Project Novel: Tongue In The Mail, Chapters 16 & 17

In this installment, our narrator goes back into the amateur shamus business and gets an ass chewing by the professional in charge of the investigation. The fourth victim of the law school murderer finally dies, which makes it a quartet of killings.

Nicholas is so down that he resorts to long hair music:

To fit my mood, I played the most depressing music that I could think of and slid Richard Strauss’s “Death and Transfiguration” into the CD player and punched the repeat button. Of course, Strauss intended the piece to be uplifting; only a German could think that death is an invigorating trip to Valhalla.

Cue Richard Strauss:

I thought I should bring some class to the joint.

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

Our story continues after the break.

CHAPTER 16

When I got home from Monique’s, all I wanted to do was sleep off my guilt hangover. But my place looked like a trailer park after a tornado, so I decided to clean up first. As I fed my howling cats, I serenaded them with a stirring, to me at least, falsetto rendition of the Kinks song, “Stop Your Sobbing.” They finally stopped caterwauling, but it was the food, not my singing that did the trick.

I checked my answering machine for calls. There was a message from Camille asking me to come down to his office and, of all things, watch a videotape. It gave me a good excuse to put off cleaning the house, so I grabbed a quick bite to eat and then headed down for my first look at the Homicide Bureau.

Police Headquarters is located near the corner of Tulane and Broad streets, which is an area that few tourists are unlucky enough to stumble onto. It’s surrounded by the Criminal District Court, the Traffic Court, the District Attorney’s office, and the Parish Prison. It’s a seedy part of town with hustlers, hookers, felons, lawyers, and bail bondsmen hanging out on every corner.

After parking my car, I walked past the tent city pitched by our Sheriff to house overflow felons and defendants who can’t make bail. As a sideline, the Sheriff rents out cells to the state and other Parishes to house their excess hoodlums. It wouldn’t surprise me if he opened a chain of jails and called it “Crook in a Box.”

As I walked to Police HQ, I wondered what Camille wanted me to watch. I assumed that it wouldn’t be “Dragnet” reruns. Had they finally made an arrest? Who was it? I wondered if that grisly package had somehow led Camille to the killer.

When I arrived at the Homicide Bureau, I found Camille seated at a banged-up metal desk almost hidden behind a huge pile of files. Frowning, he waved me over and stood up. He looked at me coldly and then curtly said, “Follow me.”

Something seemed to be bothering him. Must be that mountain of dull paperwork, I thought. Still, he was unusually distant when he greeted me; it was as if I’d dropped in uninvited to a formal dinner party wearing a Metallica t-shirt and leather shorts.

Camille led me to an interrogation room and closed the door behind us. My first sight of that tongue in the mail was a walk in the park compared to how unnerved I felt after being shut into this creepy room. It may have been a death threat, but it was abstract compared to the sound of a steel door banging shut. Why had he brought me in here? There was a TV and VCR at the Homicide Bureau. What was he up to? Was he going to shine a bright light in my eyes next?

“Where do you keep the rubber hoses?” I joked, more to relieve my own tension than to get a laugh. It did neither.

He didn’t even grin. Instead, he stared at me stonily as if even the slightest smile would crack his head wide open. “Don’t use them as much as we’d like to anymore,” he said, “thanks to the Supreme Court and smart-ass liberal lawyers like you. It’s a pity. Rubber hoses leave fewer marks than billy clubs.”

He sat down at the table, picked up a remote control and clicked on the tube.

It was hotter than Tabasco in that dank room. The air-conditioning seemed to be run by a gerbil on a treadmill; probably to instill the maximum amount of discomfort and fear into suspects. That was certainly the effect on me; I felt like Alec Guinness entering the sweat box in “The Bridge On the River Kwai.”

“Let’s get this straight, you had me come down here to watch TV?” I said, wiping sweat off my forehead.

