Project Novel: Tongue In The Mail, Chapters 13 & 14

The serialization continues. It remains unclear whether these are serial murders or not. Only the author knows for sure, but I still don’t feel remotely Godlike.

In this installment, finals are over and the main characters gather to trade speculation and gossip. Speaking of which, we finally meet a character who has been the subject of much chatter and innuendo. I’m not going to tell you who it is in this introduction: it’s supposed to be a mystery, after all.

The songs below come up in connection with two of our characters:

I stick with contemporaneous songs in the novel. I don’t go all Baz Lurhmann on your asses. I don’t have the budget for Nicole Kidman…

A reminder that you can catch up on early installments of Project Novel by clicking here.

Our story continues after the break.

CHAPTER 13

May 15, 1992

New Orleans didn’t burn after the L.A. riot. I got off easy too. I hadn’t received any more death threats; even the law school murderer was too busy during finals.

I woke up on the last day of finals feeling burnt out but relieved that I’d survived two years of organized hell and one of homicidal chaos. My last test had been the day before and my brain still hurt. I suppose that law school exams are so exhausting because your whole grade is riding on one three-hour test. It’s nothing but a crap shoot and heaven help you if you can’t sleep the night before a test.

My plan, if you want to call it that, was to lie in bed all morning and then mosey over to Susan’s house. She was having one last post-finals party despite everything: finding Cohn’s unconscious body; Maragall’s murder on the day of the last party. When Susan had firm plans, they were just that-firm.

I was too beat to think clearly about my future, but I did it anyway. My job with the indigent defender’s office wouldn’t pay much, but I’d have more trial experience within one year than my friends with fancy law firms would get in five. I took the job because I wanted to stay here. I’d fallen in love with both New Orleans and Hope Stensgard.

I kept telling myself that-because of the death threat-it was probably a good thing that I wasn’t going to see Hope for the next few days. But I was kidding myself: I was jealous. It was her D-Day weekend; the D stood for dump. Her boy friend from the frozen north was coming to town for that face to face rejection that she’d promised me. I was glad but still felt oddly torn. Part of me was afraid that she wouldn’t dump him but another part of me wanted her to wimp out. Commitment is a scary thing. But like Al Green, I was tired of being alone and Hope was nothing like my old girlfriends. She was a grown-up. A self-proclaimed science nerd, she even claimed to be a reformed Barry Manilow fan, but I didn’t care. I’d learned after Bill’s death that I could depend on her. But I was scared. I wasn’t used to trusting or needing anyone so much. And I was jealous that another man might be sleeping in her bed. I knew that she was too damn nice to send him to a hotel.

When I got to Susan’s the party was in full swing. The first person I saw was Diana, who was wearing the shortest skirt that I’d ever seen. Before I had a chance to make a lewd remark about her macro-micro-mini skirt, she took me by the arm and escorted me over to Susan.

“How did the interview go?” Susan said. “It’s a strange time for a federal judge to interview clerks. Why now and not last fall?”

“Heel, let the man speak,” Diana said.

“Thanks, Diana.” I pointed at Susan. “You need some more wine; well chilled.”

I wasn’t sure if I felt like going on with the story, but they insisted. It was one of the weirdest experiences of my life and I should know; I went to the last Sex Pistols concert. I knew that I was in trouble when the first thing I saw was a picture of the Judge hugging Jesse Helms.

I sat with the Judge and his current law clerk around a large oblong table in a conference room. I was nervous but it went fairly well until the Judge looked at my resume and said: “I see you live on Pine Street. My son used to live on Pine. Called it rape alley after one of his neighbors was raped.”

I nodded politely and made the mistake of thinking that the crime small talk was over, so I asked him more about the job. But he wasn’t listening, he just smiled and said, “You know, these gals nowadays don’t care about being raped; doesn’t bother them a bit. They’re just worried about getting AIDS.”

I didn’t know what to say and, from the look on her face, neither did his clerk. I was relieved when she changed the subject, but the rest of the conversation flowed like sludge.

