Project Novel: Tongue In The Mail, Chapters 20 & 21

We’re in the homestretch of our serialized novel. There’s only one more week to go.

In this installment, Nicholas pays a visit to Rev. Cyril Goodfriend and learns some disturbing things about his friend and classmate Jack. In Chapter 21, Nicholas has a long chat with Camille and learns the ugly truth behind Guy Zerngue’s arrest for murder.

There were two swell musical references in this installment:

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

Our story continues after the break.

CHAPTER 20

“Would you like coffee, tea or perhaps something a bit stronger?” Reverend Goodfriend said with a shy smile.

“I’d love some coffee, please, Reverend Goodfriend,” I said nervously. I knew that a splash of bourbon would have dulled my jitters, but I wanted to be as sharp as a scimitar.

“Please, call me Cyril. Cream and sugar?”

“No thanks. Black, please.”

“Are you quite sure? I brew a rather strong cup of coffee.”

“Good, that’s just the way I like it, strong and black.”

My mind wandered for a second after paraphrasing Bill Sutton’s stock joke about how he liked his coffee and women. “I see that you’re acclimated to coffee, Louisiana style,” I added.

“Except when it has chicory,” he said. “I’ll be right back,”

While Cyril puttered in the kitchen, I looked around the cozy, cluttered living room. Pictures and memories dominated the room. Pictures of his late wife Constance-a stunning brunette who towered over her husband. Pictures of Jack-graduating from high school with long hair and a peace symbol pinned to his gown. Pictures of Cyril-looking dapper in clerical garb as he ministered to his flock.

Above the mantle hung a large black and white family portrait with two boys, one of whom was definitely Jack. I was surprised; I didn’t know that Jack had a brother. I walked closer to the fireplace to take a better look. I was right. The other boy in the picture had to be Jack’s brother. He had the ubiquitous Goodfriend nose pasted onto Constance’s face.

I felt uneasy as Cyril entered the room. He carried a red wicker tray, which held two cups, a small coffee pot and some oatmeal cookies.

I walked back to the large and comfy sofa and settled in. “Thank you,” I said as Cyril placed my cup on a coaster. “This is a beautiful house. How long have you lived here?”

“Ever since we came to New Orleans in the Sixties.”

“Do you ever get lonely rattling around this large house?”

“Oh, oh. You sound like yet another realtor eager to list the house for sale.”

“It must be in the blood; my parents are in real estate.”

“Is that so? Seriously, I love this house. I have no desire to move into some modern suburban-style condo. After living with 12-foot ceilings all these years, I find myself constantly ducking whenever I’m inside a modern dwelling.”

“I agree,” I said, resisting the impulse to say no shit. “I hate most houses built after 1950. They have no character at all.” I pointed to one of the pictures of Cyril in full clerical regalia. “Where was your parish?” I asked.

“I’ve had two parishes here. The first one was St. Charles Presbyterian, not far from here. I used to walk to work every day.” He absent-mindedly smoothed his thick white hair. “Then in the late Sixties, I became the pastor at the First Presbyterian Church on South Claiborne.”

I sipped my coffee. “Oh, that’s not far from me.”

“Really? Where do you live?”

“Pine Street. Tell me, do you miss the ministry?”

He shook his head. “Well, I miss working with young people, but I don’t miss all of the politicking and paperwork. More coffee?” He paused and refilled both of our cups. “I enjoyed meeting your father. He’s such a gregarious fellow.”

“That’s an understatement,” I said with a nervous laugh. Now that the pleasantries were over, it was time to find out more about Jack. I pointed at the portrait and said, “When was that picture taken? It’s stunning.”

“Oh, thank you. In the early Sixties. If I’m not mistaken, Jack wanted to be an astronaut at that point.” He smiled fondly, but then his face lost its healthy pink hue and became gray. “That was right before Tommy’s accident. He drowned; you know.”

I didn’t know and I’m afraid that I gasped. “I’m so sorry. It must have been difficult for all of you.”

“Indeed, it was, especially for Jack. Tommy was the oldest and Jack worshipped him. Poor Jack saw Tommy drown. Do you know the story?” Cyril took out a handkerchief and softly blew his nose.

