Project Novel: Tongue In The Mail, Chapters 10 & 11

In this installment, Spring has sprung; it’s time for finals and Jazz Fest. Nicholas and Ian drink beer with bigoted prime suspect Guy Zeringue and another attack occurs. There’s an insulting letter from the killer addressed to Sergeant Doucet. There’s always a letter and it’s always insulting.

A reminder that you can read earlier chapters by clicking on this category/link thingamabob, Project Novel:TITM.

One song that’s name checked as the chapters progress is this progressive rock classic:

Our story resumes after the break.

CHAPTER 10

The two weeks since I found Bill’s body had gone by quickly. I went through the motions on Mardi Gras, but Bill’s murder and the death threat against other “busybodies,” were rarely out of my mind. During the Rex parade on Fat Tuesday, I was convinced that someone was trying to stab me in the back. But it was only Hope leaning on me, trying to avoid some obnoxious teenagers who kept slamming into us as they leapt for beads and cups.

I was in bad shape. I was told that Bill’s memorial service was a gut-wrenching experience, but I don’t remember it. My body was there but my mind was in another time zone. I had such horrible nightmares that I barely slept for a week. Whenever I dozed off, I was stalked by the image of Bill’s bloody head and the sound of his voice repeating his last words to me: “I think I may have figured out who killed Sophia and Maragall. I just don’t know why.” In my nightmares, Bill sounded like a Delta bluesman, Howlin’ Wolf, perhaps, his scratchy voice asking: “Why, why, why,” from the grave.

Sometimes I dreamt about both Bill and Sophia. Once I saw a headless Sophia walking through Jones Hall with Bill’s head tucked under her arm. Another time, I found them together in my bed spooning, their blood mingling on the sheets. Like many of my dreams, these nightmares had a musical soundtrack. They all started out the same; a bass guitar plucking out ten ominous notes, followed by thunderous percussion. It took a while for my awake self to recognize it as the opening to “One More Red Nightmare” by King Crimson from the album, “Red.” How appropriate.

After an insomniac week, I finally started sleeping a few hours a night, thanks to Hope who had moved in with me. She was worried about what might happen if I were left alone too much. I was glad for the company but assured her that I was too squeamish to commit suicide. Slowly, the shock began to wear off and the survival instinct took over. I knew that, to survive with my wits intact, I had to finish law school, take the bar exam, and then get out of that cursed building and never look back.

I’d kept my promise to both Hope and Camille and stayed away from the investigation. I told Camille about Bill’s problems with Steve Cohn and that was it. Period. I had no intention of making it a foursome of victims; this was murder, not a bridge game, and I was no dummy. All I knew was that Guy Zeringue had become the focus of the investigation; I didn’t want to know more.

I figured that if there wasn’t a break in the case soon that somebody would leak the story of Zeringue’s hate mail campaign to the press, but it wouldn’t be Camille. It was no secret that race relations in New Orleans, never good, had been strained to the breaking point by the Duke-Edwards governor’s race. And Camille had the good sense to know how inflammatory charging a white supremacist with the murder of a black man would be. I hoped that others in authority would be equally restrained, but I had my doubts; the allure of publicity was too powerful for some of them.

I was lounging outside Jones Hall with Ian, gloomily discussing the effect of the murders on the value of our law degrees.

“When I was interviewing in LA everybody asked me if I was a suspect,” Ian complained. “That’s why I figured I better stay here. Our diplomas will be as valuable as Confederate money if this doesn’t stop soon. They ought to give us a 50% refund for this year.”

“Fat chance. Randy Newman,” I said.

Ian smiled and nodded. “You are correct, sir. “It’s Money That Matters.”

“The law school needs money for the new building, and I hear that donations are drying up.”

Ian, as if he were still a sailor swabbing the deck of an aircraft carrier, slipped off his shirt to soak up a few rays. He was a sun worshipper and law school had been tough on his tan. Spending too much time in the law library gives even healthy people like Ian a cadaverous pallor.

“How are the wedding plans coming? I can’t believe you’ve met somebody who’s not crazy.”