“More or less,” Camille said. “Lemme back up. Last night, Bob Benjamin was arrested for drunk driving. So, I got a crack at him when his defenses were down. The guy may be an asshole, but he’s a smart asshole.” He forgot himself and smiled for a second. “I’d like you to watch the tape of his interrogation and tell me what you think. I thought we’d watch it in here to give you the complete police station experience.”

So, that’s why he brought me up here, I thought, or is it? The more I thought about it, the less sense it made. Just two weeks earlier he’d refused to talk about Benjamin with me, saying that I was too biased to be helpful. I wasn’t any less biased now. Did they have something solid on Benjamin? Was he sweating in a tent across the street?

“Why the change of heart, Camille? What gives?”

“Hush. See for yourself,” he said neutrally.

He pushed the play button on the remote and a blurry image of Bob Benjamin filled the screen.

Something else was bothering me and I spat it out like a mouthful of sunflower seeds. “Camille, was he set up?”

He pressed the pause button, freezing Benjamin on the screen with his index finger in the air. “Nah, we been tailing him for weeks,” Camille said. “He started weaving on Esplanade, so my boys pulled him over and he failed the breathalyzer test. By the way, some of the pictures taken of you last night are very flattering. Shall I send some to yo’ mama?” He laughed raucously at his own joke and whistled a few bars of “Kodachrome.”

“Very funny. Simon says, let’s watch the bastard sweat.” I felt relieved. It was the first time that he’d laughed. Maybe things are getting back to normal, I thought, it must be the pressures of the case.

For a brief moment, Camille seemed to enjoy having me on his own turf. But suddenly, his smile faded, and I felt his icy blue gray eyes scanning me skeptically, just like our first meeting.

He began the tape. I was filled with a sense of perverse satisfaction as I watched a jittery Bob Benjamin struggle to answer questions. After a few questions about the DUI by the uniforms, Camille came into the room and changed the subject.

“Isn’t that a bit melodramatic, Camille?” I said. “Do you tie him to the railroad tracks next?”

Real-Camille hushed me as Video-Camille said, “Now, Mr. Benjamin, let’s turn our attention to the attempted murder of Professor Stephen Cohn.”

Benjamin seemed to sober up in a hurry. “Hey! What the fuck is going on here? I’m in here on a DUI,” he protested.

Camille’s voice sounded harsh. “You were also booked as a material witness in the Cohn case. Guess you were too wasted to remember that. But, of course, you don’t have to answer any questions without an attorney present.”

Even as he reminded Benjamin of his rights, Camille had cleverly baited him. Camille was gambling that a night in the drunk tank had dulled Benjamin’s wits enough that he’d waive his right to silence. It worked. Benjamin stumbled into the trap like an overeager bear expecting to catch a salmon during spawning season.

“Go ahead Doucet, take your best shot,” jeered Benjamin. “I choose to act pro se. That’s Latin, it means that I’ll act as my own attorney. I can handle any question you throw at me.”

“Your own attorney, eh? That’s your right. Where were you the night of the attempt on Professor Cohn’s life?”

“You know where I was. We’ve been through this before.” Benjamin’s voice got louder. “How many times do I have to tell you before it penetrates that thick skull of yours! Jesus! I was in my office at the Law Review tying up some loose ends before leaving this goddamn banana republic.”

“Isn’t it true that you were all alone, just you and the key to the back door of the library?”

“Yeah, as far as I know. But I didn’t use it that night. And don’t forget, nobody in the library saw me.”

Benjamin, who thrived on argument, seemed to have recovered his composure. I still hoped that his arrogance had gotten him into trouble. I wanted to watch him confess.

“Isn’t it true that you had grudges against both Cohn and Sophia Kostecki?” barked Camille.

