty brats didn’t have to pay tuition. Before law school, Charles had been an English graduate student specializing in the Beat writers of the 1950’s. He told me that the endless squabbling between Marxists, Deconstructionists and all the other ‘ists’ in the English Department had driven him to law school. He figured that if he was going to argue for a living that he should make more money than a college professor.
I went to the rest of my classes, but my mind kept wandering back to Bill’s theory. Did he have new information or was it just a hunch? I was intrigued that he’d said it was so strange that only I’d get it. It meant that his candidate was someone the police didn’t suspect; someone without an obvious motive. Was it a professor? Was it Zeringue? Was there a murderer taking notes or plotting somewhere in this classroom?
Finally, my last class ended. I was wiped out from a long day and wanted a drink. I hoped that Bill still had a bottle of bourbon in his desk drawer. If Charles showed up, we could just wait him out and talk about it later. I’d heard so many wild ideas about the murders that I was pretty sure that Bill’s theory could wait too.
When I arrived at Bill’s basement office, the door was shut, the light off. I knocked but there was no answer. I wondered why he hadn’t left a note if he had to leave. It wasn’t like him to stand me up without an explanation. I figured that he’d gone to the bathroom and would be right back. But why would he bother to turn off the light?
I tested the door. It was unlocked, so I went in. I turned on the light and immediately wished that I hadn’t. The room was a mess. It looked like Canal Street after the Endymion parade; the filing cabinet lay on its side and there was paper everywhere.
Then I saw Bill. He was slouched over the desk, his arms hanging limply over the side. The sickly-sweet aroma of freshly spilled blood was suddenly overwhelming. I started gagging when I saw that the back of his skull had been crushed. He wasn’t breathing but I had to be certain that he was dead. I was terrified but knew what I had to do; I’d become an old hand at murder scenes. I touched his hand. It was cold. I took his wrist and felt for a pulse.
Bill was dead.
I was too stunned to cry out. I decided not to touch anything else and ran upstairs to call the police. I was short of breath, coughing and sweating by the time I hit the hallway and collided with Susan Wright.
I started babbling incoherently, “Call…cops…something’s happened…terrible…Bill…blood…mess…” I began sobbing.
Susan gasped and pulled me close to her. “Bill Sutton?”
“Has he been attacked? Where?”
“Downstairs… Dicta office…awful,” I mumbled. I felt like I’d lost the ability to speak in complete sentences. I was numb too. This must be what it feels like to have a heart attack or a stroke, I thought. Then my mind went blank for a few seconds.
A small crowd had gathered. I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Maybe it was just my bad hearing; damaged by too many gigs with too many loud bands. Did someone say that I was the murderer? No, I thought, as Susan took me by the arm and guided me to the dean’s office.
While Susan called the police, I felt a hand on my shoulder. Someone was leading me into one of the offices. I looked up and realized that I was leaning on Jim Granger. He tried to smile reassuringly at me as I floated into his office. I was barely conscious of sitting down in front of his desk. I think that I passed out for a few minutes but I’m still not sure. Then he shook me, handed me a glass of water and I started to come around.
“Are you all right? Don’t speak. Save your strength, Sergeant Doucet is coming.” He patted my shoulder. “Relax, Nicholas.”
Since I knew that Camille would insist, I prepared myself emotionally to go back to Bill’s office. By the time the first wave of cops had arrived, I felt semi-human again. I obviously hadn’t had a heart attack or a stroke; it must have been shock. I knew one thing for sure, I’d never be quite the same person that I’d been before I opened that door. The old Nicholas was as dead as Bill Sutton and I’d be mourning both for some time.
When Camille showed up, I accompanied him, Granger and Sarah Mitchell to the basement. I felt like I was about to swallow my tongue as I stood at the threshold of the Dicta office. I turned to Camille. “You been in there yet?” I said.
He nodded. “Not as tidy as the others, is it? Looks like he put up a fight.” He was silent for a moment. Then he looked at me. “Detective Mitchell will take your statement.”
I felt a chill snaking up my spine and my hands began to shake. “You don’t suspect me, do you? You can’t,” I blurted out. “Bill said this morning he’d be gone until three and I was in class from two to almost four.”