“Well, she’s crazy enough to want me.”

Ian had amused us for years with his romantic misadventures, but he’d recently spoiled our fun by getting engaged to a 2L named Tracy Evans. I was just about to torment Ian about one of his weirdo ex-girlfriends, when I looked up and saw Guy Zeringue headed our way. I nudged Ian, who frowned at Zeringue. Ian had been avoiding Zeringue, fobbing him off with weak excuses.

Zeringue lowered his voice, “Can we talk somewhere privately? I need to send the cops a message and you’re the man for the job.”

“Why me?” I said, disingenuously.

“You know why. Maybe you’ll believe the truth.”

“Well…” I hesitated. I was willing to talk to Zeringue but only in a public place and not alone.

“Tell you what, why don’t we go somewhere and grab a brewski? I’ll buy. Pick the spot.”

I put my hand on Ian’s shoulder. “Want to come, Ian?”

“Sure, I’d like to hear what Guy has to say too. If you don’t mind,” Ian asked Zeringue, who nodded his approval.

“How about the Maple Leaf?” I suggested. “It’s usually pretty deserted at this time of day. You know the place?”

Zeringue grinned. “I know most of the bars Uptown, dude.”

“Good. We’ll meet you there.”

“Cool.”

As Ian and I drove down Oak Street, in between swerving to avoid potholes, we talked about Zeringue and what he was up to.

“Thanks for coming along as back-up, man,” I said. “I’m curious to hear what he’s got to say, but I don’t want to get killed as the price of admission.”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Ian said. “Doubt there’s anything to worry about. Guy may be a racist shitheel, but he’s no killer; the man’s all lip and no fist.”

“But what about his reputation as a barroom brawler?”

“Reputation, shit. Brawling and winning are two different things.”

“You learn that in the Navy?”

“No, from the Village People. Look, Guy’s a wuss and a shit disturber, not a hard guy. Lemme put it this way, he’s the kind who starts a fight and then slides out of there on his ass.”

I pulled up in front of the Maple Leaf on Oak Street. It’s a quiet spot during the day, but the rowdy home to R & B and Zydeco bands late at night. I like the Leaf, it’s my kind of place; it doesn’t sprout ferns and become a Yuppie hangout after dark.

Zeringue had beaten us there. He was sitting at the bar, staring at a glass of beer and tapping a cigarette. He licked his lips and asked us what we wanted to drink. After ordering a pitcher of Abita beer, we walked into the back room.

We sat down at a table in a far corner as if we were characters in a spy novel, but none of us looked or felt particularly Smiley that day. With his bloodshot dark eyes, swarthy complexion and three day’s growth of black stubble, Zeringue looked more like Yasir Arafat than an Aryan.

For a man who said he was eager to talk, Zeringue seemed to be in no hurry. Ian was the one who got the ball rolling. “So, what’s up, Guy?”

Zeringue didn’t say anything at first. He lit another cigarette, tilted his head upward and blew smoke into the air.

The smoke around his head was so thick that I felt like I was trapped in a movie from the Forties. Finally, Zeringue stopped looking at the ceiling and looked me in the eye. “Got a message for the cops,” he said.

I was annoyed with Zeringue announcing that he had a message and then never delivering it. I had better things to do with my day, like washing the smell of smoke out of my hair. “What is it? I haven’t got all day,” I snapped, forgetting that I was talking to a suspected murderer who was also buying the beer.

Zeringue’s eyes bugged out so far that they nearly touched his glasses. “Shut the fuck up and listen, Pappas! I don’t have to take shit from you or anybody else.” He leaned across the table.

“You threatening me?” I demanded. I glanced at Ian, who was shaking his head slowly, warning me to calm down.

To my surprise, Zeringue put his hands up in a defensive gesture, like a boxer throwing in the towel. “That’s just it,” he said. “I’m not threatening anybody. I’m the one being threatened; especially by that big, black motherfucker, Doucet. Here’s my message for him, I didn’t kill Bill Sutton or anybody else.”