Benjamin remained cocksure. I almost expected him to object to this leading question. Instead, he sneered, “Sure, I don’t like Cohn. But if you’re going to bring in everyone who hates him, you better book the Super Dome. And I had no reason to kill Sophia. Okay, so I dumped her. Big fucking deal. Happens every day. She meant nothing to me.” He hesitated. “She was insignificant to me, nothing…”

Camille froze the video image at that point. “What do you think he means?” he said, coolly as if he already knew the answer. He seemed to be testing me again. But why? I had the feeling that this was a test that I couldn’t pass no matter how well I did.

I sighed and thought about it for a minute. “I’m not sure, man. It could mean that Sophia was so unimportant that he wouldn’t bother killing her, or that her life itself was so insignificant that he’d just as soon kill her as blow her off. ”

As the tape rolled on, Camille kept asking the same questions repeatedly. He was trying to wear Benjamin down. It appeared to be working.

Camille stopped the tape and eyed me suspiciously. He seemed to be playing bad cop with me too. “Wanna see the ice man sweat?” he said. “He got very emotional after a few hours on the barbie.” He pressed the remote and the images flew by in a rush. Finally, he found the part he was looking for.

“I know my rights, Doucet,” Benjamin snarled. “You can’t hold me indefinitely. Charge me for murder or release me. But I’m warning you, if you charge me, I’ll get off and then sue your ass for false arrest.”

“Hold on, Mr. Benjamin, you’re not even under arrest for murder, let alone on trial.”

“And I know why. You haven’t got jack shit on me on Cohn and Sophia and even less on Maragall, and Sutton and you know it!”

“You’re the only one talking about Maragall and Sutton. Why are you so agitated? Because you tried to kill Cohn and failed?”

Suddenly, Benjamin looked sweaty and panicky. The ice man had melted. “No! Somebody’s trying to frame me and there’s no fucking way I’ll let that happen!” He started to cough nervously, and his hands were trembling.

I was surprised by how scared Benjamin looked. As much as I hated to admit it, I began to think that he might be telling the truth; anything was possible, even that.

Camille had finally rattled the suspect. As he pressed on, his voice sounded confident. “Frame you? No, I’m just after the truth. Now, go ahead and have a smoke. I have a suggestion. And I’m not trying to trick you.”

Benjamin snorted at that remark. Camille ignored him and continued, “Here’s something that might save your ass. Understand, I’m not making any promises. No promises, no tricks. I can’t make you do it and you’ll have to pay for it. Just hear me out. Are you willing to undergo a psychiatric evaluation?”

Benjamin dragged on a cigarette while pondering this unexpected offer. “Will it be a police shrink or a neutral one?”

Camille lowered his voice and spoke soothingly to the confused Benjamin. “A neutral one, of course.”

There was a long silence on the tape. I wondered what Camille was up to. Why would he want to help Benjamin lay the groundwork for an insanity defense? Camille had to be lying to get at the truth. Nobody minds if the cops lie to a murderer; not even a smart-ass liberal lawyer like me.

I watched as Benjamin inhaled and exhaled smoke onscreen like some gangster movie mouthpiece; trying to figure out all the angles to the offer before he answered. “I’m game. I’ll need to call my father for some money. All right?” He sounded hopeful for the first time.

“All right.” Camille sounded disappointed.

With a flick of his wrist, Camille turned off the TV and silenced Benjamin. He took a well-chewed pencil nub out of his mouth and turned to me. “Well, tell me what you think now of your buddy, Bobby?”

I forced a weak smile and said, “Well, you sure sweated the arrogance out of him. I almost felt sorry for him. And I never thought I’d say that. Benjamin’s either not guilty or so cocky that he thinks his head can’t be shrunk.”

“Agreed,” moaned Camille. “Fuck! Shit! Fuck!”

“You were bluffing, weren’t you?”

“That’s right. And it backfired. I expected him to resist, never expected the son-of-a-bitch to be so damn agreeable. Shit! Did he fuck up and say anything incriminating to you last night?”

“Afraid not. We have a relationship built on mutual distrust, you know that, Camille.”