“No. Are you sure you want to go into it right now?”

I was shocked to learn that Jack had experienced, and witnessed, such a childhood tragedy. Poor Jack. I understood why he wouldn’t tell casual acquaintances but why hadn’t he told me?  I’d thought that we were close friends and this denial of intimacy hurt. I wondered if anyone at the law school knew about Tommy Goodfriend’s death or even his existence. Did Ian? Susan?

“Oh, I don’t mind,” Cyril said. “At the time, Jack was nine and Tommy, twelve. We were at my family’s place in Maine at the seashore. The boys were out frolicking in the surf. Foolishly, they had no adult supervision, so they were all alone on the beach.” His eyelids drooped like broken mini-blinds and he looked down at the floor.

I felt sorry for Cyril and feebly tried to reassure him. “You can’t blame yourself,” I said softly. “If the boys were good swimmers, they were old enough to be alone in the water.”

He nodded. “Tommy, in fact, swam like a little fish. Most people thought of him as the classic PK, you know, preacher’s kid. Tommy was born sensible. Now, Jack, on the other hand, was a little scamp, that is, until the accident.”

He sighed and drank some coffee. Then, he went on in an unusually hushed voice for a preacher. “Well, the boys swam out too far. Something hit Tommy in the back of the head, debris of some kind-nobody ever knew what it was-and he went down. Jack froze in terror. The doctors told us that he’d experienced some form of hysterical paralysis. So, he couldn’t help Tommy, all he could do was watch him go under. Horrible. Poor boy.” He rubbed his neck and gulped. “My wife was outside and heard screaming. We immediately swam out and brought them ashore. We tried reviving Tommy, but it was too late…” Cyril suddenly looked ancient and frail.

“I’m sorry. You didn’t have to tell me such a painful story,” I leaned over and patted his hand.

“No, that’s all right, Nick. I often think of Tommy. Jack was devastated by his brother’s death.”

Cyril looked much better. He seemed to find talking about this tragedy therapeutic and wanted to talk about his surviving son. “It took Jack a long time to decide what he wanted to do,” he said. “I had hoped that he might enter the clergy. But I was pleased when he went back to school and got his Ph.D. in history at Harvard. I thought that academia was the perfect place for him. But I was puzzled and, frankly, vexed when he taught so briefly at George Washington. I didn’t understand why he preferred to drift around Europe and teach at American schools in France and Germany to teaching at a major university. Strange.”

He took a sip of coffee before continuing. “And his interest in law school surprised me too. He’s never had the combative temperament that a lawyer seems to need. But the law is much steadier than what he had been doing.” He shrugged, then smiled. “And to my relief, he thrived in law school.”

Again, I was surprised. I didn’t know that Jack had wandered around Europe as an itinerant teacher. Jack had told me that he’d quit his job and gone directly to law school. Why had Jack lied about when he’d quit GW? It was a gratuitous lie; there was no disgrace in changing careers, then traveling for a few years.

I began to wonder if Jack had ever told me the truth. Maybe that was why Jack became so nervous when he interrupted Cyril and me at graduation. Did he fear exposure? But why and of what?

I hoped that Cyril hadn’t noticed how shaken I felt; my face was as chalky as his had been when he told me of Tommy’s drowning. But if he had, he didn’t let on. I wanted to find out if Jack had been truthful about at least one part of his academic career and asked: “Jack specialized in colonial American history, didn’t he?”

He nodded and laughed. “Actually, part of his dissertation dealt with a disreputable 17th Century ancestor of ours, Judge Basil Goodfriend. The old boy was a great admirer of the hangman’s deterrent effect on crime.”

Relieved that Jack had some capacity for honesty, I shrugged and said, “But hanging was a common penalty for many crimes that we send people to jail for now, like burglary.”

“I’m aware of that. However, Basil, shall we say, exceeded his jurisdiction and condemned people for all sorts of crimes that were not capital offenses even back then.”

“Like what?”

With a bland expression on his face, Cyril looked me straight in the eye and said, “Oh, adultery and other morals offenses. My ancestor was very pious and, apparently, quite mad. Basil hated sin so much that he believed that sinners should be executed rather than facing ostracism or humiliation in the stocks. Alas, several of these sinners were actually executed.”