I looked at Ian and wondered if he was thinking the same thing that I was. How could we confront Zeringue without choking on Camille’s gag order? It could be dangerous if Zeringue knew that we were on to his ugly little secret.

“Persecuted?” Ian scoffed. “You’re not being persecuted. The cops don’t investigate people for murder without any reason.”

“Oh yeah? Well, they are right now,” said Zeringue.

Ian stopped to think. “You know, Guy,” he said. “I remember you bitching all semester in Eleanor Hill’s Criminal Procedure class that she was too liberal. Back then, you said that innocent people had nothing to fear from the police. Changed your mind, huh?”

“You got no right to compare me to ‘Let ’em Loose’ Eleanor,” bristled Zeringue. “Yeah, I said that, but I was talking about a different class of cop.”

“White cops, Guy?” I said.

Zeringue said nothing; he just chugged a whole glass of beer and burped loudly.

“At the very least, the cops have to think that you had a motive or opportunity,” said Ian. “What are they saying?”

Zeringue paused to look us over. To my surprise, he told part of the truth. “Well, Sutton found out I got a legislative scholarship to Tulane with my dad’s help. It’s legal but it’s something that people will twist to make Dad look bad. And Sutton planned to write a story about it.”

“How did you find that out?” I asked.

“I talked to Sutton on the day he died,” admitted Zeringue. “I asked him not to write the story. Nobody cares; everybody does it. Shit, this is a state where the Governor and half the legislature are on the take.”

“So, the ends justify the means, right?” I said, wincing at the need to use a cliché. I felt like a journalist.

“I wouldn’t have killed him over that. My dad’s reputation would have survived that story.”

But not, I thought, the story that his little boy was a neo-Nazi who wrote threatening letters. I looked at Ian; I needed to talk to him alone. I wondered if we should call Zeringue’s bluff and tell him that we knew about his career as a character assassin, but I decided not to. But Ian was bolder than I was. He also didn’t think that Zeringue was a murderer.

Ian poured Zeringue a glass of beer. “Guy, there are rumors that some asshole sent threatening letters to some of the black law students. Now, some people say that those letters were connected to Bill’s murder. Heard anything about that?”

Zeringue looked at me as if I was a candidate for lynching. “I’ve heard that,” he mumbled.

“Think there’s anything to it?” prodded Ian.

Zeringue became enraged and slammed his fist down on the table. “I thought you were my friend, Ian! But you’ve turned on me too.” He stopped to take a drag then, sounding more despairing than angry he continued: “My life’s going down the toilet! They’re gonna throw me out of law school and the cops wanna fry my ass.”

“Why do you think you’re going to be expelled?” I said.     “Because there were some letters and some people claim that I had something to do with it,” said Zeringue, waving the pitcher at a waitress to order a refill.

“Like who?”

“Well, that nigger pig, Doucet, for one. They’re persecuting me because I’m a conservative and the fucking niggers run this city. Sure, I voted for David Duke. So what? That’s not a crime.”

“What does writing hate letters have to do with supporting a candidate? That’s stupid,” I said.

“I know, I know. It’s just that when I get drunk, I do stupid shit, right Ian?”

Ian nodded.

“I resent watching these blacks get a free ride,” Zeringue continued bitterly. “They get tutored and pampered and quotaed in. They don’t belong, they haven’t got the brains.”

It was disgusting to hear someone from such a privileged background whining about how pampered anyone else was. I interrupted Zeringue’s harangue with one of my own. “Just a goddamn minute!” I said. “You’re not telling the whole truth. I think your father gave you that scholarship to Tulane; he didn’t just arrange it. If anyone is getting a free ride it’s you. The only free ride the black students ever got was when their ancestors were brought over on slave ships.”

Zeringue stood up and hissed at me, “You cocksucking liberals! You’re all the same!”

Baiting Zeringue seemed to have worked too well; I should have been alarmed but I’d lost my temper too. “Hey man, if you’re trying to convince me that you’re not a murderer you’re doing a piss poor job,” I said testily.

