We’ve hit the halfway point of our twisted tale. This is the longest chapter in the book so you’ll have to wait until Monday for the next chapters.
In this installment, Nicholas and Camille have a long conversation about the still unsolved case and the tongue in the mail finally arrives. In a word: gross.
There’s a shout out for this Robert Cray song:
A reminder that you can catch up on Project Novel by clicking here.
Our story continues after the break.
April 30, 1992
The murderer had screwed up this time. Steve Cohn was hanging on. He was in a coma and his prognosis was poor; even if he recovered, he’d suffered irreversible brain damage. But there was still a faint chance that he’d come to and identify his assailant.
Law school had become a physical, as well as mental, ordeal; it was impossible to enter the building without running a gauntlet of cameras, reporters, metal detectors and cops. Nobody believed that the slaughter was over, which made the gossip more toxic than ever. The hottest rumor was that the murderer would strike again during graduation, which led to talk of cancellation. Dean Granger felt compelled to hold an all-class meeting at Dixon Hall to try and shoot down all the rumors. But all anyone could do was to bandage the wound. The bleeding wouldn’t stop until the killer was caught.
Faculty resumes were flying out of the building faster than a shyster can holler whiplash. My main source of faculty gossip, Louis, was skeptical of claims that they feared for their lives. He believed that those wannaflee professors feared for their careers, not their rears. And who could blame them? It would take years for Tulane Law’s reputation to recover from the scandal.
I had to cram like a crazed undergrad that night. I’m not proud of myself but Professional Responsibility was so dull that I’d gone to class twice, signed the seating chart and stayed away. PR is what passes for the study of ethics in law school. To pass the exam, I had to memorize the Code of Professional Responsibility, which itself needs CPR. Check this out: The CPR says that it’s ethical for an attorney to withhold evidence of a client’s crimes from the police in some circumstances, but that it’s unethical for a tax lawyer to become partners with a CPA. What a twisted view of ethics; it’s no wonder people hate lawyers.
I got a reprieve from my studies when Hope showed up with a bag of boiled crawfish and a bottle of wine. I was glad to see her, but the timing was more than a little unnerving. There was something that I’d decided to keep from her because I didn’t want her to get upset; evasiveness is part of my training, after all. That afternoon, I’d gotten a package. I’m afraid that I’d let my guard down: I wasn’t alarmed when I noticed a New Orleans postmark and no return address. Inside the package was a green gift box with a red bow on it. Maybe I have a secret admirer, I thought as I opened the box. I was wrong. I gagged when I saw what lay inside. It was a tongue-a glistening calf’s tongue looking up at me; mocking me. I was so shocked-repelled really-that I dropped the box on the floor. When it hit the ground, an envelope fell out. I had a sick feeling when I finally realized that my macabre present was from the murderer; another sick joke from Shecky the Serial Killer but I was in no mood for rim shots. Again, it was neatly typed hate mail but this time it was a personal message for me; too personal:
“If you do not keep your mouth shut and your nose out of my business, I shall be forced to go back to work. Furthermore, I can assure you that you are not the only one who will suffer dire consequences. If you don’t watch your step, your new girlfriend may find herself in danger too. Loose lips-and wagging tongues-can still sink ships.”
The timing of this warning baffled me. It was the first time the killer had ever threatened me directly. Why now? It was a week after Cohn was attacked. Panic? That had to be it. The killer was on edge because his “final” victim had survived. I wracked my brain trying to remember whom I’d seen at the library that night. I hadn’t seen any of the suspects and the only people I’d spoken to were Diana, Susan, and Ian. Had the killer seen me? Did he think that I’d spotted him/her/it?
I picked the box up off the floor before the cats came to investigate. They’d consider the calf’s tongue to be a delicacy, not a threat. I put it in the refrigerator until I made up my mind whether to tell Camille about the threat.