Mitchell stuck her hands out, palms-up, like a traffic cop ordering me to stop. “Calm down, Mr. Pappas,” she said. “It’s departmental policy. We want to avoid any appearance of cronyism.”
Just my luck, I thought, in a department full of grifters, I have to be friends with an honest cop.
“I’ll need the names of anyone in your classes who can verify your presence,” she continued.
As I told her about finding the body, I saw Camille looking around the room. Jim Granger stood outside the door looking a million years old.
Camille poked his head out of the door and said: “Sarah, could you bring Dean Granger and Nicholas here.”
I was worried because he called me Nicholas instead of NP or Nick. But maybe he was just being professional in not using his nickname for me. Surely, he couldn’t believe that I was capable of murder, I thought.
Camille held an envelope in his hand like it was a bomb set to detonate in three minutes. “I just found another letter and I wanted y’all to hear it from me first and not on the boob tube.”
The envelope was addressed to “All Busybodies.” Camille opened it and read the letter aloud:
I am sorry that I was forced to execute Mr. Sutton. I bore him no animus, but his meddling sealed his fate.
I have no desire to further burden the police. Thus, I urge other busybodies to mind their own business.
Let his death serve as a warning. I am watching and I will be back.
“So, the motherfucker thinks he’s doing us a favor,” flashed Camille. He walked over to Mitchell and the two of them went back into the office. Granger and I walked farther up the cop-crowded hallway to get out of the way. We both studied the floor, reluctant to look each other in the eye.
Since I’d found the body, I knew that I was in for more questioning. I hoped that I wouldn’t have to go downtown; just thinking about being in a dank interrogation room with some stranger made me feel claustrophobic and sweaty.
Camille and Mitchell came out of the door. I felt my spine relax when he smiled at me. He walked over to Granger and said, “Can we use your office? We need to ask Mr. Pappas a few more questions.”
Granger eyed me grimly. “Of course,” he said. Then his frustration boiled over into rage. “I’ve had it! When will this goddamn thing ever end? When?” His face flushed beet red, first with anger and then with embarrassment. He apologized for losing his temper, then took us upstairs.
Camille thanked Granger for the use of the office, closed the door behind him and nodded to Mitchell. She was sitting behind Granger’s distressingly tidy desk. I sat facing her in the same chair that I’d passed out in earlier. Camille sat next to me armed with his pen and notebook.
Mitchell looked severe. “What did you and Mr. Sutton talk about this morning?”
I told them about my conversation with Bill, Ian and John about Guy Zeringue, the racist hate letters, and his scholarship. Camille leapt to his feet when I mentioned that Bill had said that he might confront Zeringue that afternoon.
“Let me get this straight.” Camille was excited. “Sutton had two pieces of damaging information about Zeringue. And if either became publicly known, papa Z’s chances for higher office go down the shitter. Beautiful! It’s the break we’ve been waiting for!”
He grinned at Mitchell who looked less elated than he was. He began pacing as he always did when he wanted to concentrate. “You said that Sutton wanted to print the scholarship story,” he said. “What about the hate letters?”
I shrugged and said nothing.
“Did he keep any of the letters in the office?”
“Yeah, the one I saw today. I think I saw Bill put it in the filing cabinet.”
Camille nodded. “Do you think Sutton might have written a memo or something about the hate letters?”
“Maybe. He also told Granger about Zeringue. So, it’s possible that Granger has a copy of anything Bill wrote.”
“Right now, I’m more interested in seeing what might be missing from Sutton’s office.” He asked me for the Dicta’s extension, then picked up the phone. “Now we know why there was shit scattered all over the place. Maybe Zeringue went in the office, killed Sutton, then tore the place apart.”
He dialed the phone. “I want you to search the office for any documents that mention the name Zeringue.” He spelled it. “And look for anything that contains racial slurs or mentions Kostecki or Maragall. Be sure to check the computer and disks.”
“Don’t forget that Zeringue wrote that anti-Sophia letter to the Dicta,” I said.
“I remember.” He looked at Mitchell. “What do you think?”
“Sounds promising, but we’ve gotten excited on this case before, so let’s not celebrate just yet,” she cautioned him.