Ian got up and put his hand on Zeringue’s arm. “Chill out, Guy. This racist bullshit is what got you into this mess. Lighten up,” he said, looking first at Zeringue and then at me.

The conversation stopped for a minute as the waitress brought another pitcher and got out of there faster than an ambulance chaser heading for a plane crash site. Ian poured another round and Zeringue fired up another coffin nail. The combination of nicotine and alcohol seemed to calm him down and he tried to explain himself. “Look, I don’t like blacks. Shit, I’m not the only one, I’m just more honest about it. But that doesn’t make me a murderer.” He looked at me. “I want you to tell Doucet that I’m innocent. But I’ll tell him you’re a liar if you say that I admitted writing those letters. I never wrote any letters and if you say I did it’ll be hearsay. No judge will ever let it in.”

“If you’re charged, your statement would be let in as an admission against interest; an exception to the Hearsay rule.”

“Fuck you, asshole. It’s your word against mine.” Zeringue looked at Ian, hoping for sympathy. “They’re trying to pin the murders on me. Can you believe that, Ian?”

Ian shrugged and said, “How do they connect you to Sophia and Salvador Maragall?”

“It’s a load of horseshit,” whined Zeringue. “Do you think I’d kill Sophia just because she was an embarrassment? Why would I kill Maragall? Sure, he was a dickhead. Did you like him, Pappas?”

I shook my head.

Zeringue grinned. “I didn’t think so. So Maragall gave me a C? Big fucking deal! That’s a motive for murder? Tell Doucet this, Pappas: I’m not going let the goddamn niggers lynch me.”

“Why should I help you? I’m not your errand boy,” I said. “I don’t know if you did it and, frankly, I don’t give a shit.”

Zeringue got up slowly. He threw a twenty dollar bill on the table, flipped me off and left.

I looked at Ian and said, “What do you think?”

Ian raised an eyebrow and smiled. “That you’d better hope he’s not the killer. You lost your cool, man.”

“I know; couldn’t help it.” I felt stupid. “I guess hatred brings out the hater in me.”

Ian frowned and poured another round. “You saw him just now,” he said. “Do you really think Guy could sit down at a computer and write a coherent letter after killing a man?”

“I don’t know,” I said softly. “Maybe he wrote it earlier and left it there after killing Bill. But I gotta admit the man’s temper is even worse than mine.”

Ian whistled. “And that’s pretty damn bad. You just saw it; Guy’s totally irrational when he’s angry. And the man’s a drunk.”

“I noticed.”

“Do you really think he’s crafty enough to have gotten away with three murders?”

“Maybe, maybe not,” I said shaking my head. “Maybe Zeringue killed Bill in a fit of rage and didn’t kill anyone else. You didn’t see Bill’s office. It looked like a monster had been there.”

“Talking Heads,” said a smiling Ian.

“Psycho Killer.”

“Qu’est que c’est.”

“Ted Bundy was a law student.”

Ian shrugged and sipped his beer. “Well, Guy gives me the creeps, but it’s hard to see him as our Bundy.”

 

CHAPTER 11

April 23, 1992

I could tell that it was going to be a long and sticky summer because it was already like a sauna outside. I hate running my air conditioner when it’s supposedly still spring, so I headed to the law library to let Tulane pay for my comfort. I saw it as a small tuition rebate.

It was quiet in the law library, but it was just the phony war before the blitzkrieg of finals. The library was nicknamed the submarine because it squeezed seven levels into a three-story building. I was there to finish researching my paper on Louisiana’s old anti-miscegenation laws for Louis’s Legal History Seminar.

I used Diana’s carrel on the third level as my base. I sat there for a while and stared at a slightly mildewed Louisiana Reporter from 1910. It was the heyday of the Jim Crow laws; a time that Guy Zeringue and David Duke probably think of as the good old days. In one case, the Louisiana Supreme Court had used some popular stereotypes to label people of color: Negro, mulatto, colored, quadroon, octoroon and-one that I’d never heard before- grif. According to the Court, a grif was too black to be a mulatto and too pale to be a Negro. Strange. Why waste time giving legal status to folklore? White supremacy was based on the one drop rule: anyone with one drop of black blood was inferior.