“What happened to the Judge?”

“Poor fellow. He was too Puritanical even for his fellow Puritans. Unfortunately, insanity was poorly understood back then, and Basil was charged with witchcraft.”

I nodded as if I understood, but I was bewitched, bothered, and bewildered like the old show tune.

He went on, “Because of his previously distinguished service, Basil wasn’t burned at the stake but executed on the same gallows that he had sentenced others to die on. They apparently considered hanging to be a more humane and dignified means of execution.” He wrinkled his nose. “How little we have learned since then.”

With a shiver, I recalled the killer’s first letter: “Miss Kostecki was executed because of her flagrant immorality.”

Even if it was a coincidence, it was creepy. Both Jack’s ancestor and the Tulane Law killer had sentenced their victims to death based on a demented sense of moral superiority; just like an anti-abortion zealot who kills a doctor and claims that he did it to save lives. But I was leaping to some wild conclusions. After all, it was 1992 and not 1692. We no longer burn witches, but watch them on daytime talk shows instead.

Oddly enough, Cyril began to laugh. “Of course, this story was never told within our family. Jack discovered it during his studies. When I learned of the mad Judge’s crimes, I finally understood why so many of the early Goodfriend men became clerics; penance for Basil’s sin of confusing himself with the Almighty. It’s traditional for one boy in each family to devote himself to serving God. The others devote themselves to serving mammon. My father was one of the merchant princes. That’s how a man of the cloth can afford to live in this splendid neighborhood.”

I sat on the couch smiling at Cyril, but my mind was filled with unwelcome suspicions about Jack. I wondered if it was possible that his discovery of Basil’s crimes had triggered an insane identification with the judge; leading to the mayhem at Tulane Law School. No, I thought, that’s ridiculous; far-fetched. Jack couldn’t be Basil, but did he believe that he was? Possibly. I knew that if I didn’t stop jumping to conclusions that I’d soon be crazier than old Judge Goodfriend.

After a long pause, I finally responded to Cyril’s comment about his neighborhood. “Oh, I love this area too,” I said. “I think that Walnut is one of the prettiest streets in town, especially since it’s right next to Audubon Park.”

Cyril grinned. “Fortunately, I’ve never found any escaped zoo primates swinging from the oak trees out back.”

I was relieved that the tone of the conversation had briefly lightened. It didn’t last long, and it was my fault. “Have you ever considered returning to New England?” I asked.

“Mercy no. I’ve gotten used to the climate here and the thought of a Boston winter makes me shiver. My native region has evoked only unpleasant memories for me since Tommy’s death. After the funeral, I requested a transfer and we’ve been here ever since. New Orleans is where my home and friends are. Massachusetts is where I go to visit my relations. Alas, most of my trips up there now are for funerals.” He looked over wistfully at a picture of his late wife on the beach. “Would you like some more coffee?”

“Is your offer of something a bit stronger still open? I’d love a splash of bourbon in my coffee, if you have some, please.”

Cyril laughed and fetched a bottle of Maker’s Mark. After pouring the fine whiskey, he leaned forward. “How do you think Jack will withstand the pressure of working for that high-powered law firm?” he said, clearing his throat.

I was no longer certain that I knew his son well enough to offer a valid opinion. “As well as he withstood the rigors of law school; magnificently,” I fibbed. “Jack never seems to show any signs of stress. I envy his calm.”

“Even I don’t know what goes on beneath that calm exterior of his.” Cyril’s tone was surprisingly sharp. “That was school, however, and Jack has always excelled academically. I wonder how he’ll get along with the other lawyers at the firm, the partners in particular.”

“Well, Jack liked more people in our class than I did. He thought that twenty percent of them were recognizably human and I’d put the figure closer to ten percent. He’ll get on fine.”

“How did he get along with the faculty?”

I shrugged. “About as well as can be expected. There’s not much social interaction between the students and professors.”

For some reason, I felt reluctant to tell Cyril how much Jack had disliked Cohn and Maragall. But who among the students had liked them? To know them was to loathe them.

Cyril rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “That’s interesting. I asked you because Jack has contradictory feelings about authority figures and tends to run away whenever a conflict with authority arises. That is, of course, why he left the history department at GW. And it was at that point that Jack became a conservative.”

This explanation for Jack’s political evolution intrigued me. Jack had, once again, told me a different story. “How so?” I said. “Jack told me that he evolved from a McGovernite into a Reaganite because he was older and more realistic.”

“Much of his born-again conservatism resulted from his conflicts with his chairman at GW. Jack claimed that the chairman was a Marxist who persecuted him because of his faith. Piffle!”

He sipped his coffee before elaborating, “After a fine start, Jack lost interest in his job. When he was forced by his chairman to choose between publishing or perishing, as the academic aphorism goes, he chose instead to run away to Europe. Right before he left, he caused a stink at GW by accusing some of his colleagues of partaking in some disgraceful sexual activity. Apparently, I did not adequately teach my son one of Christ’s wisest ideas: Judge not or ye shall be judged.”

I began to feel agitated again. Didn’t Cyril know that sexual harassment had been one of the “reasons” for Maragall and Cohn’s “executions?” Why was he telling me this all this? I kept my eyes on the coffee table and plowed on. “Did anything come of the charges?”
“No, Jack failed to follow up. To this day, I am uncertain if he knew anything or if he was merely trafficking in slander. Nick, do you see now why I’m so worried about my son’s future?”

I nodded and then changed the subject. “You wouldn’t happen to have a copy of Jack’s dissertation that I could borrow, would you? I’d love to read it. I was a history major myself.”

To my surprise, Cyril smiled like a proud parent. “Well, I’ve got a copy somewhere, but as you can see housekeeping is not my forte.” He pointed at the disheveled room. “Tell you what, I’ll look for it later and when I find it, I’ll copy it for you. Let me get your address. Now, where has my address book gone to? Mercy.”

Cyril was determined to find his address book. As he hunted for it on a desk overflowing with stacks of paper taller than the average NBA player, I wondered if I’d read too much into his telling me about Judge Goodfriend. At first, I’d thought that he might be sending me some sort of signal about Jack. Perhaps Cyril was simply amused by the tale of this blackest of Goodfriend black sheep.

Cyril then took me on a tour of a house that was crowded with both memories and belongings. We weaved through hallways jammed with bookcases and rooms loaded with antiques that even Lovejoy would approve of. I murmured my appreciation of the house, but couldn’t concentrate on the tour. I was preoccupied with all that I’d learned about my surprisingly weird friend, Jack. Mr. Normal was turning out to be Dr. Strange.

We returned to the living room in silence. After a decent interval of lighthearted chit-chat, Cyril said, “It must have been a difficult last year of law school for you, Nick, because of those horrible murders. I know that Jack finds them too painful to discuss. Do you think that they’ve arrested the right man? From what little I know, I have my doubts.”

I was, briefly, speechless. “What makes you say that?”

“Just holding despicable views doesn’t make this Zeringue fellow a murderer.”

I was noncommittal. “Well, I think it’s wrong for them to imply that he’s a serial killer.”

“My point exactly. Do you think that he’s clever enough to have gotten away with it for so long?”

“I have no idea,” I lied. “I barely knew him.”

I was getting uncomfortable with lying to Cyril. I looked at my watch in mock dismay and said, “Oh my, where has the time gone? I must be going. Thanks for everything, I really enjoyed it.”

Cyril smiled and grasped my right hand with both of his. “No, thank you, Nick. You’ve made me feel better. Please come again.”

I walked home through the quiet and deserted Tulane campus. As I watched a blue jay dive-bombing a cat in the quad, I realized that all the hopes that I had for my visit with Jack’s father had evaporated. I’d arrived hoping that talking to Cyril would convince me that my suspicions of Jack were absurd, but I’d left feeling confused. Once more, I wondered if I knew Jack at all or if I was just acquainted with a mask that he wore to conceal his pain and, perhaps, his lunacy.

As I trudged homeward, I tried to think of something else but I couldn’t stop speculating about Jack. Why had he told me so many lies? Why had Cyril really invited me over? Why had he dwelled at such length on Jack’s debacle at GW? Was our conversation merely therapy for Cyril or was it a warning? I had vain hopes that something in his dissertation might illuminate who, or what, C. Wellington Goodfriend really was.

CHAPTER 21

It was one in the afternoon when I got home from the bar review course. I was soaking wet because I’d forgotten my umbrella; a big mistake in New Orleans in June. The mail was even soggier than I was: wet bills, dripping junk mail and a damp, unmarked envelope. After changing clothes, I opened the mystery envelope. Inside was a barely legible note. It took a few minutes, but I finally deciphered it:

Meet me tomorrow afternoon on the patio at Croissant D’Or at 3 PM.  I’ll be sitting at a corner table. Don’t greet me by name. Tell no one about this meeting.  CD

I assumed that “CD” was Camille Doucet. I’d tried getting in touch with him ever since the press conference, but he seemed to be avoiding me. And I wasn’t the only one. Louis was certain that Camille was ducking him too. Camille had even stayed away from their St. Aug. band reunion/crawfish boil for the first time ever. Louis and I both thought that was weird; Camille loves eating crawfish more than making an arrest.

Maybe I’d overestimated how tight Camille and I were.

Maybe I was just a fertile source of information on a baffling case for him and nothing more. My feelings were hurt, but I’m realistic; people use each other every day. I’d wanted to tell him about Jack, but perhaps it was lucky that Camille was avoiding me. Enough time had passed since I spoke to Cyril that my fears about Jack had started to fade like a book left out in the sun too long. But there was still some print visible on the page. Cyril had sent me Jack’s dissertation. It was interesting but I didn’t understand him any better than I had before reading it.

I reread the note. Why was Camille sneaking around? Did he have something important to tell me? I had something to tell him too. I knew that the only way that I could get rid of my doubts about Jack was to tell someone about them and Camille was that someone. Lucky him.

The next day, I drove down to the French Quarter. I bet it’s easier to find a rosary at Pat Robertson’s house than a parking space in the Quarter. I was lucky and found a spot on Esplanade not far from the old Mint. It was a two-hour parking zone, so there was a chance that I wouldn’t get a ticket. But you can never tell, this city has meter maids who swarm around the Quarter like mosquitoes in a swamp. And mosquitoes love to bite me.

When I got to Croissant D’Or, I bought an iced coffee and a chocolate croissant. The cafe is fairly small, but some strategically placed mirrors give it an illusion of size. The patio is light and airy. I like to sit out there when it’s cooler and listen to the pleasant gurgling of the fountain. But in the summertime, it’s hotter than a greenhouse on the patio. If it had been up to me, we’d have sat inside under a ceiling fan and worshipped the air-dish. But it wasn’t up to me; Camille loves the heat more than a Texan loves football.

I walked out to the deserted patio and spied Camille seated at a corner table as promised. Except for the shades perched on his broad nose, Camille’s clothes were wildly inconsistent with the instructions he’d given me. His outfit was also just plain wild. He was wearing a Jazz Fest Hawaiian shirt, purple shorts, and red hi-top sneakers. He looked about as inconspicuous as Mason Nash at a rap concert.

“Cool disguise, dude.” I put my goodies on the table, shook his hand and sat down.

Camille rolled his eyes. “Very funny. I just wanted to be discreet. Didn’t want you showing up with that Romanian vulture.”

“Hungarian.”

“Whatever. That Nagy guy is a wild hair up my ass.”

“Gimme a break. I wouldn’t bring Zoltan along; not unless he was buying. So, what’s the deal? You with the CIA now?”

“Sorry, but this goddamn case is making me paranoid.”

I grinned and said, “I noticed. I’m surprised you want to talk about the case. I thought you guys had it gift wrapped and addressed to Fall Guy Zeringue.”

Camille looked around the patio. “Well, I’m partially satisfied,” he said quietly. “I’m convinced that Zeringue is involved. But I need to get something off my chest or I’m gonna explode. This has got to be just between you, me and the fountain, NP. I don’t want this getting out; it could cost me my job.”

That explained why we’d met on the patio. Tourists are usually the only ones deranged enough to sit outside on summer days when thunderstorms are forecast.

“Sure, Camille,” I said. “You know I can keep my mouth shut.”

He nodded and said, “Here’s what’s going down. Bet I know what you’ve been thinking and it’s true, Zeringue’s arrest was timed to shut Mason Nash’s big fucking mouth.”

“Isn’t that cynical, even for a cop?”

“Look man, this is the real world, not one of your law books where everything is so tidy. Shit! Haven’t your law profs taught you that a grand jury is the DA’s creature? Hell, if Nash asked them to sing “Iko Iko” they’d do it.”

“I know but…”

He cut me off. “Zeringue isn’t the first suspect busted on a hunch and slim evidence and he won’t be the last. But most of them are poor black kids. You telling me that we should treat Zeringue any different because his daddy’s rich?”

“Hell no,” I snapped. “That’s bullshit and you know it!”

“Don’t be so naive, man,” he said with a dismissive wave. “Zeringue’s got a motive. Sutton was gonna expose him as a bottom dwelling, pig fucking racist. Zeringue admits he argued with Sutton that day. And he has a lousy alibi. Sure, we haven’t got shit on him in the other cases. But I figured that a few weeks in the tent city would loosen his lips.”

“Has he talked?”

“Nope, he’s sticking to his story. All he’s done is sweat like a fat man in a sauna.”  He shrugged a who-gives-a-shit shrug. “Well, it’s out of my hands now anyway.”

“What do you mean, out of your hands?”

“I’m off the case and on vacation.”

“What?” I exclaimed, almost shouting.

“Keep your voice down, man. You think I dress like this for work?” he said, bitterly. “Shit! The DA’s office was worried because we didn’t have a murder weapon. So, one was planted in Zeringue’s closet.”

“And you refused to go along, right?”

“Yeah, you right. I don’t work that way and I’m not about to start just because everybody has a hard-on to nail that racist asshole Zeringue.” He swallowed some coffee as if to eradicate a nasty taste from his mouth. “I hate it when cops break the law. And it’s a stupid move on a practical level. Zeringue’s got money and a helluva good defense team. Framing somebody like that is tricky.”

“What’s the so-called murder weapon?”

“It’s a walking stick, a cane, with a heavy wood handle.”

“A walking stick?”

“A walking stick,” he repeated.

“I don’t remember seeing Zeringue with a walking stick.” I shook my head and saw some sweat hit the table.

“Zeringue told us he broke his leg last year and used crutches for a while. That gave some bright boy the idea that a walking stick would be the ideal murder weapon.”

“Who’s the bright boy?”

“One of the investigators from the DA’s office.”

“I should’ve known,” I said, pondering the latest chapter from the annals of prosecutorial misconduct, Mason Nash-style. “What does Zeringue have to say about it?”

Camille bit his lip. “Denies that he’s ever seen it. But no jury in this Parish will believe anything he says once the prosecution is through working him over.”

He leaned forward, took off his shades and looked me right in the eye. “I still think there’s more to it than just Zeringue. And I’m not talking about one of Nash’s crackpot conspiracy theories either.”

Camille stopped talking and stretched out his long legs under the table. He accidentally kicked me just like he had the first time we met in Louis’s office. “Sorry, man,” he said. “I hate acting like the case is solved when some psycho-killer may still be out there. But the boys upstairs wanna go to trial as soon as possible. Once it got out that Zeringue was hassling black students everyone wanted his fucking head on a platter.”

I smiled and pictured Mason Nash in drag dressed as Salome. He was doing the dance of the seven veils while carrying a platter bearing Zeringue’s head. It was not a pretty sight.

“Let’s back up,” I said. “What do you mean that there’s more to it than just Zeringue? Skinheads?”

“Hell no. But old Guy spent a lot of time with your main man, Bob Benjamin.”

“That’s weird, I don’t remember those guys hanging out. Hmmm…I think they’re both members of the Federalist Society.”

Camille perked up. “What’s that, some extreme right-wing, pro-Duke group or something?”

“Nah, nothing that colorful.” I sipped my iced coffee; the ice was melting too fast because of the heat. The glass was sweating profusely as was I. I wanted to move inside, but I knew that Camille would balk. He was too big to argue with, so I kept on talking. “It’s a conservative law student group that worships the doctrine of original intent and whines about the martyrdom of Robert Bork. But it’s not a white supremacist front.”

“Were any of the victims involved with this Federalist Society?”

“Nope. Have you forgotten that they were a bunch of lib-er-als?” I laughed and sipped my coffee. “Whatever happened to that psychiatric evaluation of Benjamin?”

He shrugged his shoulders so hard that I thought he’d tear his shirt. “Inconclusive. It seems that Benjamin doesn’t fit any of the known serial killer profiles. He’s just an egomaniacal control freak; he’s not ready for a padded room.”

“I could’ve told you that and my fee is lower.”

“It was his quarter, not ours, but I’ll keep that in mind. The only interesting thing I learned is that he has an elastic view of the truth. Means we’re right to doubt his credibility.”

“Hell, that just makes him a typical lawyer. What about Zeringue? Has anybody done a psychiatric evaluation of him?”

“That’s up to the defense,” he said, shaking his head. “The prosecution doesn’t want him to be nuts. Remember, the plan is to prosecute Zeringue for Sutton’s murder, with the motive being self-preservation, his and daddy Z’s. The only place he’ll ever be tried for the other murders is by our friends in the media.”

It was a cynically effective approach for the prosecution to take. I was impressed; unless something else turned up, it would work, and Mason Nash could write his own ticket for higher office. Governor Nash. Senator Nash. I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or vomit.

“Let’s get back to the Zeringue-Benjamin connection,” I said. “Where and when were they seen together?”

“Where the hell else would you find Zeringue?” he snorted contemptuously. “In bars, of course! Shit, my people spent weeks touring every bar Uptown with that son-of-a-bitch. Sometimes they saw him hanging out with Benjamin and his crowd. Doesn’t that Benjamin guy ever play with anybody his own age?”

No, he didn’t. Benjamin had a circle of sycophants who were all at least ten years younger. I thought that Bob avoided the company of his peers because he had a deep-seated need to be deferred to and agreed with. He was a born senior partner.

“But when were they seen together?” I said.

“Off and on since we started following Zeringue. But they were especially palsy-walsy right before and after Cohn’s murder.”

“What did they say about these bibulous episodes?” I said with a nasal drawl. I hoped to amuse him by using a word that I’d never heard anywhere but in a W.C. Fields movie. I was trying to cheer myself up too. Ah, yes.

It worked briefly; he laughed softly. “They claimed that they ran into each other. But Zeringue told us that they talked a lot about the murders.”

“Big fucking deal. After Sophia’s murder that’s all anyone at the law school talked about. They probably compared notes on their interrogations.” I shook my head. “Sounds like a dead end to me.”

We were quiet for what seemed like hours but must have been only thirty seconds. I was procrastinating. Then, I remembered something that gave me an excuse to delay telling him my new theory. “Did Cohn say anything when he came to?”

He shrugged. “Nope. Just gibberish.”

I felt nervous again, but it was time to pop the question. “Can I ask you something else, about your interviews with some of the other Law Review people after Cohn’s murder.”

“Sure, why not? Shoot.”

“Do you remember questioning my friend, Jack Goodfriend?”

He stopped to think. “Lemme see…yeah, I remember. Sort of a quiet, egghead type. Graying hair; thick glasses, right?”

I nodded.

“What about it?”

“Did he seem nervous to you? Notice anything strange about him?” I said, probing around the edges.

“Nervous? They were all nervous as hell; just like you were after you found Sutton’s body.” He winked at me and paused to watch a woman wearing lycra tights walk past us. “Nice. Where were we? Oh yeah, Jack Goodfriend. As I recall, he was cooperative. Said he wasn’t at the office that night and it checked out okay. There wasn’t any reason to be suspicious of him. Why do you ask?”

“I don’t really know,” I said, hesitantly. “Jack’s been acting weird lately. And I’ve learned some things that make me wonder about him. It’s probably nothing.”

“Tell me about it.”

I did. I couldn’t read him well enough to tell what he was thinking, but at least he wasn’t laughing at the wilder parts of my theory-no, my fear-about Jack. Finally, Camille tapped his temple and said, “Do you think the Rev. was warning you that his kid’s mentally unstable?”

“Maybe, maybe not. I hope I’m just being paranoid, but what if Jack is mentally ill? What if…”

I felt overwhelmed by a surge of contradictory emotions: fear, worry, hatred, compassion. As I tried fighting off these irrational feelings, I bit down hard on my lower lip; too hard.  As I grimaced in pain, I bit my tongue. The throbbing sensation in my mouth conjured up the image of that leering calf’s tongue taunting me from the box. This grotesque reverie ended when I tasted blood and felt it dribble down my chin: sticky and warm. It was a mess. I was a mess too; a confused and bloody mess.

Camille leaned forward, gave me a napkin, and put his hand on my shoulder. “I’m worried about you, NP. Don’t you ever sleep?”

“I’ve always had problems with insomnia.”

“I got an idea. Why dontcha visit la Monique for some more ooh-la-la? Look at the bright side, she’s off the hook.” He shook his head and frowned. “But seriously, what’s Goodfriend’s motive? Do you really think that having an ancestor who got his rocks off by executing 17th Century sinners is a motive for murder?”

“I don’t know. But if he’s crazy…” I was gasping for breath, like a chain smoker trying to run a marathon.

“Relax, NP…”

“What about the death threat? It was a warning from someone who didn’t want to kill me. Zeringue hates my guts! Why would he warn me?”

“Okay, okay. Tell you what, I’ll nose around some,” he said, scratching his chin. “Goodfriend’s about my age, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Did he go to Nam or spend any time in the military?”

“No.”

He bared his teeth and grinned. “I’m not surprised, most upper middle-class white boys didn’t. He ever talk about the draft with you? Like saying whether he went the conscientious objector route, lucked out in the lottery or just stayed in school until his hair turned gray.”

I shrugged. “I know he was against the war and didn’t want to go. Wait a minute. Jack got up and left abruptly one day when Charles was talking about his experiences with the draft board here. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but…”

“You weren’t an amateur detective then. Okay, he’ll have a selective service file. So, I’ll humor you and find out what his draft classification was.”

“Isn’t that information confidential?”

“Not when you’re 6’8″ and wave a badge at them. Anyway, I want to find out if Goodfriend got a psychiatric deferment.” He shrugged. “But, of course, even if he did, it might not mean shit. Maybe some anti-war doctor declared him crazy so he wouldn’t get his ass blown off.”

He paused to think. “Wasn’t his daddy the pastor at St. Charles Presbyterian back then? Maybe someone on the draft board was in the old man’s congregation and cut Jack some slack.”

“I thought that Catholics had all the clout in this town.”

“Nope, the WASPS buzz around the corridors of power down here just like they do up north in America,” Camille joked, hoping to relieve the tension.

It did. “I’m sure this will come to nothing,” I sighed.

Camille looked alarmed. I didn’t know whether it was about my mental stability or Jack’s. He changed the subject. “How’s the bar review class going?”

“B-O-R-I-N-G.”

“Glad to see you can spell. Is Goodfriend in the class?”

“No. He’s working for a firm in Boston, so he’s up there studying for the Massachusetts bar.”

“If anything turns up, will he be back here any time soon?”

I nodded. “In July, to pack up his stuff and be Ian Carolan’s best man.”

“Good.” Camille leaned forward and focused his sternest look on me. It was a combination bad cop stare and older brother glare. I was touched that he was so concerned.

He continued, “Now, let me give you some advice, NP. You look like warmed over shit and you’re pale even for a white boy law student. I’ll check Jack Goodfriend out so you can stop feeling guilty about suspecting him. In the meantime, I want you to chill and start acting like a human being again. So, listen to frere Camille and please get some sleep, eat a decent meal, get drunk, get laid.”

©2020 by Peter Athas

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

2 thoughts on “Project Novel: Tongue In The Mail, Chapters 20 & 21

  1. Okay, now I’m hooked on this story!

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