“I know that, Sarah. But you’re not the one who’s getting his ass kicked by the fucking press.” Camille angrily kicked the leg of the chair he’d been sitting in. Then he looked embarrassed. “Sorry, I was out of line. You’re right but still…”
Mitchell leaned back in Granger’s chair and said, “And you’re right too. Zeringue has done one thing that shows he’s not all there, sending those hate letters to other law students.” She shook her head. “That’s either demented or dumb.”
Camille nodded and said, “You know, Zeringue’s habit of writing anonymous letters fits the killer’s pattern.”
“Exactly,” Mitchell said. “Here’s what we know about Zeringue so far: He’s the son of a wealthy lawyer/politician and he’s a white supremacist.”
“And his kind usually expresses their feelings of superiority by pissing on their so-called inferiors.” Camille looked at Mitchell and right through me.
It was fascinating to watch the two of them play off one another. They reminded me of a band that’s played together so long that they can jam and make it sound arranged. They were like the Grateful Dead with badges.
Mitchell stood up and sat on the desk. “And Zeringue had a motive to kill Sutton, whether or not he had anything to do with the other murders. It’s possible that Zeringue killed Sutton and wrote that letter trying to pin the murder on a serial killer who may or may not exist.”
It looked like I was off the hook, but I couldn’t share their enthusiasm because this potential break in the case cost my friend his life. I suddenly remembered that, in my fear and grief, I’d neglected to tell them about Bill’s last words to me.
“There’s one more thing,” I said. “It’s important.” They stopped to listen to me. “Bill asked me to come back later. Alone. Said he thought he’d figured out who the murderer was. I never got the chance to learn what, if anything, he had.”
Camille was stern. “Why didn’t you tell us that earlier?”
“You wouldn’t let me, you two were too busy riffing about Zeringue,” I said defensively.
“Did Sutton link his theory to Zeringue?” asked Mitchell.
“No, that was the weird thing,” I said, taking off my glasses to rest my weary eyes. “The rest of us were speculating whether or not Zeringue was involved in the murders. Bill just sat there quietly. That wasn’t like him at all. He used to be a newspaperman and he loved to speculate more than a dog likes riding in a car.”
“Why was that?” Camille said. “Do you think that Sutton suspected one of them? Did he have any reason to mistrust either of them?”
Maybe I was just tired, but I didn’t understand what he was driving at. “No,” I said. “I don’t think he suspected either Ian or John, if that’s what you mean. Ian was with me when the first two murders were discovered.”
“We’re aware of that,” barked Mitchell.
“I think that Bill wanted to keep his theory as closely held as possible,” I said. “It took Ian a while to believe that Zeringue was sending hate mail, so maybe Bill had Zeringue in mind. I don’t know. Can I go soon?” I asked, almost begging. I was tired of all the questions. I was sick of playing detective. I wanted to go home, drink myself to sleep and try to erase the image of Bill’s bloody head from my mind.
Camille smiled and sat down. “Yeah, in a second, but Sarah has a few more questions for you, NP.” I was relieved when he called me that. It confirmed that I was off the hook.
“Okay, Mr. Pappas,” said Mitchell. “Just a few loose ends. Do you know of anyone else, other than yourself, Carolan and Easter, who saw Sutton today in his office?”
I was exhausted, so I slipped and mentioned Charles’s name.
I could have kicked myself because Camille was immediately interested. I explained and ended by saying, “I discouraged Charles from dropping by because I knew Bill wanted to see me alone. I have no idea if Charles saw him.”
“Very interesting,” said Camille rubbing the cleft of his chin. “Didn’t McConkey and Sutton have some sort of falling out? That’s the word on the street.”
He seemed to be testing me again.
“That’s a lie,” I snapped. “Bet I can guess who told you that. Two names come to mind.”
Camille nodded. “You got it, Benjamin and Chavalas. I hear that McConkey wrote a piece for the Dicta that offended the minority students and that Sutton hung him out to dry.”
Charles had written an unsigned article, “The Cost of Freedom” that satirized the rise of David Duke. Both Charles and Bill had thought that people were sophisticated enough to understand that the piece was meant to be funny. They were mistaken.