Diana shook her head when I finished. “I bet you plotzed.”      “Forget it, Nicholas,” said Susan. “It’s too bad; you’re overqualified to be an indigent defender.”

I shrugged. “I’d rather defend thugs than put up with that.”    Susan was looking over my shoulder at the table. “Excuse me, it looks like we’re running low on food.”

Diana put her hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “Oh, Nicholas,” she said, “some of us are getting together later at Cafe Brasil. You and Hope want to join us?”

I explained to her about Hope’s visitor but said that I might fly solo and show up.

“About damn time she dumped that guy.” She looked at her watch. “Excuse me, gotta call my hubby.”

I needed a drink. As I wandered through the house, I saw that Charles had a captive audience in the dining room. I wondered what he was lecturing about this time: the Doors? Ferlinghetti? Ginsburg? Vietnam?  Then, I heard the dread words “grassy knoll” roll off his tongue and I knew that the Kennedy assassination was today’s blue plate special. I’d heard it all before, so I waved and kept on going.

When I passed through the butler’s pantry, I heard some familiar voices in the kitchen: Jack, Ian and, to my surprise, Louis Bonseigneur.

“Louis, what the hell are you doing here?” I demanded.

Louis grinned broadly. “Why, I’m here to make you little people feel loved by the faculty,” he said.

“Yeah, right. So, here you are drinking wine and schmoozing instead of grading my paper or those freshman Con. Law exams. Shame on you,” I teased, wagging my finger at him.

“Your paper can wait, but my stomach couldn’t.”

Jack saw an opening. “Nicholas, I’m sure that your paper is so dull that Professor Bonseigneur was driven to drink.”

They all had a good laugh at my expense.

I looked at Jack as if he’d advocated the plague as a solution for overpopulation. “I can’t imagine why,” I said. “My paper deals with sex, greed, racism, death, jealousy and more sex. Pretty spicy stuff for a legal paper. In fact, it reads more like “Mandingo” than “Wigmore on Evidence.”

Ian looked over at Louis and winked. “Let’s hope it’s not too exciting or you’ll be screwed,” Ian said. “Law professors like things to be logical, orderly and dull. Right?”

Louis laughed and nodded.

Jack leaned against the counter. “So, Nicholas, have any good gossip about the murders? I do.”

“Jack will show you his if you show him yours,” added Ian.

“I know very little and I’m saying even less,” I said. I wasn’t going to mention the death threat even to people I trusted as much as these three.

Louis said, “I thought you saw our friend recently.”

“Yeah. How about you?”

Louis nodded but said nothing.

“Nick, have you seen Jack since he was interrogated?” Ian was still playing straight man.

“Tell me about it, Jack,” I said. “Not much fun is it?”

“There’s not much to tell,” Jack said calmly. “I will say this, your friend, Doucet, is surprisingly competent for a New Orleans policeman. Since I had little information to impart, the session didn’t last long.”

Ian opened the refrigerator and grabbed a beer. “Jack tells me that there’s someone on Law Review who ought to be shitting in his pants.”

“Oh yeah? Who?” I said, placing a silent wager on Bob Benjamin.

Jack was silent. He sipped his wine and nibbled on a wedge of Jarlsburg.

I was impatient. “Where did you pick up this information?”

“The Law Review grapevine, where else, dear fellow?” Jack said. “In between bragging about salaries, we gossip and this time the gossip is about your bete noir, Bob Benjamin.”

Ian winked at me and mouthed, “Bryan Ferry.”

Beware bete noir indeed, I thought.

Charles walked into the kitchen. He poured some wine and said, “What’s that about Bob?”

“Jack is about to implicate your buddy in murder,” Ian said.

“Oh, come on. Don’t be ridiculous!” Charles looked upset. His hand was shaking, and he spilled wine on the counter.

“Tell us more, Mr. Goodfriend,” urged Louis.

“Jack, please. It’s no secret that Bob and Cohn had some heated arguments. Bob was alone at the office that night and his name first came up after Sophia’s death.” Jack paused and stared at Charles as if trying to provoke him. “Come to think of it, he reminds me of Ted Bundy without the fatal charm.”