The symbolism of the tongue disturbed me too. Why did the image seem so familiar? Of course, there was the horse’s head scene in “The Godfather” but that wasn’t it. It was something more personal. Then it hit me. It was the opening line of a song by one of my favorite bands, Crowded House. “Seal my fate, I get your tongue in the mail.” Would the killer have known this? Not bloody likely. As far as I knew, the only Crowded House song any of my law school colleagues was likely to know was “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” I decided that it was just another eerie coincidence.
Hope and I sat in the backyard eating crawfish, fighting off mosquitoes and ignoring the pathetic cries of begging cats. When we finished, I made some ritual, and meaningless, noises that I needed to get back to work memorizing the CPR. Hope ignored my feeble protests and performed her own version of CPR on me. We landed on the sofa and in the middle of some heated necking, the doorbell rang.
“Shit!” I said.
“Shouldn’t you get it?”
“Let’s ignore it,” I whispered. “It’s either some kid selling pralines or the Jehovah’s Witnesses trying to save my soul.”
“Your soul? Fat chance,” she said, giggling.
Then there was a ferocious knocking on the door. “NP, open up. I know you’re in there.” It was Camille. It was a night full of surprises; he’d never dropped by before.
I sighed, then got up and let him in. He smiled when he saw Hope. “Hey there. Sorry if I’m interrupting anything.” He looked at me, winked and wiggled his eyebrows like a Creole Groucho.
“Nothing that we can’t finish later,” said Hope, smoothing her hair.
“What’s up?” I said.
“Do I need a reason to visit a friend?” he protested. Then, he looked at me and a huge grin broke out on his face. “Oh, by the way, NP, your fly is open.”
I walked into the kitchen and fetched Camille a beer. When I got back, he was sitting down and had two cats, Charlie, and Q-Tip, sniffing his legs suspiciously. Camille had a dog, so Charlie licked his lips, the way cats do when they’re nervous. He had nothing to fear. He’s bigger than Camille’s puny mutt. Hell, Camille’s hand is bigger than his dog who’s a chihuahua/dachshund/God-only-knows- what mix.
The three of us gabbed for a few minutes until Hope looked at her watch and stood up. “Well, I need to study.” She looked at Camille and smiled. “You’re not as slick as you think you are. You want to talk to Nicholas about the case alone, don’t you?”
He nodded and smiled.
“I’m off.” She looked at me. “You need to get some studying done, Nicholas. You can only handle one distraction at a time and right now it’s Camille’s turn at bat.”
That reminded me that I’d only gotten to second base and now she was the only one who was going home.
I walked Hope to her car. Even though I was frustrated by our case of Camillus interruptus, I was glad to have a chance to tell him about the tongue in the mail. After kissing me good night, she said, “Call me later. Don’t get wrapped up in that damn case again. Promise?”
“Sure, sure, sure. If I get a rain check,” I fibbed, knowing that I was about to take another stab at amateur sleuthing.
When I got back inside, I found Camille checking out my CDs. He was holding a Robert Cray CD in his hand. “How about some background music?”
“Sure. Good choice,” I said. “You heard this album?’
“The first song is called, “The Forecast Calls For Pain.”
He laughed and sank into the sofa as a black blur, Manet the black cat, shot into his lap. “Man, I thought cats were aloof bastards until I met this baby,” he said. “You sure she isn’t part dog?”
“Positive. Thought you wanted me out of the loop?”
Camille stroked Manet’s chin. “Who the hell are you, George Bush? Well, things have changed. I thought after Cohn was attacked that we’d make a quick arrest. Wrong.” He shook his head. “Nobody with a motive to whack Cohn has an obvious connection to the other murders. So, I wanted to run it by you.”
“Sure, no prob.” I tried to act cool and hide my interest. I figured I’d listen for a while before telling him about my little present. Otherwise he’d never tell me a damn thing. I was about to get back into the amateur detective business.
“Goddamn cat.” Camille thumped Manet to the floor after she chomped on his ring finger. “Everyone in this town is a fucking expert and they’re all giving me grief.” He paused to sip his beer. “All we’ve got are theories. I still don’t know if we’re dealing with a serial killer or a bunch of copycats. This case is gonna make or break my career. I’ll either be the big Chief or the big chump.”