“They’ve given you a story with a kernel of truth in it and then twisted it beyond recognition,” I said. “It died down when Charles explained and apologized if he’d hurt anyone’s feelings.” I stared at Camille as if a dirty look would somehow make him relent. “Look, I told you before that Charles is no murderer. And he didn’t kill Bill.”
Camille shrugged. “Never said he did. I just wanted to see how you’d react.”
He had been testing me; apparently, I’d passed.
He turned to Mitchell. “Somebody needs to talk to McConkey and find out if he saw Sutton,” he said. “Any more questions?”
“No, that’s it for now,” she said to my great relief.
I stood up to leave.
“Hold on, NP, I want to talk to you.” He looked at Mitchell. “Will you go down and check on the boys? I don’t know if any of those fools really knows how to work a Mac.”
Mitchell nodded and left the room. I heard Granger asking her when he could have his office back. She told him to be patient. I hoped that he’d get it back pronto.
“After today, you need to be extra careful about talking about the case.” Camille paused and pointed at me. “You’re the busybody the murderer had in mind, man. Playing amateur detective is okay in books, but it’s dangerous in real life.”
I was pitiful. “I know that, but haven’t I been helpful?”
Camille walked over to me. “Very helpful. But knowing too much could get you killed. We’re friends and I don’t have time to go to any funerals right now,” he said. “So, please keep your mouth shut. I know it’ll get around that you found the body but be skimpy with the details, especially with the fucking press.”
“No prob. I may like playing with fire, but I’m no pyromaniac. Especially after today.” My eyes misted up.
He looked away. I knew that he couldn’t get emotionally involved. Tragedy and grief were part of his job and he had to keep his distance or lose his mind.
The phone rang. “I wonder if that’s for me or that poor bastard Granger,” he said as he eyed the elaborate phone console, trying to figure out which button to punch. He hit the speaker button, so I heard Mitchell’s voice. “Camille,” she said, “somebody’s initialized Bill Sutton’s hard drive.”
“Say what?” he groaned. “Speak English please.”
“All the information’s been erased from his computer; it’s completely blank. And we can’t find any floppies at all.”
“Did y’all find any relevant papers?”
“Okay. I’ll be right down.” He looked pleased as he hung up and looked over at me. “I was hoping to hear that something was missing. Somebody wanted to destroy Sutton’s paper trail or make it look like they did.”
He stood up and started for the door. “Well, maybe Guy Zeringue is our man or maybe somebody wants us to believe that he is. But a Senator’s kid? Shit! Why can’t we ever have any poorly connected suspects on this case? It won’t be easy, but maybe we’ll nail his ass to the wall and make him bleed.”
When I heard him say that, I was afraid that I’d faint again. They were almost the same words that Bill had used about Zeringue, but it was Bill who had been crucified instead.
The bedroom was quiet except for the rhythmic sounds of purring cats on the bed and the ceiling fan whirring overhead. I was afraid to fall asleep because I dreaded dreaming about Bill’s bloody head. At least I wasn’t alone; Hope was there. I looked over at her and smiled at the tableau to my left. Cats surrounded her: Charlie, a massive ginger cat, and Manet, a sleek black cat, were stretched out on either side of her long legs. Q-Tip lay on me, purring and trying to persuade me to be happy too. It didn’t work.
Hope’s presence was comforting but she couldn’t protect me from my nightmares or the killer. The last letter had scared me; I had no desire to become the fourth victim.
Finally, I fitfully drifted off to sleep.
Later that morning, I woke up to the sound of cats demanding food. Even after the din had faded, I felt lousy. I’d slept at an awkward angle and my neck was stiff and hurt like hell. I was a mess.
Hope entered the room, smiling, with the newspaper tucked under her arm and carrying a cup of coffee. She’s a morning person and she’s awake as soon as her feet hit the floor. I envy her cheerful disposition. I’m usually cranky until I shower, eat, and drink a few liters of coffee.
“Did you sleep?” she asked, handing me the cup.
“Thanks,” I grunted. Then, I forced a smile and sipped some coffee. “Not much. I was afraid of nightmares.” Feeling pitiful, I rubbed my stiff neck. “I think I’m ready for a neck brace.”