All the reading that I’d done for my paper had reinforced my belief that both racial and ethnic purity are myths. I laughed whenever I thought of my father bragging about how the Pappases were “pure Greek” until I came around. I guess you could say that I’m the grif of the family; my mother is Norwegian.

In the middle of my daydream, I felt two hands covering my eyes. Then, I heard a gruff voice, which sounded like a woman imitating a football coach. “What the hell you doin’, Pappas?” the voice barked. “Get your ass outta here!”

When I peeled the hands off my eyes, I saw Susan and Diana grinning at me. “Very funny,” I growled. “Aren’t you too mature to play peek-a-boo, Diana?”

“Never. Still living in the past, I see,” Diana said.

“Jethro Tull… Yeah, just like Susan. Except in my case, it’s the 19th Century and not the 1960’s.”

“Nothing wrong with that,” said a grinning Susan. “Those were heady days.”
Diana nudged her. “Heady? I’ve heard that sums you up back in college. I’m surprised you remember anything at all about the Sixties.”

“Sure. I admit it, I was a stoned-out hippie freak for a while. But I had to grow up when I went from being someone’s child to someone’s mama.”

Diana frowned and said: “Some of the jerks around here need to do some growing up of their own. Nicholas, have you heard what happened in Patel’s Intellectual Property class? There was some vandalism.”

“Vandalism?” I said.

Susan said, “Patel gave us a take-home final. He even put some of his own books on reserve at the library to help us out.”

“That’s nice. He’s a good man.”

Susan nodded. “That’s why this is so disgusting. Some jackass cut twenty pages out of one of his books,” she said, making a slicing motion with her hand. “Nobody knows who did it.”

“The day Patel told us, he was so upset that I thought he was going to cry,” Diana added.

Susan said, “It’s the sort of vicious nonsense that can turn even the nicest professors into Rydingswords and Cohns.” She looked at her watch; she was so disciplined that even her goofing-off time seemed to be scheduled. “Time to get back to work. Got to go upstairs and hit the shelves.”

“I’ll come with you. I need to put this volume back. Up periscope,” I said, trying to sound properly nautical. I’m afraid that I sounded more like Wolfman Jack than Wolf Larsen.

Diana rolled her eyes. “I’m off to copy some old exams.”

When Susan and I hit the landing at the fifth level, Ian was coming out of the Maritime Law Journal’s office. A ship’s wheel hung on the door, below it, Ian, who was the journal’s editor, had posted a quotation from Winston Churchill describing the traditions of the Royal Navy: ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash.’

“Ian, what’s shaking?” I said.

“The 1L’s knees,” said a grinning Ian. “You guys feel like procrastinating for a few minutes?”

To my surprise, Susan said, “Sure. Why not?”

“Either of you going to the Fairgrounds tomorrow?” he said. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival opened the next day. Jazz Fest had always coincided with finals and I hadn’t gone as much as I’d wanted to, but I still went. Music remained my passion; the law was just a practical expedient.

“Finals are too close,” said Susan, shaking her head, “and I’m too paranoid to have any fun right now.”

“You can’t seriously still be worried about your grades, Susan,” said Ian with a raised eyebrow. “You got it made in the shade; clerking for the Louisiana Supremes and then raking in the big bucks with Rock, Hogg and Bright.”

“I just can’t help it. Guess I’m obsessively compulsive.”

Ian laughed. “It’s going to be a good show. The Subdudes are playing and those boys are lively, not subdued in concert.”

“Oh, what the hell,” I said, “I’m in good shape for exams. Count me in.”

Talking about Jazz Fest made me nostalgic for my own rock and roll days with Tango Uniform. The name was my idea. I was really into Dada art back then and I loved the absurdity of the name. We didn’t play tangos and we certainly never wore uniforms. I missed standing on stage on a good night, when the band was tight, and the crowd was into it. I missed the feel of my bass slung over my shoulder, sticking to me; a part of me. That time on stage often made the shitty money that goes along with being a musician seem worthwhile. But that was all behind me now. I didn’t even own an axe anymore. My vintage Fender bass had been swiped from my apartment in San Francisco a few years back.