“Maybe you’ll be the Big Shot in the next Zulu parade instead. Did you come up with anything useful when you grilled the Law Review hot dogs?”
He shook his head. “A few leads; nothing solid. We gotta get it right. These people have too much juice for us to fuck it up.”
My own favorite suspect’s name popped into my head and right out of my mouth. “What about Bob Benjamin? He’s on Law Review and you suspected him of killing Sophia. What did he have to say?”
Camille grimaced. “Nothing I can repeat to you.”
“What? I thought you wanted my opinion?”
“I do, but not about Benjamin. You’re biased. You hate him too much to be objective.”
“Hey! I never liked Cohn, Maragall, or Zeringue either!”
“Benjamin is different. It’s personal,” he said calmly. “He did something to screw you over, didn’t he?”
“Sort of.” My eyes shifted to the floor. I didn’t feel like talking about it.
“What was it?”
I thought about it for a second. “The guy’s the biggest phony I’ve ever met.”
“So what? That’s normal at Tulane Law. Tell me something I don’t already know.”
“Okay, but it may sound petty to you.”
“You hear everything when you’re a detective. It’s kinda like being a priest in the confessional only you read them their rights instead of absolving their sins. Go on, my son.”
I sketched out my checkered history with Bob Benjamin. We were tight during the first semester of law school. But when the fall grades came out, I made the mistake of telling him that I’d gotten a C+ in Torts; after that he treated me as if I had an infectious disease. I’d mistaken networking for friendship.
Camille shook his head. “Nice guy,” he said. “But I’m not surprised. Benjamin’s a user.”
“Let me get this straight, you think that he’s a shit too, but I’m the one who’s biased?”
Camille nodded. “Forget about him. Let’s move on to the motive gang before we talk about the loony tunes.”
“The motive gang? I like that.” I smiled at him. “What about Cohn’s wife? They had a shitty marriage.”
“You ever met the lovely Lydia?”
Camille licked his lips but, in his case, it wasn’t because he was nervous. “She’s a real eyeful.”
She was. Maybe Cohn thought of Lydia as just another notch in his belt: a trophy wife for an ugly man. But from what I knew about her, she was sharp.
“What did she say about her affair with Bill?” I said.
“Story hasn’t changed since Sutton was killed. She says they were lovers, but not in love. Claims to love her husband; says they have an open marriage,” he said skeptically.
“Is she lying? Maybe Cohn killed Bill and Lydia went after him to avenge Bill.”
Camille shook his head. “I never thought that Cohn murdered Sutton and now I’m sure. But that doesn’t rule out Lydia as the one who hit Cohn upside his head.”
I started wondering about Cohn’s wham-bam-no-thank-you-ma’am fling with Sophia. Was there a connection? “Could Lydia Cohn have had it in for any of the others?” I asked.
“You mean Sophia Kostecki? Over that one-nighter? I doubt it.” He stood up and began to pace, nearly tripping over Q-Tip who was wrapped around his leg.
“Where did Lydia say she was when Cohn was attacked?”
“Working on the third floor of the Howard-Tilton library. One of the librarians saw her but can’t place the time.”
“Check this out. The library’s right across from Jones Hall. Maybe she snuck over, attacked him, planted the note, and snuck out through the Law Review,” I speculated. “Her husband is the adviser, after all, so she had access to the key.”
Camille checked out the CDs again before looking back at me. “That was my first thought too. It makes sense, but I doubt it. Her alibi is so weak that it’s plausible; people with something to hide usually cook up more elaborate stories. That’s what this baby tells me,” he said, rubbing his gut.
I tried to get him to slip up. “Who else other than Benjamin and Lydia Cohn do you suspect?”
He didn’t bite. “That’s your interpretation, not mine. I never ruled Benjamin either in or out.”
“All right, all right. I give up. Who else do you suspect?”
He sat back down and said: “Monique Gautreaux. She bugged me when I questioned her after Maragall’s murder, and she still does.”
“She can’t, or won’t, look you in the eye when you’re talking to her, for one thing. Her mental state, for another. She’s been in the bin.”