“Bob? A Bundy? That’s insane,” protested Charles. “He’s too smart to risk his future by breaking the law.” Charles had a blind spot when it came to Benjamin, the rest of us knew how preposterous that was and cracked up.

“I don’t know about that, Charles,” Ian said. “The guy says he’s broke and needs to work and depend on student loans to pay for law school, but he’s got a Porsche and I hear his father is a lawyer for…” He hummed the theme from “The Godfather.”

I laughed but wondered if Benjamin’s mob ties could explain the symbolism of the threatening tongue in the mail. He might have picked up a few pointers from goons named Muggsy, Bugsy, and Rocco.

“Yeah,” I said, “Bob ran a bar in Chicago. I hear it’s controlled by…” I whistled the theme from “The Godfather.”

“And we all know how he makes money on the side.” I sniffed and pointed at an iced tea-spoon on the counter.

Charles’s already ruddy complexion flushed violently. “You guys are so full of shit,” he shouted. “It’s not funny! Murder is a capital offense! And you, Nicholas, what’s wrong with you? Bob’s been our friend since the first week of law school.”

I was exasperated. “Maybe he’s your friend, but he’s not mine,” I snarled. “Shit, he’s treated me like a leper for two years; you just haven’t noticed.”

“But that doesn’t make him a killer!” Charles slammed his wine glass onto the counter so hard that the stem shattered on impact. Grimacing, he looked around the room and blushed. Then, I saw that he’d cut his hand, the blood mingling on the counter with the spilled wine. He was embarrassed; me too.

“Please calm down, gentleman. I know that you’re on edge, but these histrionics won’t do you any good,” counseled Louis.

He was right. We were acting like petulant kids. As Charles left the room to tend to his wound, I apologized and offered to clean up the mess. There was an uneasy silence while I found a broom and dustpan and swept up broken glass. When I was finished, Jack smiled at me and said: “I envy your ability to blow off steam like that. That’s the advantage of that hot Greek blood of yours; my Yankee blood boils internally and very slowly.”

“Thanks, Jack,” I said.

Louis still looked disturbed and rubbed his beard as if it were a spot that he was trying to remove. “Charles clearly doesn’t believe that Benjamin is a murderer,” he said. “What about the rest of you?”

“Poor Charles,” Jack said. “He was upset because he knows that what we were saying has the ring of truth. But Bob is arrogant enough to believe he can get away with murder.”

“He’s a real cold bastard,” added Ian. “Always given me the creeps. Ever noticed that he never looks you in the eye? Tres shifty. One time I ran into him at the Boot; I said hello but he looked right through me like I wasn’t there.”

Louis was impatient with us, so he resorted to the Socratic Method. “But why would Benjamin want Steve Cohn dead?”

Silence hung over the room like a chador. I was tempted to mention the psychological profile that fit Benjamin but I had a promise to keep and said nothing. I was convinced that the profile was the key to ending this mess. A serial killer had to be responsible for the mayhem at Jones Hall; nothing else made any sense.

Jack finally said, “Cohn and Bob got along about as well as the Serbs and Croats. They bickered constantly about politics; every time Cohn intervened in the editorial process Bob accused him of political correctness.”

Louis was exasperated. “Politics? That’s not a motive. And Cohn was thick skinned; even for a lawyer. You’ll have to do better than that.”

“There are other, more substantial, rumors,” Jack said.

“Go on.”

“Bob and Cohn may have been blackmailing each other.” Jack paused as if reluctant to speculate any further.

Louis pressed him. “Blackmail?”

“Blackmail,” echoed Jack. “I hear that Bob had evidence that Cohn used his position to coerce sexual favors from women at the law school; including Professor Gautreaux.”

“Evidence? What kind of evidence?”

“I’m not sure but it wouldn’t surprise me if wiretapping is one of Bob’s hobbies.”