Susan’s voice broke the spell. “Earth to Nicholas. Spacing out again, huh.”

I nodded.

“I wish I could go with you guys,” she said.

Ian suddenly jumped. “What was that?” he said.

I heard it too: it was a crash. At first, I thought that it was something innocuous, like books falling down the stairs. Then, I heard a groan and the loud footsteps of someone running away. Susan walked over to the stairwell and peered out. As she turned around to look at us, I saw that her face was whiter than feta. She looked at her watch, then motioned to us with trembling hands. My heart started beating like a drum machine: hard, fast, and steady.

Sprawled across the stairs, face down, was Professor Steve Cohn. Blood flowed from a crack in the back of his head. I assumed that he was dead, but then I heard groaning. He was alive.

Ian gagged and turned several shades of green unknown to even Crayola. I shook him and said, “Quick! Let’s go into the office and call 911.”

Ian hesitated for a second, so I walked him to the door. He handed me his key and I unlocked the door. As I made the call, I heard him vomiting in the next room. So much for going to Jazz Fest tomorrow, I thought. I made sure that he was all right, told him to stay put and went back into the hallway. I felt like the seasoned Sarge in a World War II movie, trying to soothe a green recruit’s nerves. Very green.

Somebody had moved Cohn onto the landing. Susan had his head cradled in her lap and was wrapping a handkerchief around his wound, trying to stop the bleeding. I looked at my watch and wondered what was taking the ambulance so damn long. Would he bleed to death before they arrived? I got nervous when I heard rain pounding on the roof. This town sits below sea level; it’s like a crescent-shaped saucer and sometimes it overflows. I hoped that the ambulance wasn’t stuck in a flash flood.

I checked the stairs and saw it; a tattered envelope in a zip-lock bag left behind by Cohn’s attacker. It was bent and looked like the killer had been carrying it around. Maybe there would be fingerprints on it this time despite the baggie, I thought. I wondered why “sentence” had been passed on Cohn. I knew that we’d find out soon enough; if not that evening, then the next morning on the front page or the Today Show.

I heard an awful gurgling sound. I turned and saw Susan performing CPR on Cohn. Then I felt Diana’s hand on my shoulder. Right behind her were some EMTs who relieved Susan. One of them slipped an oxygen mask onto Cohn’s face. They picked him up and laid him on a stretcher. He was still hanging on; Susan had saved him. But would Cohn ever regain consciousness and identify his assailant? Would he have any memory left? Any brain left?

When the University Police showed up, I realized that I didn’t feel anything at all. It wasn’t just because I disliked Cohn; I’d never cared for Maragall either but seeing his body had made me sick to my stomach. I guess it was because I’d seen too much death at that point to be upset at all. This must be what it’s like to be an ER doctor, I thought, when you’ve seen enough death it loses its capacity to shock you.

Diana, Susan, and I moved out of the way and joined Ian, who was sitting on the floor outside the Maritime Journal office. I heard more footsteps, looked up and saw Camille, Sarah Mitchell, and Jim Granger. Granger looked like he’d been summoned from a fundraiser; he was wearing a monkey suit and an exasperated expression.

I stood up and walked out to the landing and watched Camille bound up the stairs, two at a time, lean over and pick up the envelope. He turned around and frowned when he saw me. “Not again, NP,” he said as he walked back down the stairs. “Did you find him?

“Yeah.”

“Alone?”

“No, no, no. I was with some friends. Is that?”

Camille held out the baggie and nodded. “An envelope addressed to me.” He turned to Granger. “Is there an office in the library that we can use?”

Ian answered instead. “The Maritime Law Journal office. Right here,” he said, offering the key to Camille.

“Thanks.” Camille looked around for Mitchell. When he saw her, he raised his voice and said: “Sarah, clear the area of gawkers. I’ll talk to the folks who found the victim.” Then he looked at us and pointed to the door. “Shall we?”