Camille stood up and began pacing rhythmically as if he were still a kid marching up St. Charles with the St. Aug. band. If his sax had been handy right then, he would have played either the blues or a funeral dirge. “The Chief won’t like this one bit,” he sighed. “He’ll have me ticketing mimes in the Vieux Carre if this case isn’t cracked soon.”

He paused for a second as if standing still would help him control his emotions. “Benjamin wasn’t so cucumber cool this time. Sounded like he might be telling the truth,” he said as he resumed pacing. “I figured if I questioned him after a night in the drunk tank that he’d slip up and incriminate himself. And I thought he’d be afraid of facing a shrink. Who knows? Maybe he just attacked Cohn and Zeringue whacked Sutton. Oh man….”

“Did you kick him loose?”

“Yeah, once he posted bond on the DUI, we had to. But I warned him that if he left town, his ass would be grass.”

I felt sorry for Camille. His career was on the line if an arrest wasn’t made soon. I stood up and patted him sympathetically on the back. To my surprise, he recoiled slightly when I touched him. Ignoring this reaction, I began pacing alongside him.

“What’s next?” I said. “Is it back to Zeringue? Or do you have another suspect among the demigods of the Law Review?”

“Not really,” he said. “Most of them don’t have a motive. Hell, everyone hated Cohn; not to mention Maragall. Shit! We’re just gonna have to keep on shadowing Benjamin, Zeringue, and Gautreaux; among other things.” He shot me an accusatory look.

I was shaken but recalled the promise that I’d made to Monique and pressed on. “About Monique Gautreaux,” I said. “I don’t think she’s a killer.”
Camille glared at me. “Is that right?” he growled. “So, we’re supposed to drop her as a suspect just because y’all were organ grinding last night?”

I was startled and angry. It was none of his damn business who I slept with. “That’s a shitty thing to say, man! How the hell do you know what I did last night?”

“I’ve got some boys watching her pretty ass too.”

I got a sick feeling in my stomach when I finally understood why he was so pissed off at me. And what was worse, I knew he was right; Monique was a suspect and I’d spent the night with her. Not only that, but I had taken a reckless chance in going into her apartment without being certain that she wasn’t the killer. Talk about unsafe sex. What a fool I had been.

Before I could apologize, he walked over, placed his huge catcher’s mitt hands firmly on my shoulders and got in my face. “Don’t you know how goddamned stupid it was for you to fuck Gautreaux?” he snarled. “She’s a murder suspect, it’s my case and you’re my friend! Don’t you know how bad this makes me look?”

“Sorry. But I’m still alive. Guess I wasn’t thinking…”

He shoved me lightly, stepped back and then shouted, “You were thinking with your dick instead of your brain! You asshole! Didn’t you realize that we’d have a tail on her?”

I felt too browbeaten to even try interrupting him again.

“I want to know exactly what you two said about the investigation,” he demanded. “Now, asshole!”

“Camille, I’m sorry. I am an asshole…” I said haltingly.

“Don’t tell me what I already know, tell me what you told that woman!”

“Nothing she didn’t already know. All I promised was to give you my honest opinion of her as a suspect and I did. That’s all. I never thought she did it and now I’m sure.”

Camille sat down and poured himself some water. He looked up at me and shook his head. “Okay. You’re a fool but not a liar, I know that. You’re a damn lucky fool too – you could have gotten yourself killed last night!”

“I know, but…”

“…didn’t it occur to you that she might be trying to use you? Or were you too horny to think straight?”

“Look, I apologized, and I meant it. I didn’t consider how it might look to you or to anyone else. I can take care of myself.”

“Obviously not. What did she say about the murders? Anything about her and the victims?”

“She said that it was the identical story that she’d told you…” I started gasping for breath. The close air in that sweltering room had finally gotten to me. I felt like an asthmatic trapped in the Atchafalaya swamp.

Camille poured me some water. “Here drink this,” he said, handing me the cup.

“Thanks,” I wheezed.