“But Camille, she’s only been hospitalized once, right?”
He nodded. “What’s your point?”
“Well, I’m no shrink but it probably means that she’s got her problem under control. And it was just depression; a common problem, even among cops.”
“Maybe so. But something’s not right with that woman.” He shrugged and went on, “Plus, she’s in damn good shape. She runs and works out with weights some. Hell, she’s almost a jockette.”
“So, you really think that she’s strong enough to kill a big guy like Bill by whapping him in the head?”
“I’ve told you before, man, you don’t have to be built like Arnold Schwarzenegger to kill somebody by hitting them upside the head, just smart.” He tapped a finger on his temple. “Gautreaux also had problems with at least three of the victims.”
“Really? What’s her beef with Cohn?”
“What else? He was playing the same games with her as his pal Sal. You know, blow me and I’ll save your job.”
“That’s news to me.”
“And Gautreaux hasn’t given me one straight answer yet. Always hedging her bets.”
“She is a lawyer, Camille. We all talk like that.”
“Maybe so. I was wondering… Ever hear anything about Gautreaux and Kostecki?” He sounded like he was looking for confirmation of something he’d already heard.
“Well, Gautreaux went to a few parties at Sophia and Amalia’s old place. Other than that, all I’ve heard are some rumors.”
“Give,” demanded Camille, who had allowed Manet to once again sprawl out on his lap.
“It’s probably just vicious gossip,” I said hesitantly.
“That hasn’t stopped you before. In this case, I’ve developed an equation: Vicious gossip equals Amalia Chavalas.”
When I told him that he was right, he grinned and said, “The woman lived with Kostecki for two years. She could know.”
I repeated Amalia’s story. Monique Gautreaux was bisexual. She had an affair with Sophia. It ended badly when Sophia couldn’t keep her mouth shut. No surprise there. Gautreaux was furious and never forgave her.
He took it in slowly and mulled it over before finally speaking. “Kostecki ever say anything to you about it?”
I shook my head.
“What about Diana Hiller, would she know?”
“I don’t know. Maybe…”
“Do you think it’s true?”
I shrugged. “Sophia said she was bisexual. Amalia might know, but every time she opens her mouth, she either exaggerates or lies.”
“You wanted to know what Benjamin told me, didn’t you?”
“Well, here’s one thing, I heard the same story from him.”
“Said he was jealous; couldn’t handle her fucking, or whatever it is they do, a woman. Said it’s why they split up.”
“Benjamin’s about as truthful as Amalia,” I snorted.
He rolled his eyes. “Gimme some credit, man. That’s why I plan to talk to the delicious Diana.” He stood up. “How about another beer? I’m gonna go make room for it.”
I walked into the kitchen while Camille headed for the head. As I grabbed two bottles of beer, Guy Zeringue’s name popped into my mind. I hadn’t really thought about a connection between Zeringue and Cohn, but there was a small one. When I returned to the living room, I asked Camille if Zeringue had been cleared.
“Zeringue? Hell no!” Camille said the name like an old-time ballplayer spitting out a day-old chaw of tobacco. “But all we’ve got on him so far is a motive for murdering Sutton. And there isn’t much of a link between him and Cohn unless you know something else.”
“It ain’t much, but here it is. Lots of law professors choose someone to rag on all semester; in our first year Con. Law class, Cohn tagged Zeringue and he was it.”
“So, I hear. Why?”
I laughed. Law professors didn’t need a reason to pick a class scapegoat but there had been one in this case. “Politics,” I said. “Cohn is a howling liberal and hated Zeringue arguing with him all the time. So, Cohn made it his business to make Zeringue look like a fool. It wasn’t hard.”
He laughed and said, “That’s an understatement.”
“Does Zeringue have an alibi for last Thursday night?”
“He was out getting tanked. Says he went alone to Cooter Brown’s down by the levee. Nobody remembers seeing him there, but it’s a big place; always packed with boozy frat boys.”