Diana relinquished her grasp on Susan’s arm and the rest of us followed Camille into the office. Camille sat down at a desk in the outer office. “I might as well question y’all in a group since you found the victim together.”

“Do you want me to leave, Sergeant?” said Granger wearily.

Camille shook his head.

Granger bit his lip and said, “I was wondering…”

“Yeah? Go ahead.” Camille took out his pen and notebook.

“Would you mind reading us the letter? Nicholas,” Granger said, pointing at me, “and I were both privy to the last two letters. It seems to me that, as the previous letters were made public, it won’t compromise the integrity of your investigation.”

Before Camille could answer, a patrolman came in and told him that some reporters were outside and wanted to know when he’d be making a statement. “They’ll have to wait. That reminds me,” said Camille, glaring at Granger, but speaking to the cop. “Find out if the media has gotten anything yet: by fax, mail, email.”

He looked back at me. “Son-of-a-bitch faxed the last letter to the Picayune and the TV stations. They had it before I got back to the office. Fucking CNN knew before the Chief did.”

“Again? Where was it sent from?” I said.

“From the law school mail room, of all places.”

“I’ve told you repeatedly,” Granger said defensively, “lots of people are in and out of there all the time. We’ve restricted access to that fax machine since then. It won’t happen again.”

“I’m not blaming you for anything,” snapped Camille. “I was asked a question and I answered it. Got a problem with that?”

Camille was more irritable than I’d ever seen him. The case was taking its toll on him, especially dealing with the press. His reddish hair was dappled with fresh streaks of gray and his usually vivid blue-gray eyes were washed-out and red.

“Dean Granger, I owe you an apology,” Camille said. “This job gets to a man sometimes.”

“I understand; mine can too. Forget about it.” Like a good lawyer, Granger pressed his advantage. “Now, about that letter…”

Camille shrugged. “Why the hell not?”

Ian and Susan stood up to leave. Not me; I wasn’t going anywhere unless I was dragged out. Camille put out his palms to signal my friends to stay put. “Thanks for the offer,” he said. “But y’all might as well stay. It’ll be public info soon enough. But please keep quiet about what happens in this room.”

Camille reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a Swiss Army knife, flicked out the largest blade and opened the envelope. In a depressingly familiar scene, I heard Camille read aloud the fourth letter.

 

Dear Sergeant Doucet:

Professor Cohn 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.

I shall miss our one-sided correspondence. I would like you to know that you have been a worthy adversary: a true stoic as you faced adversity and ultimate defeat. You will be relieved to know that my work here at Jones Hall is finished. Hail and farewell.

Camille’s face flushed with fury. “A stoic? So, the sick bastard still thinks he’s funny? Shit!”

As Camille continued fuming, Mitchell came in and whispered into his ear. While they conferred, I looked over at Susan and noticed for the first time that there was blood all over her jeans. Cohn’s blood.

After Mitchell left the room, Camille turned his attention to Susan, Ian, and me. We told him our story.

“And you think that you heard footsteps running upstairs, is that correct?” asked Camille.

“Yes,” said Susan, looking at me for confirmation.

I nodded.

Ian shook his head. “I’m not sure. He could’ve run across the sixth level, then gone down the other stairs.”

Camille looked up from his notebook. “Uh-huh,” he mumbled. “And about what time did y’all hear the crash and find Cohn?”

“I looked at my watch right after I found him. It was 8:15.” Susan nervously tapped the face of that very watch.

Camille looked at me. “And you called at around 8:20, right?”

“I guess so, I didn’t look at my watch. I’m not as methodical as Susan.” I thought to myself: Who is?

Granger cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Sergeant. Why this sudden interest in exact times?”

Camille raised an eyebrow. “We’re always interested in exact times, Dean Granger. And I just learned that the people at the reserve desk didn’t see anyone go in or out between 8:15 and 8:25. If that’s so, it means that the perp is either still in the library or took an alternate exit.”

Susan looked over at Jim Granger, whose mouth had popped open like a broken oven door.

“From the expression on your face, Dean Granger, I’m guessing that there’s another way out of here,” said Camille.

“Yes. But there’s no way that this sociopath could possibly have access to either exit. So…”

Camille stood up. “I’ll be the judge of that.”

“There are two doors on the third floor of the building. One that only the library staff and faculty have access to, which opens in the hallway. But it has an alarm that’s activated at night. And there’s a door leading to the Law Review office. Now, a key is needed to open either door and I can’t imagine…”

“I have a good imagination,” Camille said. “Law Review, eh?” He paused and tapped his pen on the desk. “This damn library is confusing. Tell me, which levels are on the third floor of the building?”

“The sixth and seventh levels.”

“And the Law Review entrance?”

“The sixth.”

“That’s where Cohn was probably attacked.” Camille stroked his chin. “He’s the Law Review’s faculty adviser, isn’t he?”

“Yes. And Susan here is the editor; first in her class,” Granger added irrelevantly.

“Then it’s possible that Cohn entered the library from the Law Review office.”

Granger’s face flushed and his voice wavered. “Maybe. But…”

Camille ignored Granger’s “but” and turned his attention to Susan. “Did you enter from the Law Review office?” he asked.

Susan shook her head.

“And you need a key to use that door, right?”

She nodded.

“Do all your colleagues have a key to that door?”

“No. As far as I know, there are only three copies.”

Camille put his pen down. “Where are they kept?”

“On a hook in the main office.”

“Who has access to the office and those keys?”

“Lots of people are in and out of there all the time: members, their friends, faculty, staff.”

“Uh huh,” murmured Camille. “Do these other people know about the entrance to the library?”

Susan shrugged. “Well, it’s not a state secret,” she said, “but we don’t broadcast it either, if that’s what you mean.”

“Would it be difficult for someone to take a key, make a copy and return it without anyone knowing about it?”

“Nobody would even notice it was gone.”

Camille grinned like a fisherman who had just landed a redfish larger than Paul Prudhomme. “Dean Granger, we’ll need to search the Law Review office tonight,” he said. “Do I have your permission or do I have to call for a warrant?”

“Go ahead,” Granger said. “A warrant won’t be necessary.”

“I’ll also need an office up there tomorrow. I want to question everyone with access to the keys to those two doors.”

Granger gulped. “Of course. But I find it hard to believe that any of our top students could have anything to do with this. As for the faculty, I can personally vouch for the character of each and every one of them.”

Camille smiled. “We’ll just have to see what happens.” He looked at Ian, Susan and me. “Okay, folks, y’all can go now. Please come by the Law Review office tomorrow and someone will question each of you individually. Good night.”

As I left, Camille winked at me. He looked pleased. I could guess what he was thinking, if there really was a serial killer, the number of suspects had suddenly been limited. Even if many people knew about the Law Review entrance to the library, I wondered how many of them knew where the key was kept. I didn’t.

I wondered where Guy Zeringue fit into this new equation. Was he still suspected or had he been cleared? Where was he tonight? Cohn was the just the sort of guy that a bigot like Zeringue would hate: a liberal Jewish civil rights lawyer. But could Zeringue have gotten ahold of the key? What about Bob Benjamin? He was on Law Review. Where was he when Cohn was attacked?

Susan had parked around the corner, in front of McAlister Auditorium, so I walked her to her car. After I said good night and turned to leave, she called to me, “Do you think the murderer really meant it when he said that his work was finished?”

I stopped and walked back to her clean, white Volvo. “I don’t know,” I said softly. “He’s lied before, but I sure hope so.”

Susan smiled grimly. Her teeth seemed to glow in the dark like a cat’s eyes. “So, do I,” she sighed. “But there are still plenty of sinners to choose from.”

©2020 by Peter Athas

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

3 thoughts on “Project Novel: Tongue In The Mail, Chapters 10 & 11

  1. Efrem Owens says:

    Susan is now my #1 suspect.

  2. Lex says:

    I love mysteries, despite — or perhaps because of — I’m generally awful at figuring out whodunnit.

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