“I don’t need all the details, I just need to know if she said anything new or contradicted her past statements.”

I drank the water in two big gulps and felt better. Then, I gave him the Headline News version of Monique’s story.

“You sure that’s it?” he said, stroking his chin.

I nodded. “Hey, I’m sorry if you thought I stabbed you in the back. I didn’t. But I’ll snivel and cower some if it’ll help,” I said to lighten the mood.

Camille grinned. “I know you’re sorry, NP. But I hope you understand my position. I’m under un-be-fucking-lievable pressure to make an arrest and I have to run over anyone or anything that gets in my way.”

“Understood. But do you really think it was Monique? Think about it, man, there was a struggle between Bill and his killer. It wasn’t clean like the other murders. It was messy. You said so yourself. Bill was a big man. Could Monique have overpowered him?”
“Hey man,” he snorted. “I’ve seen some puny people do some amazing things in my day. Last week, there was this five-foot-tall junkie who beat her 235-pound hubby to death with a broom handle. Fear and adrenaline can make even a weakling strong and Gautreaux is no weakling. She’s in damn good shape; runs two miles a day.”

I nodded.

“Or maybe she put her hands in Sutton’s pants and got his undivided attention the hard way,” he said with a nasty cackle.

I should have been relieved that he could still laugh but instead, I was irritated. “Oh, come on, Camille. Bill’s office looked more like Charleston after Hurricane Hugo than the scene of a tryst.”

Camille just kept grinning at me. “Maybe so. But she had motive, opportunity and capacity in all the other murders, and we can’t afford to stop watching her. Not after you spent the night in her bed. I don’t want to give the appearance of giving special treatment to the lover of a friend.”
“She’s not my lover. It just happened.” I paused. I had to say it and, even if she’d manipulated and used me, I meant it. “She’s a damned nice woman.”

Camille smirked. “Fucking nice, I bet.” He wasn’t going to let me off the hook without making me squirm some more first. “What about your science babe? You two still on or what? Or didn’t you think about that when you pounced on la Gautreaux?”

“We’re still on, I suppose. Her other boyfriend is in town. She’s supposed to break up with him, but I don’t know what happened yet.” For some reason, I felt the need to explain myself. When you start rationalizing it’s like driving a car without brakes, you can’t stop until you crash. “Hell, this is the only time I’ve been with anybody else since we met. It had nothing to do with Hope. It didn’t mean anything, it was just sex.”

But a shroud of guilt began clinging to me like Saran Wrap. Camille was right. I’d been thinking with my penis instead of my brain; just like a horny teenager who had never gotten laid before.

“Lemme play Dear Police Abby and give you some personal advice,” Camille said. “If this thing with la belle Monique was meaningless, don’t tell Hope. Confession might be good for the soul, but it’s hell on relationships.”

I nodded and returned to the subject at hand. “Why would Monique’s doctor lie to you? I hear that Prozac works. The only people who think it makes you crazy is a wacko cult group. Monique told me that Prozac saved her life.”

“Maybe so, but that’s not the only reason I suspect her. Don’t forget, her career is in ruins and Maragall and Cohn were the wrecking crew.”

A phone rang. I hadn’t even noticed that there was one in the room, but it was sitting on a peeling metal shelf. Camille walked over and picked it up. His face fell like the stock market on a bad day as he listened. It was obviously bad news and I had a good idea what it was.

Camille slammed down the phone and kicked the shelf. He slumped down in a chair. “Steve Cohn is dead,” he said. “He came to for a few minutes and muttered some gibberish. They taped it but it was worthless. Just like my career if we don’t bust somebody soon.”

“Now what?” I said.

Camille sighed deeply enough that the pages of a legal pad lying on the table fluttered briefly. “All I can tell you is that we’re working on some things that I couldn’t even tell Jesus H. Christ if he walked into this room right now and told me to either fess up or spend eternity in hell.”