“Sounds paranoid to me,” said Louis. “Tell me, what dirt was Cohn supposed to have on Benjamin?”

Jack warmed to his task again. “Well, I’ve heard that Cohn caught Bob in the middle of a drug transaction and threatened to turn him in.”

“Why didn’t he?”

“It was a blackmailer’s stand-off; neither of them could use their information without risking exposure.”

“These are very serious allegations,” said Louis gravely. “Is there anything at all, other than hearsay, to back them up with?”

“Nothing solid, I’m afraid.”

“Did you tell the police about these rumors?”

“Of course.”

Before Louis could finish his cross-examination, Diana came into the kitchen. She issued strict orders; all talk about the murders was to stop. She told us that we were ruining the party and that Susan had been in a foul mood ever since she saw Charles’s bloody finger. They’d ignored us until they finally ran out of booze and then Diana volunteered to straighten us out. As usual, she was right.

At around six, I decided to go home and take a nap before going out again. Charles cornered me on the porch. I could tell from the look on his face that he had more on his mind than a bloody finger or Bob Benjamin. He looked scared.

Charles and I sat down on the porch swing. He exhaled and then inhaled deeply like a scuba diver in need of an extra oxygen tank. “Guess where I was all morning?”

“On the grassy knoll?”

Charles scowled and said, “Very funny. I’ve been in a grungy room at Police HQ with your pal Doucet and a team of detectives.”

“Say what? Why?”

“Why? I’ve asked myself the same thing. It seems that I’m suspected of attacking Cohn and maybe killing the others.” For a brief moment he crumpled like an unplayed accordion and buried his face in his hands. Then he sat up and said, “They’re treating like I’m a psycho! They think I’m some sort of loner wacko.”

I wondered if the police thought Charles fit the serial killer profile; I certainly didn’t. He was also a vegetarian and I found it hard to imagine him cruising the Winn-Dixie for just the right calf’s tongue to threaten me with.

“Ridiculous,” I said, after a long pause. “What reason did they give for questioning you about Cohn?”

His eyes flashed. “Apparently, some snake repeated some disparaging remarks I made about Cohn.” Charles had made no secret of his distaste for Steve Cohn: they’d had their share of run-ins. Charles did a hilarious impression of Cohn. He had Cohn down pat: the nasal, whiny voice and the self-congratulatory tone Cohn used when talking about the Supreme Court Justices who had known and loved him.

“Who do you think it is?”

I felt his suddenly hostile eyes boring holes in me. “Let’s see. Who do I know who hangs out with lead investigator?”

“Wait a minute. It’s not me,” I said. “I laughed the only time Doucet ever mentioned you as a suspect. Believe me. He refuses to talk about you because we’re friends.”

“I guess so,” he sighed. “I know you don’t wish me any harm, but somebody does.”

“It’s not exactly a secret that you hate Cohn.”

“True but…”

“Who else could it be? Amalia again?”

“Nope. I think it might be Jack.”

“Oh, come on, Charles. Don’t be ridiculous. Jack doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body.”

“Don’t be so sure of that. Those calm types bother me; I don’t trust them.”

“Charles, Charles, Charles. Don’t be silly, Jack’s a good man. And the two of you get along well. Right?”

“I suppose you’re right. I just don’t know…”

I stated the obvious. “Now don’t get mad again but it could be Bob Benjamin. He’s a suspect too. Hell, he’s done it before.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know what to think or who to trust any more.”

We sat silently for a few minutes. Then he put a trembling hand on my arm. “Is there any way you can get Doucet off my back?”

I shrugged. “I wish I had that much influence but…”

He coughed nervously. “This nightmare is ruining lives, careers and reputations. The cops are desperate to make an arrest and until they do, there will be more than four victims.”

 

CHAPTER 14

I parked on Chartres Street a few blocks off Canal, hoping that a walk through the French Quarter might cheer me up. It didn’t work. I paused behind the old courthouse to listen to David and Roselyn play the blues but moved on when she started singing, “Evil.”  I knew all I needed to know about evil, chile. Not even listening to the carriage drivers tell lies to tourists could make me forget that death threat.