She frowned. “Well, did you have any?”
“Any what?” I said groggily.
“Nightmares. You were restless.”
I thought about it. “No. And I’m surprised.”
She handed me the front page. A banner headline screamed: 3rd Victim Slain At Tulane Law. Underneath it was the text of the latest letter. I skimmed Zoltan Nagy’s story. It was the usual sensational rubbish but at least he spelled my name right. I guess it’s one of the few benefits of talking to the press.
After I put the paper down, Hope picked it up. “To all busy bodies. That means you.” She frowned and pointed at the front page. “Listen to Camille Doucet. Let the police catch the killer. It’s their job, not yours. I’m worried about you, babe.”
I sipped my coffee. “I know,” I said. “But I hate to back down because I’ve been threatened.”
“That’s stupid, Nicholas! This guy isn’t kidding around; he’s a murderer! I just hope the cops are taking these crazy letters seriously. This last one says that Bill was killed for being too nosy.” She smiled at me. “I don’t want to lose you.”
All the frustrations I felt about our relationship surfaced as a side effect of my grief. I blew up at her. “You don’t want to lose me? Do you really have me? Why won’t you break up with that guy up in Minnesota if you care so damn much? You’ve told me to be patient and I have been; too goddamn patient!”
Hope’s deep blue eyes flashed, but she controlled her temper better than I had mine. “I’ve told you before,” she said slowly. “Brad and I were together for two years; I can’t just call him and dump him.” She slid closer to me. “I didn’t plan to fall in love with you but you’re irresistible.”
She bit her lip and paused to think. “I’ll do something about it soon, but I’ve got to look him in the eye.” She looked down at the floor. “I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to break up.”
She started to cry. I felt awful for having been so nasty. She was in an awkward position. I put my arm around her and kissed her tear stained cheek. “I don’t want to break up,” I said. “Sorry for being so pissy. I’m not exactly at my best first thing in the morning, especially today.”
She nodded, then blew her nose. “I really shouldn’t complain about having a man who wants to make a commitment.”
She was right. For the first time in my life, I was ready to take the plunge. After all that I’d seen recently, intimacy no longer frightened me. I’d learned what real fear was all about.
She smiled and rubbed my neck. “I should just grab you and not look back, but please bear with me. I’m worth it, aren’t I?”
“I love you.” She leaned over and kissed me deeply on the mouth.
“Ditto,” I said as Q-Tip leapt on my lap and licked my stubbly chin with his sandpaper tongue. He was soon followed by his feline siblings. I laughed at the two cats settling onto Hope’s lap. “I have to wait for you,” I said. “These cats will never forgive me if I let you get away.”
For the next few minutes, I felt safe and loved, but then the phone rang. It was the sound of the real-world intruding. I let the answering machine pick up. It was Jack. He sounded worried. He wanted to meet for lunch on campus. After he hung up, I moaned: “Shit, I don’t want to go back there.”
Hope obviously wanted me to go. She was glaring at me like the hard-ass high school science teacher she used to be. Every time she gives me that look, I say that she’s shooting bolts of blue at me because it has the same effect on me as lightning; it makes me run for cover. She stood up, scattering cats in every direction. “I don’t want you sitting around brooding all day. Call him back,” she instructed.
“I guess so. But going back into that building will be hard after yesterday.” I swallowed hard and tried not to cry.
She sat down next to me and stroked my cheek. “If you want to graduate and put this behind you, you have no choice, babe. Please have lunch with Jack.”
“Yeah, but…” I said.
“No buts.” She was strict but then smiled. “Jack’s a great guy and you’ve told me that he’s good in a crisis. Well, this is a crisis and you need your friends and they need you.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“What else is new? I always am.” She handed me the phone. “Say hi to Jack for me.”
When I arrived on campus, I saw a satellite truck parked in front of Jones Hall, so I went directly to the UC. I was afraid that some nosy reporter would learn who I was and try to pry all the gory details of Bill’s murder out of me.