CHAPTER 17

Hope and I went out to dinner the night after I went to the Homicide Bureau. She was as cheerful, almost downright perky, as I was gloomy. I let her think that I was down because Cohn’s death had reminded me of the night Charles, Susan and I found his body.

Maybe I should have told her what was really bothering me but there was so much that I didn’t know where to begin. I thought that the killer’s threat against my “new girlfriend” was emptier than a magnum of champagne on New Year’s Day. That psychopath’s track record made it more likely that he/she/it would come a-lookin’ for me. I thought of it as the Richard Burton rule; Why search for a tributary when you knew where to find the source of the Nile?

Then there was the Monique factor. My psyche felt bruised after being slapped around by Camille for sleeping with her. Even though he was right, I still felt angry and guilty. And even though Hope had spent the weekend with Thor-or whatever the hell his name was-I still felt guilty about my night with Monique. And the guilt factor was about to be squared.

I knew from the minute I picked her up that she’d dumped the boyfriend because of the big grin on her face. We revisited the scene of our first date and went to the Gumbo Shop in the Quarter. After we finished eating our crawfish etouffee, she reached across the table and told me that she’d sent him home a free man.

I didn’t offer any details of what I’d been up to since we last met and neither did she. I suppose our theme for the evening was, no questions, no lies.

After the waiter brought us our bread pudding, Hope smiled at me and said: “Well, where do we go from here?”

“The Band…from Cahoots,” I said absentmindedly.

“Nick! I’m serious. This isn’t the time for your silly little game.”

“Sorry. I can’t help myself.”

“The Four Tops. I just thought that I’d show you that I’m not too uncool for you.”

I laughed and said, “Your lease is up in July, right? Wanna live in sin?”

She leaned forward and winked. “Sounds fabulous. I hope you’re serious about the sinning; shall we start tonight?” She licked some stray rum sauce off her fingers, put her hand on my lap and whispered in my ear. “Let’s get out of here before the waiter notices what my hand is doing under the table.”

“I thought you were my first good girl.”

“It depends on how you define the term. Let’s put it this way, I am good and you know it.”

Science never rests, so Hope had to go into the lab the next morning. The defense often rests, so I slept in. I spent the morning thinking about the future, which was suddenly much clearer. I had won Hope’s heart, but I was too exhausted to either celebrate or gloat. I was happy that something had gone right after a year of non-stop disaster. Was it an omen that the jinx had ended?

It felt great to be home alone. All I wanted to do was

veg out in front of the tube. But first, I had to do some cleaning up. It was three days before graduation and my parents would be arriving the next day. They were staying at the Monteleone Hotel on Royal Street, and not with me, because my father hated cats. I’d finally discovered a useful purpose for my cats.

Hope was worried about meeting my folks. I hadn’t painted the most flattering picture of Lefty and Inga, so I had to reassure Hope that they’d have po-boys instead of her for lunch. Before she fell asleep she said, “Do you think they’ll like me?”

“More than they like me,” I yawned.

I popped open a beer and flipped on the TV to catch the six O’clock news with Keith Archer. Archer was interviewing Mason Nash, the Orleans Parish District Attorney. Nash loved television cameras even more than he loved Dixieland jazz and the death penalty. He was a skinny, beady eyed and balding man who looked like a turkey buzzard. He acted like one too. Mason Nash was a political scavenger who fed on the public’s fear of violent crime.

I turned up the volume when I heard Archer ask Nash about Cohn’s death. Nash, a Tulane Law alum, had been uncharacteristically silent about the murders. The word on the street was that he’d kept quiet because he was cooperating with Jim Granger’s efforts to contain the damage caused by all the bad publicity. But months of relative restraint ended as Nash returned to form.

After expressing sadness over Cohn’s death, Nash denounced the homicide investigation as “amateurish and mistaken in its focus on members of the law school community. Yet again, the police are barking up the wrong tree.” It may be an odd tune for a “tough on crime” D.A. to sing, but publicly denouncing the police was one of Nash’s greatest hits.

