Project Novel: Tongue In The Mail, Chapters 22 & 23

The plot thickens as speculation continues about whodunit if it wasn’t Guy Zeringue. The action peaks in Chapter 23 after our characters finish the bar exam.

There are several musical shout-outs in this entry. The second one is the biggie; tease, tease.

There are only two more installments to go. A reminder that you can catch up on earlier chapters of Project Novel by clicking here.

Our story continues after the break.

CHAPTER 22

I couldn’t follow Camille’s advice and relax while he checked into Jack because I had to study for the bar exam. The next day, I was late for the bar review class and had to sneak into Room 102.

Diana had saved me a seat in the last row, which, in turn, saved me from having to sit up front and look Myra Schreck in the eye during her criminal law lecture. Schreck’s the kind of feminist who gives feminism an undeservedly bad reputation. She traces all social problems to a single source: pornography. It’s hard to tell how seriously to take her more extreme views because her prose is as clear as the air over a chemical plant. She once wrote that all sex between men and women is symbolic rape because women can’t consent until they’re fully emancipated. I’m a pro-feminist man, but as far as Myra Schreck is concerned, I’m just another rapist.

As Schreck droned on about the exclusionary rule, Diana leaned over and whispered into my ear, “Want to have lunch with Susan and me when Myra stops torturing us?”

I smiled; thinking of Frank Zappa’s song: “The Torture Never Stops.” I put a finger to my lips and said, “Quiet or she’ll think you’re consorting with the enemy.”

“I bet Myra thinks that whispering is symbolic oral sex,” she murmured.

After class, I joined Diana and Susan for lunch. We ate in silence punctuated by sighs. I was glad that the subject of Guy Zeringue hadn’t come up. I was afraid of blurting out that evidence had been planted to frame him. I felt like a witness who was reluctantly taking the Fifth. I had the right to remain silent, but should I? Was there was any way that I could tell Zoltan Nagy and make it look like the leak hadn’t come from Camille? Not bloody likely, I thought. If there was going to be a fall guy in this case, I preferred that it be Zeringue. He had the right first name for it.

As if she could read my mind, Diana said, “I was just thinking about Guy Zeringue, our neo-Nazi classmate.” She shook her head and absent-mindedly pushed some stray chickpeas around on her plate with her fork. “I felt much safer after he was arrested.”

Even though I’d been trying to avoid the subject, I couldn’t let that go unchallenged. I suppose I already had the instincts of a defense attorney. “Zeringue is only charged with killing Bill,” I said, for what seemed like the millionth time. “I don’t think they’ve got much on him in the other murders.”

“Really? But they sound so certain that Zeringue is a serial killer,” shot back Diana.

“Read between the lines. All the cops have said is that they aren’t investigating other suspects right now. It’s the press who made Zeringue our answer to Hannibal Lecter.”

“Nicholas, I agree with you about Zeringue,” Susan said. “The murders were carefully planned. And he strikes me as a drunk who couldn’t find a grave in a cemetery.”

A frowning Diana said, “He’s a fool all right but I hope that he’s guilty. I want this ordeal to end. It’s damaged the lives of innocent people like Monique Gautreaux and Amalia.” She looked at us, expecting to see raised eyebrows; mine were. “I know what you’re thinking. Innocent isn’t a word that I’d ordinarily use in connection with Amalia either, but in this case it fits.”

She was right.

“Why haven’t the police said what the murder weapon was?” wondered Susan. “They’ve said it’s a blunt instrument but what does that mean? And why haven’t they found it yet? Or have they?”

She was looking me right in the eye. I had to think about it for a minute. I’d promised to keep quiet, but the secret was eating away at me.

“Well?” prompted Susan.

I made them agree to keep quiet. Then I looked around the room to make sure it was safe to speak. I told them about the ‘murder weapon.’

“What is it?” Diana said.

“A walking stick with a stout wood handle.”

Diana sat up straight in her chair. “A walking stick? I don’t remember Guy Zeringue with a walking stick.”

“They say he used it after he broke his leg,” I said.