It was a beautiful day. We bought sandwiches and sat outside in the pocket park, which Jack maintained was named for Herbert Pocket from “Great Expectations.” There was a bench, near a fountain, that Jack and I called our outdoor office. It was our version of Hyde Park corner. The spot where we had some of our most spirited debates. That day we ate in silence. I didn’t know what to say; I didn’t want to break my promise to Camille and mention Guy Zeringue.
“Poor Bill,” Jack said. “A good man snuffed out like that. And for what? And you, Nicholas, it must have been horrible.”
I nodded and then said something that surprised even me. “You know, Jack. I’m starting to wonder if I’m right in opposing the death penalty in all circumstances.”
Jack leaned forward with interest. “Really?”
“Part of me wants to see the bastard that killed Bill executed.”
“Well, Nicholas, as much as I hate to say this-since you’ve seen the light-you ought to let the dust settle before you change your mind. The thing I respect most about you is that you’re not a knee-jerk liberal. You think things through, then come to the wrong conclusion.” He grinned, then leaned closer to me. “Do you think that the killer meant you when he threatened busy bodies?”
I nodded. “And I intend to keep my distance from now on. I refuse to be the next victim.”
“Good,” he said with a smile. “That’s a relief. I’ve been concerned about your safety. Did Doucet advise you to back off?”
He stretched out his legs and slid down on the bench. “But I hope that you’ll continue passing information on to Doucet. He needs all the help he can get.”
“I’ll help if I can. But from now on, I stick my neck out for nobody,” I said, not realizing the exact language that I’d used.
“Been watching “Casablanca” again, I see? Two can play that game. I trust you because you despise me.”
Hope had been right; seeing Jack had made me feel better. “Let me guess,” I said, laughing. “You have some information?”
“Well,” he said, “I know of someone who had a good reason to hate Bill and possibly even wish him dead.”
“Who?” I wondered if Ian had told him about Zeringue.
“Why your fellow traveler, Professor Steve Cohn, of course.”
Steve Cohn ran Tulane’s Civil Rights clinic and had litigated many controversial cases. Bill had been one of Cohn’s clinical students and had respected but disliked him.
I shrugged it off. “I know that Bill didn’t like Cohn, but who does? He’s an arrogant asshole.”
“Agreed.” He lowered his voice and looked around. “But there’s more to it than that.”
“I have it on good authority that Bill and Cohn’s wife Lydia were having an affair.”
“Good authority? What does that mean? Amalia? Charles?”
He put his index finger to his thin lips. “Please keep your voice down. No, not the gossip twins.”
I pressed him, “Who is it then?”
“I can’t tell you, all I can say is that she and Lydia Cohn are old friends.”
“Well, I understand that the affair went on for quite some time. Now, Cohn is as faithful as a feral tomcat but expects his wife to be chaste. Apparently, when he found out about it, he was furious. You really didn’t know?”
I shook my head. “But I’m not surprised. A few months back, I asked Bill how his love life was. He got nervous and told me he was seeing somebody but had to be discreet. Sounded like a code word for sleeping with a married woman to me.”
“And she is. And to a law professor.” Jack was triumphant.
“Do you think there’s a connection between Cohn and the other murders?”
“Here’s my theory. The murders are unrelated and connected only by those letters. The one found on Sophia’s body was intended to make us believe that a homicidal lunatic is among us. Then, similar letters appeared at the second and third murder scenes. But think of how well executed, pardon the pun, and well planned the murders all were. Does it look like the work of a madman, or woman, to you?”
I shook my head. “So, you think there are multiple copycats instead of one multiple murderer?”
“Precisely. There isn’t a suspect with a compelling motive in all three murders, with the possible exception of Luz Maragall.”
I nodded and leaned over to pick up my soda.
He tapped me on the shoulder. “Watch out. Here come sweet and sour; or as Charles might call them, hot and spicy.”
“What the hell are you talking about? Chinese food?” Before he had a chance to answer, I saw Diana and Amalia headed our way.
“Nicholas, darling, how are you? I was very worried about you,” said Amalia, with either absolute sincerity or insincerity; with her I could never tell. She sat down next to me, put her head on my shoulder and squeezed my knee. I was not pleased and slid away from her. It was the first time that I’d seen her since I learned about the lies she’d told the cops about Charles. I intended to call her on it, but I knew that she’d somehow wiggle out of it the way she always did. I didn’t trust Amalia, but I couldn’t help liking her. I’m getting soft.