As I walked past a line of tourists waiting outside K-Paul’s, my thoughts returned to the murders. If it was a lone killer, they’d botched the job on Steve Cohn; he was still hanging on, too ornery to die. I hoped that he’d recover and identify someone who could be linked to the other murders. If there was more than one murderer, the case wouldn’t be solved until I was ready for the old lawyers home. Unless, that is, I could somehow help the investigation along.

I hoped that the killer would turn out to be either Bob Benjamin or Guy Zeringue. My money was on Benjamin as the one most likely to have attacked Cohn. I pictured it this way; Benjamin followed Cohn into the library, struck him on the head, left the letter and escaped through the empty Law Review office. If the gossip about Benjamin’s blackmailer’s stand-off with Cohn was true, then Benjamin had a motive. But would he be stupid enough to deal cocaine out of his Law Review office? That bothered me, it was out of character. Benjamin was an asshole, not a fool.

But why would he kill Salvador Maragall? Blackmail was a possibility. There were plenty of skeletons rattling around in Maragall’s armoire, after all. Surely, Benjamin knew about Maragall’s affair with Sophia and perhaps even his attempts at sexual coercion. Would Maragall have been willing to pay hush money to Benjamin? Maybe. If not, it was “bang, bang Maxwell Silver Hammer time.”

Could Benjamin have also been blackmailing Sophia? Sophia would have assumed control of a substantial trust fund if she’d lived to be twenty-five. I wondered if Benjamin had threatened to tell Sophia’s parents about her promiscuity and bisexuality. But I didn’t know enough about her family to know if they would have-or could have-cut her off.

Was Bob Benjamin really a serial blackmailer who turned to murder when his targets didn’t pay? I also wondered if Benjamin’s criminal connections had played any role in the murders. Had he sent hit men to kill the victims? The murders were neatly done and the killer(s?) remained at large.

Was all this speculation, “just my imagination running away with me?” It was possible that Benjamin was a blackmailer but that was a more dangerous game than some nickel and dime bag dope dealing. I also found it hard to imagine him as a serial killer. He never did anything that didn’t profit him in one way or another. What was in it for him? Nothing that I could see except for a sick form of celebrity.

What about Guy Zeringue? He hadn’t been ruled out as a suspect in the Cohn case because the would-be killer could have escaped by the front door of the law library. But seeing Zeringue rant and rave at the Leaf had made me skeptical. He seemed to be too emotional to have committed any of the murders except for Bill’s; all the others required too much finesse and planning. It was possible that Zeringue’s outburst had been calculated to convince me that he was a hot head. But Ian thought that we’d seen the real Zeringue in action. My gut didn’t care: it told me that a racist sociopath like Zeringue had hate in his heart and murder in his soul.

The threatening tongue in the mail made me think of Zeringue too. It fit at least part of what I knew about him; mailing a calf’s tongue was the sort of thing that passed for wit at the average frat house. On the other hand, Zeringue’s inner Klansman would have urged him to burn a cross outside my house and his inner Nazi would have gone in for painting swastikas on my car

As I walked past the Upper Pontalba Building at Jackson Square, I thought about Monique Gautreaux who seemed to be the soup du jour of suspects. It was hard for me to picture that self-possessed woman losing her composure long enough to commit murder. She was tall, about 5’9″, and probably had the strength to hit Sophia, Maragall, and Cohn hard enough to turn out (or in Cohn’s case, down) the lights. But how had she managed to subdue Bill when he fought for his life?

I sat down on a bench in front of the fire damaged Cabildo and looked up at its charred roof. It’s one of the oldest buildings in America and began life as the seat of Spanish colonial power in Louisiana. Homicide investigations must have been easier back then. The police could either torture a confession out of a killer or burn them as a witch or heretic.