I took a deep breath and leaned forward. “You think Zeringue could be a serial killer? Maybe the murders are politically motivated. Zeringue is a white supremacist and Cohn is a left-wing civil rights lawyer…”
“…and Jewish to boot. I doubt that it’s some right-wing plot; it’s personal. That first letter was planted to make us spin our wheels looking for a Son of Sam-style serial killer and the others have just piggybacked on it.”
“How sure are you?”
“Not very,” admitted Camille. He was dead tired and looked like he’d aged ten years in the last eight months.
“This case reminds me of the Zodiac Killer,” I said. “He was this psycho who killed a bunch of people in the Bay Area back in the Sixties. And he left these weird letters on his victims, then sent them to the press. He got away with it.”
“I remember the case. Let’s hope it doesn’t set a precedent.”
“Can I ask you something else about Zeringue?”
“He’s got a motive and admitted that he talked to Bill on the day of the murder. Now, I know it’s not much, but lots of people get busted on less evidence than that; if only to shut the press up. So, what’s the deal?” I got the answer that I expected.
He grinned. “The Louisiana holy trinity: politics, power, and money. Old man Zeringue is on the State Senate appropriations committee and takes a special interest in police funding. But if we get some solid evidence on Junior, we’ll leak the story of his racist activities and then bust his ugly ass.”
“Who’s the most likely serial killer? Zeringue? Gautreaux?” And I said to myself: What about Bob Benjamin?
Camille said nothing, he just shrugged and shot me his blankest poker face. I thought that he was holding a pair of deuces at best.
“Have you had the FBI do a serial killer profile yet?” I said.
“Of course, NP. How sloppy do you think we are?” he snapped.
“Sorry. Can you give me an idea of what the profile says?”
“Technically, no; it’s against departmental policy and the feebs don’t like us playing show and tell either.”
“I see, forget about it.”
He laughed a deep belly laugh. “NP, most of the conversations we’ve had all along have been against departmental policy. Hell, we’re not supposed to tell civilians anything.” He finished his beer before going on. “But nobody follows that policy and I’ll tell you why: it’s D-U-M. I’m paid to use my judgment and they gotta trust me. If I’m wrong, they can fire my ass.”
I smiled. “In that case…”
“Okay. But I don’t know how much of that psychobabble I buy. Maybe I’m just a dumb-ass flatfoot, but I think that people get killed for a reason, no matter how stupid it looks: robbery, jealousy, drugs, booze, greed, some jerk dissing some other jerk.”
“All right already, but if you spill any of this, I’ll take the life of your eldest cat in vengeance.”
“How Old Testament of you.”
“Just call me the Cecil B. DeMille of detectives,” he said with a sly smile. “The profile sounds like a string of clichés to me, but what the hell do I know? It says that the tone of the letters and the brazenness of the crimes indicate that the killer believes in his own moral and intellectual superiority.”
“The letters have always made fun of the cops and the deans.”
“Thanks for reminding me. The profile describes someone with contempt for authority; who hates people with power who abuse it.”
“Cohn and Maragall.”
“And someone who’s sexually repressed.”
I continued to play Greek Chorus. “Sophia acted like she invented sex. Maragall and Cohn were accused of sexual harassment. Bill slept with a married woman. The whole case reeks of sex.”
He nodded. “It links all these attitudes to some unknown childhood trauma, possibly caused by a parent. You know the rap, blame everything on yo’ mama.”
“You’re behind the curve, man. The new craze is blaming yo’ papa; sexual abuse is the hot excuse.”
“Whatever. I’ve got a theory about Monique Gautreaux. She hates men because she was molested or beaten by some man when she was a girl. She takes Prozac; she becomes a dyke…”
“You don’t know that for sure, Camille. All you know is that she may be bisexual.”
“No, it’s not. There aren’t two sexual preference teams out there; the heteros and the homos. Life’s not that simple, some people straddle the fence.”
“Speak for yourself. I don’t. Aren’t you going off on a tangent?”
“Okay, okay. So, you think that Gautreaux first killed the lover who betrayed her and then the men who tormented her.”
“Possibly. But I still think that four unrelated murders have been linked by those damn letters. They could have been written by more than one person. The style isn’t distinctive. They all sound like some pompous legal eagle wrote them.”
“But I thought that serial killers were almost always men.”
“Are you sure Gautreaux fits the profile?”
“Well, there seem to be more female serial killers popping up recently,” he said. “There was that Woernus woman down in Florida, and that landlady who buried her tenants under the barn. The most interesting ones are the nurses who killed patients and saw themselves as angels of mercy doing God’s work. In this case it’s a self-styled avenging angel.”
“What about Zeringue? Does he fit the profile?”
“Not very well.” He began impatiently tapping his foot. “Bigots usually feel insecure and inferior; not arrogant and superior. I don’t know, man, I think the docs can shrink any head to fit any profile.”
It was time to tell him about the package. I stood up and said, “I’ve got something to show you. In the kitchen.”
“Ah, food. Glad to see you’ve become a naturalized New Orleanian.”
“Well, it’s not exactly food.”
I pulled the package out of the refrigerator and laid it on the counter. Camille shook his head when he saw the tongue sticking out at him and read the letter. “When did you get this?”
“I’ll take the box in and have the lab work it over but…”
“…there probably won’t be any prints.”
He nodded. “Why now?”
“I think the killer saw me in the library the night Cohn was attacked and thought that I’d seen him…her…too.”
“You see anybody I don’t know about?”
I shook my head. “Nope. Just Susan, Ian, and Diana.”
“Almost forgot that Diana the dish was there.”
“She was downstairs making copies when it happened.”
“That’s what she told us. I’ll double check it.”
“Come on, Camille! It couldn’t be Diana.”
“Well, if this were a book, she’d be it for sure. She’s a pretty damn unlikely suspect as well as damn pretty.”
“Hey! She gave you vital information about Sophia.”
“Which implicated someone else. Chill, NP, I didn’t say I suspected her, just that her story needs to be double checked.”
“All right, I’m chilled.”
“Now I wish I hadn’t told you all that stuff about the suspects. You should have told me first thing.”
“I was curious.”
“Curiosity killed the cat…and Bill Sutton.”
As Camille lectured me, a Kinks song popped into my head: “A man has one, a cat has nine and in between it’s killing time.” It was a killing time indeed.
Camille put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Are you listening to me? You okay?”
“I want you to keep your nose out of the investigation and your tongue in your cheek where it belongs. Okay?”
I nodded. “I just want to graduate and forget about it. I’m not going to play amateur detective, that’s a sucker’s game,” I lied. I figured that if someone was after me and possibly Hope that I couldn’t just sit back and wait.
“Just don’t forget that he threatened your girlfriend too.”
Camille’s beeper went off. He went into the next room to call headquarters. As I went back to the living room, I pondered the psychological profile. Arrogant? A superiority complex? It sounded like Bob Benjamin to me, but I knew if I told Camille that it would backfire.
Camille came back into the room looking grimmer than the reaper himself. I asked him what was wrong. He told me to switch on CNN. I did. There was a helicopter’s-eye view shot of a fire burning out of control. Then the camera panned down and showed a mob looting a shop.
“The jury just acquitted those L.A. cops of kicking the shit out of Rodney King,” said an exasperated Camille. “We’re on a full state of alert to make sure that it won’t happen here. I’m gone.”
After Camille left, I watched the mob as it destroyed its own neighborhood for the TV cameras. It was arson and looting as performance art. Burn, baby, burn. It scared me because it could happen here too, and I knew what could set it off. Guy Zeringue was still the prime suspect in the investigation into Bill’s murder. Camille had just told me that if Zeringue were busted that his racist activities would be unmasked. The world would be told that a white supremacist had murdered a middle-class black man. I hoped that the DA’s office would be able to make a murder charge stick. If the case was weak and a jury acquitted Zeringue, parts of New Orleans might go up in flames. Burn, baby, burn.
Camille was right. They’d better have a strong case because that mob in L.A. had just raised the stakes.
©2020 by Peter Athas
The next installment will be posted on Monday. See you then.