Jack repeated the story of the Sutton-Cohn triangle. Then Amalia hit the stage. I could tell that she was about to trash someone because of the malicious smile on her face.
“I’ve heard some juicy gossip about Cohn and Salvador Maragall.” Amalia paused to take in the looks on our faces.
Diana was losing patience. “Get to the point Amalia,” she said sharply. “Some of us are mourning the loss of a friend.”
Amalia’s face fell. “Sorry,” she said. “Anyway, it happened five years ago in Barcelona. One night at a party Cohn was very drunk and even more obnoxious than usual. First of all, he threw up all over poor Justice Battaglia.” Lorenzo Battaglia was the U.S. Supreme Court’s most conservative member. He was an old friend of Maragall’s and had taught at Barcelona that summer.
Amalia slid over close to me once again, but this time I had nowhere to retreat. She continued, “And that wasn’t even Cohn’s biggest faux pas. He kept hitting on an LSU law student who turned out to be the daughter of a federal judge. The next day she complained to Maragall.”
The rest of us laughed like deranged hyenas. “Great story,” I said, wiping the tears from my eyes. “But who’s your source?”
“Bouillon’s secretary, Margaret. She used to work for Cohn.”
“Did anything happen to Cohn?”
“Nothing. It was never reported to the Dean,” Amalia said. “Margaret believes that Maragall reprimanded Cohn and then used the incident to keep him in his pocket.”
“That’s interesting,” I said. “Louis Bonseigneur’s stock joke is that faculty politics are dominated by the Maragall-Cohn axis.”
“Perhaps it’s not just a joke.” Jack was excited. “This only strengthens my suspicions of Cohn. It seems that Maragall was blackmailing the great liberal.”
Diana had remained silent. Amalia looked over at her and said: “Shall we tell them?”
“There’s another thing that connects Cohn to the victims.” Amalia glowered at me. “Since Nicholas thinks I’m biased against Sophia…”
“I don’t think, I know,” I said harshly.
“Please tell them, Diana.”
Diana nervously twirled several long strands of blonde hair. “Sophia had a brief affair with Steve Cohn,” she said softly.
“Really?” I sputtered. “I never heard a thing about it and she was always talking about seducing professors.”
Amalia smiled. “You surprise me, Nicholas. You often said that Sophia’s sex talk was locker room bravado. It was. She only talked about people that she didn’t fuck,” she explained. “You never heard her boast about laying Maragall, did you? Not that was anything to brag about, mind you. Her liaison with Cohn was equally unpleasant in its own way.”
Jack had a huge smile pasted on his face. “How so?” “Cohn’s one of those men who hate women except when fucking them. Not like some others I could name.” Amalia groped my thigh.
“But why would Cohn kill Sophia two years later?” I asked.
“I doubt that he did,” Diana said softly. “But their fling was a humiliating fiasco for both of them. Sophia told me that they did it one night in his office, of all places.”
A cackling Amalia interrupted, “He stuck it in, came in ninety seconds and told her to leave so he could get back to work. She told him he was a shitty lover with the smallest dick she’d ever seen. In my experience, men don’t care for that.”
She leered at Jack, who blushed. Amalia enjoyed shocking Jack and bringing out the preacher’s kid in him.
Jack, recovering his aplomb, shrugged. “That’s a motive for murder?”
“It would be in Greece, eh, Niko-mou,” said Amalia.
Jack stood up, excused himself and left Diana and me at Amalia’s mercy. I was fed up with the way she was playing up to me. It made me suspicious. “Why did you tell the cops that Charles and Bill had a falling out?” I demanded. “What did that have to do with Sophia’s murder?”
Diana looked at her, visibly distressed. Amalia shook her long bushy curls in denial. “I did no such thing,” she said. “They asked if Charles had any enemies. I told them that he’d made some because of that unfunny so-called satire of his. That’s all.”
I looked over at Diana. Her face was suddenly pale. I turned my head and saw Charles standing five feet away. He’d obviously heard us talking about him. He was angry; if he were a cartoon character, steam would have shot out of his ears.
