Project Novel: Tongue In The Mail, Chapter 15

This is another long-ass chapter, which means it’s another stand alone installment. I want to keep you hungry for more as opposed to wearing you out  with overkill verbiage. I don’t want my snappy dialogue to make you snap, crackle or even pop.

In this chapter, our narrator makes a major mistake after making a string of Hitchcock references. The events in this chapter are purely fictional much like the law school murders themselves.

Since part of this installment takes place in a Garden District carriage house, this Byrds classic gets a shout-out.

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

Our story continues after the break.

CHAPTER 15

It felt strange to be walking through the Quarter on a Friday night with Monique Gautreaux. As we strolled down Decatur Street, I enjoyed seeing her amused reactions to a crowd of drunken college boys who were hollering, “Let’s get wasted! Finals are over! Party!”

She paused in front of a vintage clothing store to admire a cape displayed in the window. I caught a wistful smile creeping across her face. For the first time, Gautreaux appeared to be very human to me. As a law professor, she was as aloof and distant as most of that odd breed, but tonight she was worried. Scared. Her teaching style was authoritarian in the French manner as if she were Charles DeGaulle in a designer suit with matching pumps. But off-stage, she seemed to be soft-spoken and thoughtful. I wondered which was the act: tonight, or her classroom style?

She swiveled around and smiled at me. “You find me strange, do you not, Mr. Pappas?”

“No, Professor Gautreaux,” I said, shaking my head. “I think a better word would be exotic. Call me Nicholas or Nick, please.” I was unsettled by how perceptive she was. I did think she was strange.

“And I’m Monique. I believe tonight is the first time we have ever met socially.”

“Actually, there were a few parties at Amalia’s old place that we both went to.”

“Oh, yes. She has a way of either bringing people together or of driving them apart,” she laughed so quietly that it was almost inaudible. “I find you tres sympathetique, Nicholas, especially at a dreadful moment like this. I never imagined that I would be suspected of murder. Suddenly, my life is like a Hitchcock film.”

I tried to restrain my amusement but failed and started laughing out loud; too loud. Monique’s face hardened into a mask, looking both puzzled and vexed. I owed her an explanation. “Please forgive me,” I said. “I’m not laughing at you. It’s just that you’ve always reminded me of a Hitchcock heroine: a cool, chic blonde. And, believe me, it’s meant as a compliment. Even the way you usually wear your hair, so tightly pulled back, reminds me of Grace Kelly before she married Prince Reindeer.”

Monique laughed softly, as if unused to laughing at all. I was relieved that she was flattered and not offended. As we moved on, I extended the cinematic analogy, hoping to get beneath the layers of charm and to the truth. “But I never thought of you as one of Hitchcock’s wrong men, so to speak; a murder suspect.”

I hesitated for a moment. I decided to play dumb and pretend to know nothing about her dealings with the police. “Tell me, have the police questioned you since Steve Cohn was attacked?”

She scraped her teeth across her lower lip and nodded.

“Look, I have no right to ask you this,” I said, slowly, “and you don’t have to answer. But I’ve heard that you were sexually harassed by Maragall and Cohn and that you may have had an affair with Cohn.”

She bristled when I mentioned Cohn’s name. Her posture stiffened and that imperious, off-putting, classroom tone crept back into her voice. “I would rather have sex with a rattlesnake than with Mr. Cohn. The snake, at least, warns before it strikes.”

“But what about the rumors of sexual harassment?” I felt rude and intrusive, but I was going soft on her and wanted to somehow help. But I would only help if her story was consistent with the one, she’d told Camille. I’m soft-hearted, not soft-headed.

Monique stopped walking and paused to think. She took my arm and led me into Jackson Square. We sat down on a semi-circular bench near the statue of Old Hickory. She looked at me as if I were a student posing a particularly annoying question. Finally, and hesitantly, she spoke in her soft off-stage voice. “It is true. Both Cohn and Maragall implied that having sex with them would help my career. I was appalled that these supposedly distinguished professors would make such an offer. That man, Maragall, repelled me to my very soul. If Cohn was a snake, then Maragall was an odious little toad puffed up with self-love. I never considered agreeing to their disgusting offers, Nicholas. That would have been fucking and I never fuck, I make love.”

“Did you report these threats to Dean Granger?”

Monique bit her lip, leaving red lipstick on her teeth. “Mais non. Alas, their language was too ambiguous to constitute a strong case of sexual harassment. I hated myself for not reporting them, but whose word would they have taken; mine or Maragall’s? As for Cohn, I knew that he and Maragall were allies.”

I nodded. Maragall was the real power at Tulane Law School and his word was sacred. Praise be to Salvador. R.I.P.

“If I wanted my American career to continue, I could not burn my bridges with a powerful man like Maragall. I am not proud of it but if I were a man toadying to an overbearing boss, it would be called practical. But, of course, that changed, and I told the police everything. That is why they suspect me of murder. But I am innocent.”

She paused for a second to allow her story to sink in. Then, she put her hand on top of mine. “Do you think Mr. Benjamin and I are the sole suspects?”

“Not as far as I know. I believe there are several other suspects,” I said. “Also, Benjamin’s alienated the police. They like him as much as I do, and you just saw what dear friends we are. Shall we walk some more?” I stood up and offered her my arm.

We walked past the Cabildo and then headed down Chartres Street. It was slow going because Monique wasn’t exactly wearing walking shoes, but I didn’t mind; it was a beautiful night and I was in no hurry to escape the company of this strange and lovely woman. I almost suggested going to Napoleon House for a drink, but what I had to ask her was too personal to bring up in a bar

Finally, we came upon my parked car. As I unlocked the door I said, “Where do you live?”

“The Garden District, at the corner of Camp and First Street.”

“I know the neighborhood; I have a friend who lives nearby.”

The friend, of course, was Hope. I wondered if we might see Hope and ‘that man’ going into her place. What had they done that evening? What were they doing right now? I was feeling jealous and Monique was looking more enticing every minute.

Once inside the car, Monique buckled up and said, “I have a charming place. I believe it was once inhabited by slaves, servants, or meddlesome in-laws. But since it is called a carriage house, it could have also housed horses.”

“A ‘Chestnut Mare’ perhaps?”

“Pardon me?”

“I’m sorry. It’s an old song by the Byrds about a wild mare.”

“I see,” she said with a mischievous grin. “I also doubt that any wild, wild horses ever lived there.”

We drove Uptown in silence. I pondered Monique’s story as I drove up Magazine Street. I found her quiet protestations of innocence to be as compelling as I suddenly found her. But there were a few open questions. Had she and Sophia really been lovers? What about the time she’d been hospitalized for depression? I was skeptical that Monique’s depression had made her homicidal; most depressed people are too numb to hurt anyone other than themselves. I felt that Camille was overeager to believe that a few weeks in a psych ward had turned Monique from Professor Jekyll into Ms. Hyde, the deranged killer. I also had a hard time picturing the perfectly coifed and dressed Monique sliding a calf’s tongue into a gift bow.

I looked over at Monique and caught her smiling at me. After noticing my glance, the smile vanished, and she gazed out the window. When we crossed Jackson Street, the borderline of the Garden District, I turned right on Second Street and then right again onto Camp. As I pulled the car over to the curb, I wondered if I had the guts to ask her about Sophia or her depression. I doubted it; I was still intimidated by her austere reserve and icy bearing.

I was wallowing in uncertainty when Monique smiled bashfully and said, “Thank you for the ride.” She put her hand on my shoulder. “Would you like to come in for a drink?”

I quickly accepted; I was curious to see her place. We entered through a side gate into an overgrown garden that I’d often passed on the way to Hope’s. Since Anne Rice lived nearby, the yard reminded me of Louis the vampire’s untamed garden. This inspired me to admire Monique’s long neck, which looked very bitable indeed. My fantasy was soon broken by the mosquitoes that began dining on my own neck.

The white carriage house was surprisingly large. It emitted a garish yellow glow because of the bug lights that lit our way. I watched Monique struggling to unlock the door’s multiple locks. “Please forgive the mess,” she said as she turned on the lights.

There was no mess to forgive; like Monique herself, the flat was impeccably tidy and orderly. It was sparsely furnished with ultra-modern furniture of what looked like a neo-Bauhaus design. The only mildly discordant note was a pile of blue books stacked on the table. As I looked around, I felt a breeze from ceiling fans swirling some twelve feet above my head. Back in old New Orleans, even slave quarters had high ceilings.

There were only a few pictures hanging on the stark off-white walls, but one caught my eye. Over the couch was a black and white Man Ray nude photograph and the woman in it looked like a photocopy of Monique. I pointed at it and said, “Is that actually a Man Ray and…”

Monique blushed, which briefly brought color to her pale, iridescent skin. “Yes, it is a Man Ray original. But, of course, I am not the model. That is my mother back in her Bohemian days in Paris before the war.”

Yo’ mama? I thought but didn’t say. I walked toward the sofa so I could take a closer look. “I’m impressed. Man Ray is one of my favorite artists.” I turned around and smiled at her. “She’s beautiful; you look just like her. How well did your mother know Man Ray?”

“Quite well,” she said with a closemouthed smile. “But I am the one who is impressed. Most law students undoubtedly think that Man Ray is a sea beast on view at the Aquarium.”

We both laughed.

I sat down while Monique poured sherry into two small cut crystal glasses. She came over and sat beside me on the pristine white sofa. “I hope you do not mind sherry. It is all that I have. I guess a Frenchwoman should be ashamed of having no wine, but I drink very little.”

“Oh, no, I like sherry,” I hesitated for a moment. “Do you mind if I’m blunt and even intrusive again?”

She shook her head, but her shoulders curled up tensely. She fixed her green eyes on the floor, away from me.

“Monique, I hope you believe that I want to help you; at least I’d like to try. Can I ask you a few more rather intimate questions?”

Her body became even more rigid, as if prematurely afflicted with rigor mortis. She raised her eyes from the floor and stared at me coolly. “I should mind, but go ahead.”

I’d gotten the green light, but I was still reluctant to ask about her time in a psychiatric hospital. “I understand that you had some health problems in the past,” I said.

“Is that what you want to know?” She looked relieved, then kicked off her shoes and put her feet up on the glass coffee table. “I am not ashamed to talk about it. I was ill. I suffered a severe depression many years ago and was hospitalized for three weeks. And last year it worsened again because of the work-related stress that we discussed earlier.”

“I understand that you’re taking medication…”

“So, that is what this is all about. I should have known, you know Mr. Doucet and he is single minded on that subject. Yes, I’ve been taking Prozac for years and it is the best thing that has ever happened to me.”

I was surprised by how relaxed she seemed to be. She didn’t act like someone with anything to hide. I knew that she might be using me to pass information to the police, but I didn’t care: I was getting used to being used. “Some people claim that they’ve experienced horrible side effects from Prozac,” I said. “It’s already been used as a diminished capacity argument in several homicide cases; the Prozac defense.”

“That is ridiculous nonsense peddled by greedy lawyers and demented cultists. Prozac ended a crippling depression that left me inert and hopeless. But your Monsieur Doucet is stubborn. He refuses to believe my doctor’s written assurances. I am frustrated, but I understand that he is too because of their failure to make an arrest.”

“You’re surprisingly charitable.”

“I understand why I am suspected,” she said, softly. “The police do not understand mental health problems. They want you to be either sane or mad and have no patience for gray areas. Furthermore, I do not have a good alibi. But the primary reason that I can be charitable is that I am innocent. I think the police will eventually reach the same conclusion. Yes, I hated Cohn and Maragall, but I believe that God deals with vermin like them. But why would I harm Bill Sutton or Sophia Kostecki? I knew him only as one of my students and I was once quite fond of her.”

How fond? I asked myself before asking her. “There’s one more thing,” I said cautiously. “And I’m afraid it’s even more personal than my other questions.”

“About Sophia and myself?”

“Yes.” I was nervous but I’d waded too deeply into this swamp to test whether land or quicksand lay ahead. “Is it true that you and Sophia were lovers?”

Monique frowned at me and we sat silently for what felt like days. My question lingered in the air like the aroma of shellfish after boiling and I couldn’t tell if the smell was pleasant or foul to her. I hoped that she felt that she could trust me. My skepticism had faded, and I wanted to help her if I could.

She bit her lip again. “If you promise to keep this between us, I will tell you the truth.”

I had to think about it. I didn’t know if I could keep that particular promise, but I decided to play along.

She sighed softly and sipped her sherry. “Sophia and I were briefly lovers. It is something I am not proud of, not because she was a woman, but because she was a student. But I could not resist her. And it was she who pursued me.”

It was no surprise that Sophia had been the pursuer. Whenever she’d wanted something, or someone, she was more tenacious than a golden retriever chasing a fallen bird.

I leaned forward and said, “Is it true that you were angry at Sophia for violating your confidence?”

Monique’s voice wavered slightly but she remained calm. “Of course. I felt betrayed, but I should have known better. That was Sophia’s nature, she was incapable of silence or discretion. Although I kept my distance from her after that, I did not pursue a vendetta against her, and I did not kill her.”

She began to cry, at first in her characteristically soft way, then she sobbed deeply, gulping for breath. Her tears moved me. I ignored her professorial reserve and put my arms around her.

“I am so embarrassed,” she said in between gulps. “I do not cry easily… I hold everything inside… I have not cried for Sophia until now…”

As she wept, I felt her breasts rubbing against my chest and tried not to become too aroused. But it was difficult, once she’d let her defenses down, Monique was irresistible. I was very turned on, but the timing was terrible. She was suspected of murder and I was in love with Hope. But was Hope really in love with me? My doubts had exploded after I saw her with that damn boyfriend; they looked like they were posing for a “happy couple picture.” What were they doing right now? Were they making love in her bed right around the corner? Jealousy is like a fever; it makes you do things that you’ll regret when it has faded.

Another gulp from Monique reminded me that I had a sobbing woman on my hands. I tried to comfort her and to forget about  seduction. I patted her back. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” I cooed. “Go ahead and cry. Let it go; it’ll make you feel better.”

I was finally confident that Monique was incapable of murder. I only hoped that this belief wasn’t erotically inspired.

She looked up at me. “I’ve gotten mascara all over your shirt. I am so sorry.”

“Don’t be. Do you feel better now? I know that you Catholics believe that confession is good for the soul.” I smiled at her. “Of course, I learned that from Monty Clift in “I Confess.”

Monique laughed and sat up. She wiped her red eyes with a hot pink handkerchief. “I do not recall a cool chic blonde in that particular Hitchcock film.”

“Well, Monique you don’t look particularly cool or chic right now. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen you with a single hair out of place before.” I smiled, noticing that her flawless makeup had washed away. I was excited by her sudden imperfection.

“Perfection seems to be my curse,” she said, as if she’d read my mind. “I try so hard to be professorial that sometimes I lose touch with my true nature, which is an amorous one.” She smiled and leaned forward to kiss me. I felt a brief twinge of guilt as our tongues played Twister but I was too aroused to stop. I felt her hands wandering down my torso at the same time as my hands moved up hers to unbutton her blouse.

She whispered softly in my ear, “I’d like to request a change of venue; shall we move onto the bed?”

She led me into the bedroom. We fell onto the bed and began frantically undressing each other. Monique hadn’t exaggerated when she told me that she had an amorous nature.

The next morning, I was awakened by sunlight peeking through the blinds. I rolled over and saw Monique lying on her side, her long legs dangling over the edge of the bed. She smiled at me, which proved that last night wasn’t just a fantasy; I also had red lip prints all over my body. I leaned back against the headboard and noticed that the clothes that had been hastily thrown around the room the night before lay neatly folded on the dresser. I’d be willing to bet that Monique even irons her underwear.

It was hard to connect the distant and haughty Professor Gautreaux with the passionate woman I’d made love with all night long. But I was guilty of mistaking her professional image for reality. I should have known better; all of us at Tulane Law School were actors in a farce that had gone sour.

Monique had regained her poise after a night of distress, confession, abandon and sexual release. She rolled over and leaned her head on my shoulder. “I shall be the blunt one this time,” she said. “You know, Nicholas, I must leave here as soon as the police will allow it. I cannot get involved with anyone right now, even a man as attractive and sympathetic as you. Do you think I have reverted to type?”

I laughed and stroked her surprisingly long blonde hair. Why had she always worn it so tightly coiled in a bun? Surely a woman could look professional without wearing her hair so tightly pulled back that it looked painful. “Of course not, Monique,” I said. “Last night you unloaded some heavy baggage and I was more or less the night porter.”

“No, no! If we had met under different circumstances, I believe that we could have had more than one night together. But right now, both my career and freedom are at stake. I must be selfish and think only of myself. Do you find that horrid?”

I shook my head. “Just human. It’s okay, I’m seeing someone right now. She lives around the corner. Right now, we have an open relationship because she’s about to end a long-distance relationship with another man. I’m giving her just enough rope to hang him with,” I added with, perhaps, undue optimism.

She sat up and leaned against the headboard. I’d aroused her curiosity, which only seemed fair given how much she’d aroused me. “Is she someone I might know?” she said. “One of your classmates?”

“No way,” I snorted with disgust. “I’ve gone that route before and wound up with shark bites on my neck.”

I told her a little about Hope but not that I felt guilty about stepping out on her. It’s easier to talk about having an open relationship than it is to have one; maybe I’m not as sophisticated as I like to think I am.

“She is a lucky woman,” she said. “But in case the cream curdles, give me your address and phone number. Who knows? Perhaps we shall meet again in more favorable circumstances.”

I decided it was time to offer her my services in another way. “Look, do you want me to pass on anything to Doucet?”

“Yes, please. I have told him the same story that I told you, but I have something to add. This is hard for me…” She took a deep breath before continuing. “Tell him that I was hospitalized because I wanted to end my own life, not that of another.”

I kissed her on the forehead, then pulled back and looked her in the eye. “I’ll tell him and that I think, no, that I know that you’re not a murderer.”

She smiled and lay down on top of me. “Thank you for saying that. After repeated police interrogations, you begin to doubt yourself.” She kissed me deeply, which awakened me as quickly as a cup of espresso. I hoped that she wasn’t motivated simply by gratitude but that she had ulterior motives; she was definitely getting a rise out of me.

I wiggled my eyebrows suggestively and whispered, “How about a quickie for new time’s sake?”

She smiled and began kissing her way down my chest. Then she paused for a second, looked up at me, licked her lips and said, “Nicholas, the word quickie is far too vulgar to be in my vocabulary.”

©2020 by Peter Athas

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

One thought on “Project Novel: Tongue In The Mail, Chapter 15

  1. Efrem says:

    Oh my! I’m feeling this budding “relationship.”

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