“I remember seeing him on crutches,” Diana said. “But a walking stick? That seems old fashioned for a guy who still goes to Florida for spring break with his fraternity brothers, dude. Now, if the weapon was an umbrella, that would make sense. Who’d ever notice an umbrella around here?” She pointed outside. It was hurricane season and we were having yet another July shitstorm.

I looked over at Susan. She looked uncomfortable and remained unusually quiet as we turned to the bar exam. We were tired and punchy, so Diana and I started joking about how some of the Civil Law’s unique terms sound like they come out of “The Story of O.” The Civil Code has some kinky sounding things in it: forced heirship, naked ownership, and dominant servitudes. I sang a verse of the Tubes tune “Mondo Bondage” but Diana clapped her hand over my mouth to prevent me from segueing into “Whip It.” Instead of cracking the whip or joining in, Susan silently gazed out the window as our banter got raunchier and raunchier. She looked upset; I knew it wasn’t the bondage jokes, my singing or even the bar exam. I wondered if one of her kids was in trouble or sick.

When it was time for us to leave, a concerned-looking Diana asked Susan, “You okay? You’ve been awfully quiet.”

“I’m fine.” Susan tugged at my elbow. “Nicholas, can I bum a ride with you?”

“Sure,” I said. It gave me a good excuse to put off memorizing the rules of negotiable instruments, which is every bit as dull as it sounds. The bar exam is an extension of law school; it’s designed to alternately bore and scare the shit out of you.

Susan and I walked up Newcomb Place toward Oak Street. As we passed Dixon Hall, I heard stringed instruments being tuned: bows scraping across violins and cellos. It was just like the dissonant thoughts about Jack, Zeringue, Sophia, Bill and Camille that kept reverberating through my head. Feedback. Distortion. Confusion. Chaos.

Out of the corner of my eye, I looked over at Susan. I was worried about her; she wasn’t usually this quiet.

“What’s wrong, Susan?” I asked.

She said nothing. I decided to back off and let her speak when she felt up to it.

A loud crack of thunder, sounding like an orchestra of tympanies, intruded on my thoughts and it began pouring again.

We ducked under the roof of Newcomb Chapel and pulled umbrellas out of our backpacks. Frowning, Susan stared at her blood red umbrella. I wondered if she, too, was reminded of how hard it rained the day of Sophia’s memorial service. But her eyes remained fixed on her umbrella and not the sky.

She turned to me and said, “When Diana said that an umbrella was a perfect weapon to hide, the name of the most unlikely murderer popped into my head.”

“Jack Goodfriend?” I blurted out.

Bullseye. Susan’s face fell. She was silent and I used the time to figure out what to tell her. I chose to bide my time and try not to reveal all my suspicions just yet. Candor could be fatal for both of us.

“How did you ever guess that? I’m stunned for the second time in an hour and that’s a record for me,” she said. “Let’s wait until we get to the car.”

It stopped raining as we crossed Broadway and walked silently to the car. It was a typically muggy day and I was glad that I’d parked in the shade because we sat in the car and talked for what seemed like hours.

“Please, go on, Susan,” I said as I rolled down my window.

After a long silence, Susan tugged at her left earring and said, “As you know, Jack and I shared an office at the Law Review. He had these fine English umbrellas that he’d bought in London. They had stout wood handles; mahogany or cherry. He always kept one in the office.”

“So what?” My voice was cool, but my heart was pounding.

“I’m not sure, but I think that umbrella vanished sometime after Cohn was attacked. Of course, I didn’t think anything of it at the time. But now…”

“Holy shit!”

“And there’s something else, Jack kept several pairs of leather gloves in his desk drawer.”

“So? It was cold this winter.”

She shook her head and gulped. “No, the gloves were there all the time. Until sometime right after Cohn was attacked, that is. And they were thin kid gloves, not the kind you wear for warmth, but driving gloves. You know, gloves that someone with a sports car or motorcycle might have. That doesn’t fit my image of Jack.”

I nodded. “Jack drives a sensible Chevy.”

“I know. What do you think?”

“I dunno…” I rubbed my chin and felt beads of sweat gathering on the cleft. “Driving gloves would be useful for hiding fingerprints, wouldn’t they? I always figured that the killer used surgical gloves but if he had more than one pair… Are you positive that the umbrella and gloves disappeared after Cohn’s murder?”

“I have a J.D. so I’d never say that I was positive about anything,” she said with a sly smile. “But I think so.”

“Did you notice anything odd about Jack when Cohn was in the hospital or when the police questioned you guys?”

“Jack seemed a little too calm when everyone on Law Review was under suspicion. Everybody but Jack was jumpy.”

It was getting hotter than salsa verde in the car. The shade was vanishing as the sun shifted its position in the sky. But I couldn’t start the engine and turn on the A/C until I’d heard more. I was afraid that I’d get into an accident just sitting there in park. “Did Jack say anything peculiar right after any of the murders?” I said. “Something that seemed innocent then.”

“Hmm…” She scratched her chin as she thought about it. Suddenly, she looked startled. “Hold on. One day after Maragall was killed, Jack started talking about the Buddhist idea of Karmic payback. You know what I mean?”

I nodded.

“Jack said that immoral people usually get what they deserve and that maybe it was payback time for Maragall. I told Jack that adultery wasn’t a capital offense, even for a shit like Maragall.” She opened her purse, pulled out a handkerchief and mopped sweat off her face. “It seemed out of character for sensible Jack to be speculating in such a metaphysical, almost new agey way.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that, Susan.” But I was confused and disturbed. We had just moved to Topsy-Turvy Town, where up is down and down up, and people wear shoes on their hands.

It was too damn hot to think, so I finally gave in and turned on the car and the A/C. As the car idled, my mind raced. I thought of Jack’s dissertation and his ancestor: Basil Goodfriend, the mad Judge who sentenced adulterers to death. But I was still having a hard time believing that Jack was insane, and an even harder time believing that he could be a murderer. But what if Jack wasn’t just a passive observer when his brother had drowned thirty years ago? No, the inquest ruled that it was an accident, I thought. I must be suffering from heat stroke.

Once I was done freaking out, I searched for a rational explanation of Jack’s remarks about Karmic payback. Finally, I said, “Don’t forget, Jack’s a PK. We’re always arguing about whether God exists. Also, Buddhism is an ancient religion. It’s not some silly new age fad like, say, rebirthing.”

Even with the A/C roaring, sweat kept streaming down my face. I tried to explain it all away. “Maybe Jack was putting you on. You know, his sense of humor is drier than the Mojave and lots of people, Charles, for one, think that Jack has no sense of humor.”

“I know that, Nicholas. He wasn’t joking.” She looked at her watch. “I need to get home. I’ve got some errands to run when my son brings the car home; intact hopefully. Shall we?”

I pulled onto the street. My fears about wrecking the car were nearly realized; I almost hit a parked car when I had to swerve to avoid a pothole bigger than Sri Lanka.

We rode in silence. After I parked in front of her house, Susan looked over at me. “Tim’s still not home,” she moaned. “Shit!”

I tried to relieve the tension. “Can’t very well call him a son-of-a-bitch, can you?”

“Don’t push it, Nicholas.”

“Sorry. Hey, maybe he’s out getting his nose pierced to impress some high school harpy.”

Despite my feeble efforts, Susan still looked pensive but not because of her tardy teenager. “Why do you suspect Jack?” she said. “I was so busy talking that I didn’t hear your reasons.”

I tried to keep the details sketchy, but it all came pouring out: the death threat; Jack’s lies; Cyril’s worries; Camille’s reassurances. It all sounded unbelievable, even to me. The paranoid style had seized control of my brain: Topsy-Turvy Town.

“Do you think my theory is crazy?” I asked.

She shook her head. “No crazier than things that have happened in real life, John Wayne Gacey, Jonestown, Son of Sam. Give me the Reader’s Digest version of Doucet’s reaction.”

“He’s skeptical, but he’s looking into it to placate me. Come to think of it, the Zeringue story is just as weird.”

There was a long pause before she said, “There’s something extra disturbing about that threat. Only someone who wanted to spare your life would have done that.”

I nodded. “That’s what I told Camille. Another thing that got to me was the symbolism of the tongue in the mail.” I told her about the Crowded House song.

“Seal my fate, I get your tongue in the mail? Creepy image. That’s not in the hey now song is it?”

“No, it’s called “Love This Life.”

“Spooky. Appropriate too. You think Jack knows that song?”

“Maybe…I dunno…it could just be a bizarre coincidence…”

“…or the killer could be a Stones fan.”

A white Volvo station wagon pulled into the driveway. Tim Wright jumped out of the car; obviously expecting his mom to chew him out. When he saw her sitting in my car, he took advantage of the situation and ran inside. He had nothing to worry about; Susan was too preoccupied to lay a guilt trip on him.

She hesitated before getting out of the car. “You know Nicholas, I’m not really sure that Jack’s things vanished from the office right before the police searched it. Maybe we’re getting carried away. We sound like conspiracy buffs. The next thing you know we’ll find a grassy knoll in the law library and start looking for a Cuban or mob connection.”

“Don’t forget the CIA and KGB.” I played along. “Maybe Jack’s gloves sat in the drawer all that time because he never got around to taking them home. And maybe he took his umbrella home because the semester was winding down. Maybe…”

“Don’t you think that the killer would’ve used more than one murder weapon. And why leather gloves?” she said. “Isn’t it easier to throw something away rather than washing blood off it?

“I don’t know; there wasn’t a lot of blood except with Bill. And it might be safer to reuse a weapon. Nothing for the police to find. On the other hand, disposable gloves are, well, disposable.” I wanted to rest my head on the steering wheel and forget this conversation.

“You know, Nicholas, we’ve been under so much pressure for the last three years that we’re paranoid. But before this fall, all we had to look out for was a metaphorical knife in the back…”

“…and since Sophia’s murder we’ve had to fear the real thing.”

CHAPTER 23

July 12, 1992

The last day of the bar exam found me punchy and with a bad case of writer’s cramp. I’d spent two days sitting in a vast conference room at the Super Dome, writing for seven hours on legal issues that I planned to forget immediately. It’s a brutish rite of passage, designed to make you feel like you’ve been forced to run naked through a rose garden.

I had tried hard to tune out everything else and focus on the bar. But it wasn’t easy: I’m un-American, I have a long attention span and an even longer memory. The Zeringue case had returned to the headlines. His lawyer had filed a motion for a change of venue because of prejudicial pre-trial publicity. The case had attracted so much press coverage that it would be hard to find an unpolluted jury pool anywhere in Louisiana; even places like Bunkie and Cut-Off have cable TV.

Zoltan’s Zeringue article in the Picayune had described the reaction of the African American community to the motion as “a firestorm of criticism.” Even though it sounded like a phrase right out of the dictionary of journalistic clichés, it was true. And they had a right to be outraged. The defense wanted to move the trial to some place where there were fewer black folks. I could almost hear Zeringue’s lawyer telling a jury in rural Allen Parish that the hate letter campaign was the product of a young man’s alcoholic folly. It’s not a bad argument; a jury might buy the Budweiser defense, son of the Twinkie defense.

I saw something on the Keith Archer news one night that upset me. It was Senator Zeringue. His face looked ravaged and decayed. I felt sorry for him. He was no longer a politician I disagreed with, but a father begging for information that would help his son. I was uncomfortable because I knew second-hand that the murder weapon had been planted. I couldn’t help them; Camille could but he didn’t want to, I didn’t blame him. Not only would it wreck his career, but the lines were drawn in the Zeringue case and tipping off the defense would make Camille feel like a traitor. In the public’s mind, the Zeringue case had become tangled up with Rodney King’s beating and the L.A. riot. And Guy Zeringue was no longer an individual but a symbol of racism. I didn’t even want to contemplate the consequences of him walking free any time soon. It would be like sending out invitations for an arsonists and looter’s ball.

I felt old and creaky after the bar exam was over. Ian, Charles, and I staggered out of the Super Dome like three zombies looking for a saloon that served the undead. We were going to dinner. Charles was supposed to drive, but he was so whipped that even his mustache was drooping. It was lucky that we were picking Hope up at the Medical School; I knew that I could draft her into driving. She expected to drive home anyway because Charles let us know that he planned to drink enough to register .25 on a breathalyzer test. But looking at him, I figured that he’d be lucky to still be awake after two glasses of wine.

I sat in the front seat on the way over to TMC. I turned around and asked Ian, “You falling off the wagon tonight?”

“Thud,” he yawned. Ian had dried out after Zeringue’s arrest.

Ian thought that booze had caused Zeringue’s downfall and it scared him sober. Also, Ian’s wife-to-be, Tracy Evans, didn’t drink and had a kid, so he was trying to wean himself from bars. We were all getting old.

Charles double parked in front of the Medical School. Hope waved when she saw me hopping out of Charles’s ancient Peugeot.

“Mind driving three exhausted geezers to Cafe Degas?” I said as I kissed her.

“Not if someone else is buying,” Hope said.

After we finished playing musical drivers, Hope took charge.

The casual approach that New Orleans drivers take to the rules of the road offends her orderly soul. But she’s learned to deal with it by swearing like a Norwegian sailor when somebody cuts her off. Cussing a bus driver, she turned onto North Claiborne Avenue, following the path of wreckage caused when I-10 was built through downtown New Orleans. I looked out the window and saw the ornate clock outside the Doucet’s’ old funeral parlor. It’s one of the last relics of the time when North Claiborne was the center of black Creole New Orleans. It used to be a broad boulevard with a tree-lined neutral ground, but the interstate overpass has turned it into a shooting gallery for crack dealers, gangbangers, and assorted villains. My future clients.

I could have sworn that we were being followed. There was a shit-brown Chevy sedan that kept two or three cars behind us as we turned left on Esplanade and headed for Cafe Degas. But I lost sight of the car after we parked a few blocks away from the French bistro and wrote it off to lingering paranoia.

The main dining room of Cafe Degas is a large screened porch, which is cooled by large fans and small air conditioners. I’d never been there in July before and found the minimalist A/C used in the summertime to be, well, minimal. It was sultry enough to please even Camille, but I was too hungry to whine about the heat.

Dinner was delicious and the wine was even better. Our spirits were as light as our heads after our fourth bottle of wine; especially Ian’s. He chattered away about the elaborate plans that Tracy had made for their wedding and honeymoon.

I felt uncomfortable when Ian told us about a phone call he’d gotten from Jack. Jack was driving south from Boston on Monday. I wasn’t looking forward to seeing him. It’s hard to look someone in the eye and say that you’re glad to see him when you think he may be a murderer. I felt torn apart. Part of me knew that there wasn’t any evidence against Jack except for my overheated imagination. Still, I remained nagged by doubts. I wondered what, if anything, Camille had found out about Jack. When I told Camille about the missing gloves and umbrella, he’d dismissed the gloves as of no interest but seemed interested in the umbrella. I better call him back tomorrow, I thought, he’ll probably tell me that Jack is innocent and to get on with my life. My obsession with the law school murders had become like a macabre waltz. Every time that I danced away from brooding about the murders, I’d been tapped on the shoulder by a new suspicion trying to cut in on my thoughts.

Ian whistled when he looked over our check. I was poorer but had a pleasant buzz on as we divvied up the bill, left a tip and weaved through the cafe. While the rest of us had swilled down French wine as if it were domestic beer, Hope had only two glasses. She looked amused, as if she were back teaching school and chaperoning a group of high-spirited students on a field trip. Make that a group of students high on spirits being chaperoned on a bender.

It had been too warm in the cafe, but it felt glacial compared to the thick and damp air that smacked me in the face when we stepped outside. It was a steamy July night; the kind that makes you feel like you’re swimming against the tide and not walking. My glasses fogged up and I worked up a good sweat just strolling a few blocks to the car. We were lucky it was that close because Charles was weaving and yakking; weaving and yakking. He was happy and so was I. I felt so good that I even expected to sleep through the night for once.

It was dark on the street. I looked around to make sure there weren’t any urban thugs hanging around carrying the assault weapons that the NRA says that sportsmen have a constitutional right to own. Some sport; some men. I remembered Sophia and the day in Torts when she called some gun nut an NRA sleazebag. I chuckled to myself until I remembered that the letter found on her dead body had parroted the NRA line: “I wanted to prove to Miss Kostecki and her ilk that guns do not kill, people do.”

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop thinking about the night Sophia was killed. Impulsively, I reached over and pulled Hope closer to me. She smiled at me, but my good mood was shattered.

The dusty white car was parked under a forlorn streetlight.

Shards of glass lay on the sidewalk; it looked like some creep had shot the light out to entertain himself. It made me think of a Richard Thompson song: “In the dark who can see his face, in the dark who can reach him…Shoot out the lights.

As Hope unlocked the driver’s side, I insisted that Charles ride shotgun. “It’s your car, I’m just the chauffeur’s boy toy,” I joked, trying to recover my high spirits.

Hope always feels compelled to park as close to the curb as possible and that night was no exception; so Ian and I both had to get in on the street side to avoid scraping the door. Charles sat down in the front seat and clumsily fiddled with the backdoor lock. As we waited for him to let us in, I was leaning against the door with Ian behind me. He tapped me on the shoulder and offered to slide over and sit behind Hope, to spare her from my backseat driving, he told her. They all had a good laugh on me, but it isn’t true. I’m not a backseat driver, merely a born navigator. Besides, I can backseat drive, uh, navigate, just as well from the right side of the car as the left. I’m versatile.

While we were debating seating arrangements, I heard an engine start and saw headlights flashing on the next block. Then, I heard a bass-heavy stereo blasting out some three-chord thrash metal crap. Gotta be teenage boys, I thought. But the music didn’t match the car it was blaring out of; it was an ugly brown sedan, which began slowly driving towards us. Out cruising for a bruising in daddy’s car, I thought. But I realized with a start that it was the same Chevy that I thought had been following us before dinner. Richard Thompson’s lyrics still resonated in my head: “He hides like a child, he hides like a child.

After Ian slid across the back seat and I was alone on the street, the brown car accelerated. It happened quickly, but I now remember the details as clearly as if I were a film editor assembling the scene frame by frame. The driver was dressed in black and wore a black ski mask underneath a black baseball cap; Yankees, I think. When I saw the ski mask, I knew that we were in trouble. He was alone and gripped the steering wheel with his right hand. As the car slowed down to a crawl, I caught a glimpse of something black and shiny sticking out of the window. Too late, I realized that it was a gun and it was pointed at me. Then I heard two explosions.

Keeps his finger on the trigger. He can’t stand the day. Shoot out the lights.”

As I dived for the ground, there was a smoldering pain in my right arm, it felt like someone had put a cigar out on my skin. My palms burned as they landed flat on the asphalt. I felt a sharp pain in my head and couldn’t see anything clearly after my glasses flew off. All that I could make out was a burst of bright colors: blues, reds and oranges that faded into black. Is this what death looks like, I thought. Do you see colors instead of light?

Keep the blind on the window. Keep the pain on the inside. Just watching the dark. Just watching the dark.

Both my face and my arm felt warm and sticky. I could smell and taste blood; my blood and lots of it. There was another shot, but I heard the bullet ping as it hit metal; the car door. Then, I heard the driver speed away.

And he might laugh but you won’t see him as he thunders through the night. Shoot out the lights.”

I knew that I’d been shot, but I wasn’t sure where or how many times I’d been hit. All I knew was that I was weak and bloody. And terrified that I’d been shot in the head. I tried to get up but couldn’t. I was too dizzy; my head felt like I’d just leapt off a high speed merry-go-round.

I heard a voice, it was Hope. “Stay down, don’t try to get up again,” she commanded.

I was afraid to open my eyes, let alone stand up, so it was one time that I obeyed orders. I lay there listening to all the hubbub. Normally my hearing is terrible; it’s an unpleasant side effect from years of playing and listening to loud music. That night I probably could have heard a dollar bill hitting the ground in Baton Rouge, but I was certain that I was going blind. It was like being in a recording studio and failing to get the mix on a record just right. It was as if my brain was a sensory mixing board and my hearing, sense of smell and taste were mixed up high and my eyesight had been mixed into oblivion.

I felt myself slipping in and out of consciousness. All I could see whenever I opened my eyes were blue tinged shadows. Where was the light?

In the darkness the shadows move. In the darkness the game is real. Real as a gun; real as a gun.

I felt my head carefully being picked up. I heard the familiar rhythms of Hope’s breathing increase to the point where it sounded like she was hyperventilating. “Thank God!” Her voice sounded steadier. “He’s only been shot in the arm!”

Then I heard Charles, who sounded like he’d sobered up in a hurry. “Do we call the cops or should we get him to the hospital?”

“Hospital. Let’s get him to Charity,” said Hope.

“Charity? Are you crazy, Hope?” demanded Ian.

“Charity’s ER specializes in gunshot wounds,” she snapped. “It’s where the police would send him too.”

“She’s right, Ian,” said Charles, calmly. Then he hollered, “Look! Hey! Stop!”

I heard footsteps. Was Charles running away from us? Why?

I felt my head being lifted into a lap; Hope’s lap, I guess. She wrapped my head with something soft, I don’t know what it was but it felt good. Then I panicked again, Susan had wrapped Steve Cohn’s head, but he’d died just the same. I didn’t want to linger in a coma, rotting away like a vegetable left in the warehouse too long, then die like Cohn had. Hope sensed my terror and I felt her lips kissing my forehead and heard her soothing voice. “You’re going to be okay, babe.” She repeated the same phrase over and over as if it were a curative mantra.

I heard squealing brakes and loud voices. Had the shooter come back to finish me off? Was that why Charles had run away? But then I heard Charles telling someone what had happened. In the background, I heard the droning voice of a dispatcher on a radio and I knew that the cops were there. I opened my eyes and saw a swirl of blurry, bleary blue; it was a squad car’s cherry top. I couldn’t make out any faces, but I heard someone calling out some code letters over the radio. I tasted my own blood as I passed out.

When I woke up, I was laid out on a stretcher. We started moving; driving. I heard a siren wailing above my head and realized that I was in an ambulance. I groaned every time we hit a pothole as the ambulance sped to Charity.

I opened my eyes and saw Hope’s tear streaked face looming over me. She looked beautiful. Her face was the first thing that I’d seen clearly since I dived for cover. I felt her hand tightly gripping mine; I imagine that the veins on her hands were bluer than her eyes at that moment. I could tell that she was terrified; I certainly was. I’d never ridden in an ambulance before and feared that I wouldn’t leave it alive.

The aftertaste of blood lingered in my mouth. It tasted sweet, but it was a foul and nasty sweetness. I’d been frightened to speak up to then as though I might drown in my own blood if I opened my mouth. I decided to risk it. “Am I dying?” I asked, not unreasonably.

“No, no, no. You’ll be fine.”

I wanted to believe her. Even if she was lying, though, that was all right; I’d rather be lied to than give up hope. I was afraid that it was all I had left.

I thought of Ian and Charles. “Anybody else hurt?”

“No. Be quiet.” She forced a smile. “You’ve been singing off and on ever since you hit your head.”

That was strange. I thought that I’d been mute the whole time. “Singing?”

“Singing,” she echoed.

I felt the ambulance turning and wished that I knew where we were. I tried to think of why, and what, I’d been singing. I started sliding in and out of consciousness to the beat of the shaking ambulance. Finally, it came to a full stop. We’d made it to the hospital and I was beginning to think that I might survive after all. Right before I passed out again, I remembered what I had been singing: the soundtrack to my shooting.

As he watches the lights of the city and he moves through the night. Shoot out the lights.”

©2020 by Peter Athas

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

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