“You did what, Amalia?” he yelled. “Liar!”
Hoping to disarm Charles, Amalia leapt up and hugged him. “I said nothing meant to hurt you.”
He was not appeased and pushed her away.
Suddenly, I realized that Amalia might be telling the truth for a change. Truth was sometimes stranger even than her fictions. “Charles, it could be true,” I said, placing my hand on his shoulder. “She wasn’t the only one who told them about that flap; Bob Benjamin did too. Maybe he made up the story.”
Charles shot me a dirty look. “I don’t believe that for a second, Bob’s been my friend since the first day of law school.”
I thought that Charles’s trust in Bob was hopelessly misplaced, but Charles was fiercely loyal to all of his friends; both real and perceived.
Charles continued, “But it is true that people will say almost anything under interrogation, so maybe something slipped out. It might have been a misunderstanding.”
“You’re so right, darling,” said Amalia. “It’s unnerving to be suspected of murder and I’m afraid that I may have babbled.”
Amalia had changed. Like the Temptations, she now wasn’t too proud to beg. But Charles was still annoyed with her. “What do you mean the piece wasn’t funny?” he said.
“Well…uh, it must be that the nuances of a clever written satire are lost on a non-native speaker like me,” she improvised.
Even though he knew that Amalia was a playwright wannabe, he bought it. I was now sure that Amalia could peddle elocution lessons to a mute. Her gift for lying would serve her well if she ever wanted to be a lawyer for a tobacco company.
Amalia looked mildly chastened by this close call. She stood up to stretch her legs. “Are you still coming to my Mardi Gras party in spite of everything?” she asked us.
Diana grimaced. “Actually, Tom and I were talking about it this morning. I hope this doesn’t sound shallow,” she said, looking at me. “But we’ll probably be there.”
“Me too,” Charles said.
“Good,” Amalia said. Then she looked at me and smiled. “What about you and Hope, Nicholas?”
I didn’t know what to say. Mardi Gras had been the farthest thing from my mind. “I don’t exactly have the Carnival spirit right now,” I said.
Amalia sat down next to me again. “I want you to come. This may sound insensitive, but life must go on.” She stroked my hand. “Don’t let this defeat you.”
“Thanks, Amalia. That’s very sweet,” I said in a voice choked with emotion. This reminded me why I always forgave her. In between digs she cared about me. In her way.
A faint smile crossed Diana’s lips. “Nicholas, we need to stick together,” she said. “We can’t just hide until they catch this psycho. Come to the party. I’m sure Hope will agree with me.”
I laughed softly. “You two agree about everything.” I looked into Amalia’s huge brown eyes. “Maybe we’ll come. But I don’t know if I’m up to wearing a costume. The only one that would fit my mood would be the Grim Reaper; everything I touch seems to die.”
Charles, who had been uncharacteristically quiet, said: “That reminds me of something. Death wouldn’t be an unusual costume in Mexico on the Day of the Dead. We could look at this Mardi Gras that way, mourning through celebration.”
“And don’t forget that Mardi Gras is a religious holiday,” added Diana. “It’s not supposed to be about public drunkenness and flashing; it’s the last celebration before Lent. The memorial service can’t be held until Thursday because of Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday. Let’s think of Tuesday as Bill’s wake.”
“Also, Bill loved Carnival,” Charles said in a shaky voice laced with emotion. “Told me just the other day about the costume he planned to wear. It’s such a weird coincidence…”
“Charles, what’s wrong? I don’t understand,” Amalia said. “What was the costume?”
Charles bit his lower lip and chewed on his mustache before speaking. “Well, you know Bill, he had a pretty black sense of humor.”
“Don’t forget,” I said, “he always called sick and twisted jokes white humor.
“I remember. Anyway, Bill got his hands on a barrister’s wig and robes and planned to dress up as a British judge. He was going to tie a black scarf to the top of his wig…”
“In other words,” Diana said, “He was going to be a hanging judge on Mardi Gras but…”
“…instead he was executed himself.”
©2020 by Peter Athas
The next installment will be posted on Wednesday. See you then.