I tuned out the Jackson Square racket and tried to organize my thoughts. I’d been irrational and biased; I needed to be more detached, like Louis or Jack. I was contradicting myself. I’d dismissed Benjamin and Gautreaux as too calm and calculating to be insane. Then, I turned around and decided that Zeringue was too emotional to have planned the murders. But the murderer’s state of mind had to be somewhere in between-rational enough to plan the murders and an escape route, but crazy enough to write, leave and, perhaps, believe in those letters. The threat that I’d received was a rational attempt to scare me off, but it had backfired. I had more to fear than fear itself and I was determined to do something about it. The problem was that I didn’t know what to do; other than to speculate and try to put myself in the killer’s shoes. But it was a poor fit.

Maybe I was wrong, and Camille was right in thinking that some copycat murders had been dressed up in serial killer drag. He was the pro, after all. I guess that I’ve read too many mysteries and bought into the amateur detective myth. I remembered what Bill said of his hunch about the murderer’s identity the last time I saw him alive, “It’s so strange that I think only you’d believe it.” Amateur detectives of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your lives.

Questions about possible connections between the suspects began second lining through my head. Did Benjamin know either of the spouses? How well did he know Gautreaux and Zeringue? Could there be a conspiracy between some of the suspects? I wondered if Luz Maragall, Lydia Cohn, and Monique Gautreaux knew each other well enough to conspire to eliminate their tormentors. Was it like “Strangers On A Train?” Criss-cross.

Charles was the only current suspect that I knew very well. It was difficult for me to conceive of Charles, even at his most manic, as a murderer. Eccentric? Yes. Homicidal? No. But I sometimes think that only a mind reader can ever really know another person. Everybody has personal demons and fears that would shock even people who think they know them well. Not even the Shadow really knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men.

This drumbeat of questions, worthy of Keith Moon, had given me a powerful thirst, so I stood up to go join Diana and crew. I was lost in thought, almost sleepwalking, when somebody stepped right in front of me. I tried sidestepping them, but they stopped and planted their feet. Just as I was afraid that I was about to be mugged, I realized that I’d been accosted by a mime. She was dressed in faux Chaplin regalia and seemed determined to use me as her straight man. I lightly pushed her aside. She’d picked the wrong guy. I hate mimes. Mimes are pests in white face. It reminded me of Hope’s favorite mime story. She grew up in a small town in Virginia where street entertainers are rarer than an IUD at the Vatican. One summer, a small circus came to town and sent a mime out to herald its arrival. When some pedestrians complained that the mime was harassing them, he was arrested for loitering.

Then I saw Hope. She was in the middle of a crowd, watching a brass band made up of teenage boys in front of St. Louis Cathedral. She was smiling and woo-hooing to the music; oblivious to my presence and the threat made against her life just for knowing me. Maybe ignorance can be bliss. Standing next to her was a tall, skinny, and terminally blonde guy who was obviously “the other man.” I strained my neck trying to see if they were holding hands, but I couldn’t tell. I wondered if she’d given him the heave-ho yet. I felt a sickening rush of jealousy, but I resisted the temptation to invite them to Cafe Brasil. It would have been interesting. I’m sure that Amalia would have been glad to work them over for me; bitch goddess style. But Hope would dump me, and not Minnesota Skinny, if I pulled a stunt like that. Instead, I turned around and walked up St. Peter and then headed up Royal Street towards Frenchmen Street.

When I walked into Cafe Brasil, Diana and Tom waved to me. They’d slid two tables together to accommodate the large group, which was dominated by unfamiliar faces. I was very surprised to see Monique Gautreaux and Bob Benjamin. I didn’t see Amalia. She must be in the bathroom, I thought, I bet she brought them along to see how I’d react. Our mutual disdain was so well known that I knew I’d have to put on a show of being unhappy to see my bud, Bob. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was back in the amateur detective business and glad to have a crack at him when he was drinking.

I said hello and plopped into an empty chair next to Diana. I went into my act and whispered, “Why didn’t you tell me that Bob would be here? Is this somebody’s idea of a sick joke?”

Diana shook her head and murmured that she hadn’t invited Benjamin. He and one of his sidekicks had dropped by for a drink, saw them and sat down. She looked relieved when I shrugged it off and poured myself a beer from the pitcher.

Most of the strangers around the table were 1Ls who were members of Diana’s group. As she introduced me, one of them described her as part mother confessor and part drill sergeant. I was glad that some non-combatants were around; I might need to take cover behind them when Amalia invaded.

A few minutes later, Amalia returned, kissed my cheek, and sat down across from me, next to Monique Gautreaux. Amalia reached under the table and took Gautreaux’s hand. I wondered if they were lovers or if the handholding was just some sort of Euro touchy-feely thing. That didn’t matter, but whether Sophia and Gautreaux had been lovers did.

I took a long look at Monique Gautreaux. She looked very different and very good. Her blond hair wasn’t pulled back in its usual tightly wound bun. She was always well-dressed, but I’d only seen her wearing severe business suits in subdued colors. She was smartly dressed in a hot pink silk blouse, a short black skirt, and matching pumps. The investigation had taken its toll on her-even makeup couldn’t hide the new wrinkles that had sprouted at the corners of her green eyes. Worry lines for a woman with much to worry about, I thought sympathetically.

Amalia, who always vacillated between extreme warmth and hostility, was at her most charming; more Myrna Loy than Joan Crawford for a change. She entertained us with some amusing, but probably false, stories of her mother’s growing up with the Greek royal princesses. Amalia’s whoppers didn’t surprise me a bit, to paraphrase a Squeeze song: the truth is not her middle name.

The flow of Amalia’s conversation stopped briefly when the waiter came to take drink orders. I ordered another pitcher for the table.

Amalia blew me a kiss and recaptured the spotlight. “Thank you, Nicholas. Look around you.” She gestured with both hands, forgetting that she still had Gautreaux’s hand clutched in her own. They looked like running mates. “It looks like a meeting of suspects anonymous,” she continued. “Don’t worry, some of us are out of denial and on the first step to recovery.”

“Please not now, Amalia,” protested Diana. “Can’t we talk about something else?”

Amalia shrugged. “But darling, what else is there to talk about? I’m sure that Nicholas wants to pump us for information to pass along to that sexy Camille Doucet. What a hunk! I’d love to jump his bones.”

Amalia knew how to punch my buttons, but I didn’t want to blow my cool or my cover. I had some sleuthing to do. “Look,” I said, “I’m sick of suggestions that I’m a police informant.”

“Oh, really? That’s strange,” said Benjamin. “You’ve done a good impression of one.”

Just looking at the smug expression on Benjamin’s face pissed me off. I really wanted to punch his lights out, but I controlled my temper; I knew how stupid and even dangerous that could be. Thinking of that tongue in the box helped me keep mine in my cheek. Finally, I said, “Actually, I do a better Nixon.”

“Now, now, boys, don’t get testy,” said Amalia, innocently as if she hadn’t started it.

Diana was glaring at her, hoping that the subject would change. Before she could say anything, Monique Gautreaux spoke up. “I am willing to discuss this tragedy without any name calling. I have nothing to hide.” She glanced at Benjamin, raising one of her pencil thin eyebrows. Then, she turned to me. “Let me ask you this: Do you know how seriously Doucet views me as a suspect?”

“I really don’t know and, frankly, I don’t want to know,” I lied. “Knowing too much about this case is more hazardous to your health than smoking.”

I looked over at Diana, who seemed resigned to our talking about the murders. She’d dropped out of the conversation to chat with Tom and one of her protégés. But the rest of Diana’s 1Ls were fascinated by our squabbling. The murders had been an abstraction to them until now and they appeared to be enjoying the show.

As if she’d just been appointed attorney for the defense, Amalia took over. “What is wrong with the police? Why are they persecuting Monique? What about Cohn and Maragall’s wives? I hear that Maragall left his wife millions and that there was a large life insurance policy.” She lowered her voice confidentially. “But I understand that the insurance company refuses to pay-off until his killer is identified. Why? Because they suspect Luz Maragall.”

“But money isn’t the motive if the murderer is a psycho,” I reminded her.

“Good point. But serial killers are almost invariably men. No woman would be arrogant or stupid enough to leave letters on her victims.” Amalia looked over at Bob Benjamin, who didn’t look as cool and composed as usual.

Amalia leaned forward and grasped my hand across the table. “Surely, Nicholas, you can’t suspect Monique?”

“What I think doesn’t matter.”

“Indulge me; I am curious to hear your opinion,” said Gautreaux, nervously tapping her fingers on the table.

“Well, I’m only speaking for myself, but no, I don’t suspect you.” I didn’t know whether I was lying this time. I doubted that she’d killed anyone, but she had reason to hate Maragall and Cohn and maybe even Sophia. And hatred like that can fester and turn into a motive for murder.

“What about me, Nicky?” Amalia asked, coyly.

I didn’t know why she’d asked if I suspected her. She’d long ago faded off the list of suspects. Other than messing with my head, what was she up to?

“If words were deadly weapons Amalia, you’d be at the top of my list.” I was sharp. “But I doubt that you have the courage to kill anybody.”

“Courage? Is that what it takes? Curious. What a male notion. I suppose I should take it as a compliment. Tell me, do you think Bob has the courage to kill?” Amalia scrutinized Benjamin’s reaction as she asked me this loaded question.

“I’m not sure.” I tried to look him in the eye but, typically, he looked down and pretended to read the warning label on his cigarette pack. Too late for that, I thought. Finally, I gave up trying to read his expression and plunged ahead. “How about it, Bob?”

“I know that you lack the courage to kill, Pappas,” he said.

“Why, Bob, that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

“For what it’s worth, I’ve never killed anyone and I’m getting tired of people implying that I have. I’m not a blackmailer either and if people don’t stop spreading lies about me, I may have to do something about it!”

“Like what?” said a gleeful Amalia.

Diana stood up. She’d had enough. “How can you play games at a time like this!” She shot a withering look at Amalia, who was unmoved; playing mind games was her life. “This is real life,” Diana continued, “not a Pinter play! People we know were killed in cold blood. What’s the matter with you? Come on, Tom, let’s sit at the bar until they get the venom out of their systems.”

I felt ashamed as I watched them walk to the bar. Diana was right; we were ghouls. But Amalia, who thrived on confrontation, was grinning. She’d found the entire scene more stimulating than mainlining speed. Nobody else moved; I assumed that they were all curious to learn what exactly Benjamin was threatening.

Amalia spoke for all of us. “Bob, you were about to tell us what you’d do if tongues didn’t stop wagging about you. Go on.” To my surprise, Benjamin smiled and said, “If you were expecting me to say that I’d kill them you’ll be disappointed, Amalia. I’d do what any self-respecting lawyer would do and sue for slander.”

“Self-respecting lawyer?” I said. “Isn’t that an oxymoron?”

I was surprised that my bad joke seemed to have defused the tension; even Benjamin laughed. I’d never heard Monique Gautreaux laugh before; she’d always struck me as being one of those lawyers with no sense of humor.

Amalia went over to the bar and brought Diana and Tom back from exile. More drinks were ordered, and the conversation retreated into small talk. I found myself talking to Gautreaux and Amalia. It was the first time I’d noticed what a dazzling smile Gautreaux had. I suddenly felt very attracted to her. I guess that seeing Hope had made me feel vulnerable. But it still felt strange to be flirting with a law professor, especially one who was holding hands with my ex-girlfriend, but Amalia was encouraging me with winks and nods.

Eventually, I decided that it was time to leave. I could feel Benjamin’s cold, reptilian eyes glaring at me as if assessing me for weaknesses. I almost expected a long sticky tongue to jump out of his mouth and consume me. It was making me uncomfortable and he showed no signs of making my day and confessing to the murders. I finished my drink and got up and excused myself, pleading exhaustion. Before I could escape, Monique Gautreaux asked me for a ride home. I had the feeling that a ride wasn’t all she had in mind.

©2020 by Peter Athas

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

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