“You believe that an outsider is responsible?” asked a visibly surprised Archer.

“That’s correct, Keith,” Nash said. “We believe that a carefully orchestrated conspiracy, and not just some deranged loner, is behind these brutal murders.”

I was so shocked by Nash’s words that I spilled my beer. Was it for real or was he just grandstanding again?

Archer was delighted. Conspiracy theories generate heat. Heat generates higher ratings and Archer would milk it for all it was worth. “What sort of conspiracy is this, Mason?”

“We have reason to believe that certain antisocial individuals are attempting to discredit the legal profession by besmirching the reputation of this state’s premiere law school.”

“So, you think any conspiracy is politically motivated?”

“As you know, Keith, there are extremist groups, such as the Klan and Neo-Nazi skinheads, that are active in our state. But this is a sensitive point in the case, and I cannot comment in any more detail,” Nash said piously. “I can tell you this. We intend to convene a grand jury immediately. Once these thugs are run to ground, they will be indicted, convicted, and sent to death row where they belong. That’s all I can say right now. You wouldn’t want me to prejudice the investigation, now would you, Keith?”

The interview ended on that sanctimonious note because it was time for the station to sell antacid. People who watch the news seem to have digestive problems and I suddenly did too. What was Nash’s motive? Was there any truth to this yarn or had Nash stumbled onto the Zeringue story and exaggerated the threat for political purposes? That must be it, I thought. Nash must want to be Governor. He’d have a great campaign slogan too. Tough on crime, tough on racists.

For all I knew, there could be a conspiracy. Camille had dropped hints of some hush-hush operation. Maybe there was an agent undercover with some right-wing fringe group who had discovered a conspiracy. Did Nash really know something or was he just horning in on the limelight? All I knew for sure was that I needed another beer.

My mind was still muddled when the phone rang. It was Charles McConkey, conspiracy buff par excellance. “Did you see the D.A. just now? Keith Archer looked so surprised that I thought he’d swallow his tie,” Charles said. “Do you know what Nash is talking about? Have you heard anything about some conspiracy to discredit the legal profession? As if such a thing was possible.”

I laughed. “It’s news to me too,” I said. “I think old Mason has seen too many movies. Or maybe he thinks he’s Jim Garrison.”  Jim Garrison, of course, was the former Orleans Parish DA and conspiracy maven who had been incorrectly portrayed as a hero by Oliver Stone in his cinematic ode to paranoia, “JFK.”

“Well, I think that Garrison was on the right track. Lots of people hated Jack Kennedy; there must have been a conspiracy.”

I’d inadvertently punched one of his hot buttons. I don’t know what got into me, but I couldn’t resist hitting redial. “Come on Charles,” I shot back, “you’re from New Orleans. You can’t really buy Oliver Stone’s view of Garrison?”

“Well, not all of it, but I think Stone got pretty close to the truth. Now, I didn’t like Kevin Costner’s lame Southern accent. It sounded nothing like the way most people around N’Awlins actually speak. We don’t twang, we don’t drawl, even if we do say y’all.”

“Are you a rapper now?”

He laughed and said, “Just call me M.C. Run My Mouth.”

“Hey, there’s one good thing about this right-wing conspiracy theory. It lets you off the hook.”

“Thank God. Back to Nash. Who do you think put him up to it? Granger?”

“I doubt it, Charles. It’s hard to believe that Granger would be behind such a crude attempt to divert attention. He’s too subtle. This reeks of Nash’s own heavy-handed style.”

“I don’t know about that. The administration is desperate.”

He was right. Tulane Law’s reputation wasn’t simply bloodied by the scandal; it was suffering a massive hemorrhage. I kept waiting for people to lose interest in all the stories about lecherous professors and racist students, but they didn’t.

“You know, Charles,” I said, “it’s possible that Granger asked Nash for help and it backfired because of the DA’s gift for exaggeration and his megalomania.”

“That’s possible. Nash is sort of the thermonuclear version of a loose cannon.”

After I got off the phone, I was in a foul mood. I brooded about the murders and the threat on my life. I still wasn’t sure how seriously to take the threat but fretting about it made me drink too much bourbon; so much for housecleaning. To fit my mood, I played the most depressing music that I could think of and slid Richard Strauss’s “Death and Transfiguration” into the CD player and punched the repeat button. Of course, Strauss intended the piece to be uplifting; only a German could think that death is an invigorating trip to Valhalla.

After a while, the absurdity of the situation stuck me. If the case was about to be cracked, I had nothing to worry about and much to look forward to. I had survived three years at hard labor and was about to be paroled from law school. The future should be bright with hope, and Hope, but instead I was wallowing in mournful German music and Nordic angst. It was as if my Norwegian genes had seized control of my life and transformed it into a parody of a Bergman film. I felt like I’d completely lost control of my life, which was probably the real source of my despair and ennui. But the bourbon didn’t help either. I braced myself for a hangover and drank myself to sleep.

Early the next morning, I awoke in a cranky stupor to the sound of a ringing phone. It was only 7:00. Who the hell was calling me so damn early? Obviously, someone with a death wish. I let the answering machine pick up because I hate talking to anybody before my sacramental first cup of coffee.

After four excruciatingly painful rings, a vaguely familiar, and thickly accented, voice came on the line. “All right Nicholas, pick up the phone. I know that you’re there and, trust me, this is both important and interesting.”

It was Zoltan Nagy. Zoltan was the reporter at the Times-Picayune who began cultivating me as a source after Bill’s murder. Zoltan was Hungarian and he was a dead ringer for the local Romanian émigré poet and N.P.R. commentator, Andrei Codrescu. Zoltan hated it when people confused the two of them and denied that they looked alike. He once told me: “You fucking Americans think that once you’ve seen one Eastern European, you’ve seen them all.”

I leaned over, turned off the machine and picked up the phone. “Zoltan? This is barbaric making me speak before I’ve been administered either last rites or first coffee. Do you know how fucking early it is?” I growled.

“I do indeed,” Zoltan said calmly. “Have you heard the news?”
“What news?”

“Listen to me. This is serious. There will be a news conference this afternoon to announce an arrest in the law school murder case.”

I bolted upright as if injected with a massive dose of amphetamines. “What? Who?”

“Read this morning’s paper. The front page has a brilliant and, I daresay, Pulitzer prize caliber article detailing the racist activities of Mr. Guy Zeringue, who should be under arrest as we speak.”

Although the cobwebs seemed to be slowly leaving what passed for my brain, I still had a terrible headache. “Zeringue? Really? Do you know if he’ll be charged with all the murders?”

“I have no idea. But what’s most interesting about today’s news conference is where it will be held and who will be there.”

I was in no mood to play games. “Please don’t make me guess, Zoltan,” I groaned. “Just give me the facts, hang up and let me make a pot of coffee before I die.”

“Temper, temper. The press conference will be held in room 102 of the law school at 4 PM. In ample time for the evening news, I might add. Performing will be D.A. Nash, Chief Odom Smith, Dean Granger and your partner-in-crime-busting, Sergeant Doucet.”

I couldn’t miss this spectacle. I figured that Zoltan might be able to help get me in. He owed me something for waking me up so damn early. “Hey,” I mumbled, “can you spare some press credentials?”
“I doubt if it will be necessary. I have the feeling that the public will be welcome.” He laughed. “It’s the only way that the participants will be able to bask in the applause of a grateful audience. But I shall be glad to hand you a camera, if need be, and allow you to pose as a photo news hound sniffing out a story.”

“Arf,” I said, sounding like a rabid Chihuahua. I was finally beginning to wake up. “Thanks. See you this afternoon. It should be interesting.”

 ©2020 by Peter Athas

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

%d bloggers like this: