Our story is nearly over. This is the penultimate installment: the last two chapters are long so Chapter 24 stands alone today. I wanted to keep you puzzled and mystified until Wednesday. Besides, I’ll miss posting Tongue In The Mail. I hoped y’all have enjoyed reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed sharing this hitherto unpublished novel.
In this installment, we learn that our narrator survived being shot to the tune of Richard Thompson’s Shoot Out The Lights, but another character is not so lucky. The identity of the law school murderer is nailed down and a plan to capture him is hatched. There will still be twists: I promised to keep you puzzled and mystified, after all.
This is the rare chapter without any musical shout-outs so I’ll share the RT song that should have been cited somewhere in our story:
Slander is a loving tongue, indeed
There is only one more installment to go. A reminder that you can catch up on earlier chapters of Project Novel by clicking here.
Our story continues after the break.
July 13, 1992.
I didn’t die.
When I came to, I was lying in a hospital bed. I was disoriented, and didn’t know where I was, but I felt grateful to be alive and not wearing a toe tag.
That day, my memories of the shooting were scattered like pieces of film in an abandoned editing room. I tried splicing the pieces together, but it had been like a bad acid trip and all I could recall were flashes of color, and of fear. The ambulance had taken me to Charity, but my wrist tag said that I was at Tulane Hospital. I vaguely remembered some doctor telling me that I wasn’t seriously hurt. All I had was a flesh wound in my upper arm, a concussion, minor lacerations on my hands and a major headache. It may sound strange, but my other injuries hurt more than the gunshot wound.
Hope was dozing on a couch under the window. It hurt when I smiled at her, but I was glad that I wasn’t alone. I decided then that I was going to ask her to marry me. It took a concussion to bring me to my senses.
“You been home at all?” I said, weakly.
Her eyes opened and she smiled. “Just briefly; to both houses,” she said. “I fed the cats, changed and threw away my skirt, it was too bloody to wash.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“I hate hospitals. When can I get out of here?”
“So, they can bill me for another day, I suppose.” I tried to lick my lips, but my mouth felt like it was stuffed with gauze. “I’m thirsty,” I whimpered.
Her hand shook as she poured water into a Styrofoam cup and handed it to me. She looked tense and I could tell that she was trying to keep something from me. When I asked her what was wrong, all she did was look at her watch. Then, she walked over to the window and straightened a shade that wasn’t crooked.
I was alarmed. “Am I still in bad shape? Did the doctor lie?”
“No, no. Quiet.” She checked her watch again and turned on the television. It was a rebroadcast of Friday night’s ten o’clock news. Flames filled the screen. A bomb had exploded at the Superdome parking lot: Three people were dead and ten wounded. Most of it was gibberish to me until Keith Archer said, “One of the victims has been identified as local political activist, Susan Wright. Ms. Wright, the mother of two, was a member of the board of directors of Planned Parenthood of Louisiana.”
A flood of nausea and sweat hit me. Fear had taken control of my nervous system and I couldn’t stop shaking. Then, I lost it; I broke down sobbing and felt tears mingling with the sweat.
Hope sat down on the bed and held my bandaged and twitching hand, but I barely felt her caresses. My body may have been numb, but my mind was working feverishly. Then it hit me.
“Diana!” I screamed. “What about Diana? Was she with Susan?”
Hope shook her head, sending tears flying onto the bed. “No. She’s okay,” she sighed. “It’s the only good news I have. I was on the phone when you were out, with Diana, Charles, Ian, and Camille Doucet. They’re all worried about you and send their love.”
She squeezed my hand a bit too hard under the circumstances.
“Ow!” I yelled. But I was secretly relieved that I could still feel pain.
“Sorry.” She leaned over and kissed my forehead right below the bandage. “Why didn’t you tell me that you suspected Jack?”
“Too dangerous. How did you find out?”
“Diana,” she said grimly. “Susan told her about your talk last week. And now Diana blames herself for Susan’s death.”
“Why?” I groaned.
“Jack called Diana last weekend. They were giving each other a hard time and she figured she had the ultimate topper. So, she told him that you and Susan had talked about his stuff vanishing from the office after Cohn was attacked, but that was it. Diana didn’t think you two took it seriously.”
“Apparently, Jack did. What did he say?”
“Nothing. He just laughed and changed the subject.”
“I wonder if Jack was in town last night and was the one… Did you ask Diana if she called Camille?”
Hope nodded. “She already had.”
I rolled over and buried my head in the pillow. The small hole in my upper arm was suddenly ablaze with pain and my head was pounding. I wanted to die. Diana was wrong, it was my fault that Susan was dead. She might still be alive if I hadn’t opened my big mouth. My fault. I remembered ducking out of the rain that day with Susan and thinking that too much candor could be fatal. And it had been for one of us. I had a bad case of survivor’s guilt.
“Susan’s death was my fault. I killed her,” I cried.
“No, you didn’t and neither did Diana! It was Jack and I hope he rots in hell!” Hope said angrily.
“You’re right, I’ve got a confession to make,” I said, my voice quivering.
Everything I’d been keeping from her came spilling out in a torrent of words: The death threat; Cyril’s weird revelations about Jack; my fight with Camille because of my night with Monique. I didn’t know how Hope was taking it because she listened intently with a deadpan expression on her face worthy of Bob Newhart.
When I finished, the room was still but I was sobbing and shaking. Hope was too. We were both too overwrought to speak and sat in silence for a few minutes. Finally, she leaned over and kissed my forehead. “Well, you were right about one thing…”
“Jack didn’t want to hurt me. He had his chance last night. But…”
“You should have told me about it anyway. We’re not going to make it as a couple if you keep secrets. Even when your motives are good.”
“Understood. What about the other secret?”
I made the mistake of nodding, which made my head feel like a woodpecker’s perch. Of course, it hurt to speak too.
“Well, I’m relieved,” she said, sighing softly. “I was feeling guilty myself for having one last fling with Brad. He was so sad. It was pity sex really. You must have suspected as much; you didn’t ask me a single question abut his visit.”
“I had no right to.”
“Well, you did but I was glad that you didn’t. Of course, that made me feel guilty. Can I ask you one question?”
“Did you use a condom?”
“Yeah. I may live dangerously but not that dangerously. And you?”
She replied with a tense nod. She looked relieved when there was a loud knock at the door. When it swung open, I saw two familiar faces in the doorway, Ian, and Camille. Gentle, large men have a way of making one feel safe and Hope felt comforted by their presence. Smiling, she listened to them tease me about my hard head.
A mournful looking Ian insisted that Hope go home and get some sleep. “I’ll stick around,” he promised. “He’s too cranky to die anyway.”
Camille stood up and took Hope by the arm. “I’ll walk you to the elevator.” He looked at me and said, “Be right back.”
As the door opened and closed, I saw a uniformed cop prowling the hallway: my bodyguard, obviously.
Ian and I talked about the bar exam and his wedding, but it felt awkward and forced. I was afraid to tell him that I thought Jack was not only a murderer but a mad bomber. When Camille came back, he was smiling grimly, like a doctor about to tell a patient that he was terminally ill.
Looking right at Camille, Ian said, “It wasn’t a random shooting. That creep was out to kill Nick. He waited until the rest of us were in the car before firing any shots.”
Camille nodded. “I’ve got a good idea who the shooter is.”
“Who?” asked a frowning Ian.
I could tell by the tone of his voice and the dazed look on his face that he already knew the answer but couldn’t bring himself to admit it.
Camille scowled and scratched his chin. “Can’t say.”
“Or won’t.” Ian sat down on the bed, which caused me to wince. “Sorry, Nick. I talked to Diana this morning and she told me who you and Susan suspected. And now…” He sighed and bit his lip before continuing in a weak voice. “Do you think it’s Jack Goodfriend?”
“Maybe,” Camille said. “But we don’t know where he is right now. Do you?”
Ian shook his head.
“What do you know?”
“Just this, I talked to Jack on the phone last weekend and told him we were going to Cafe Degas to celebrate last night.” Ian studied the floor before looking at me. “I’m so sorry.”
I obviously wasn’t the only one who was trying on a hair shirt that day. I waved him off. “Forget it. It’s not your fault.”
“Thanks.” Ian sighed and tried to restrain his emotions. “I’ve been worried about Jack, but I kept it to myself. A few weeks back, I had this really strange talk with his father.” Frowning, he looked at me. “Did you know that Jack saw his brother drown?”
I was startled and looked over at Camille just in time to see him spring out of his chair and start pacing. As Camille circled the room, Ian and I compared notes. Our conversations with Cyril had been almost identical. It was obvious that nearly everything that Jack had ever told us was untrue. Our friendship was a figment of his imagination. I no longer doubted that Jack was a killer; getting shot has a way of dissipating ambiguities. Ian, however, was still sitting on the fence, which is a precarious position when, as in this case, it’s a picket fence and one wrong move could impale you.
Ian shook his head. “Shit, I don’t even know the guy and he’s my best man.”
Camille paused to assess Ian carefully. “Are you willing to help?” Camille asked.
Ian shrugged. “I don’t know… how?” he stammered. “I’m confused. I need more information first.”
Camille nodded. “And I’ve got it. I’ve been looking into Mr. C. Wellington Goodfriend. At first, I did it just to humor NP.” He winked at me. “Then, I learned that the C stands for crazy. I met this cynical old guy, named Smith; a member of the draft board during Vietnam. He remembered Jack’s case because he was on old man Goodfriend’s church board too. Smith’s a nosy old bastard… he also told me some interesting things about Jack’s mama.”
Jack’s life story was looking increasingly like a form with too many empty spaces; I listened carefully as Camille filled in some of the blanks. Jack had received a psychiatric deferment from the draft. Smith had recalled that it was genuine because the draft board was always on the lookout for phony claims. And Camille had gotten his hands-on Jack’s draft file and learned that his doctor had described him as: “a borderline paranoid schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur.”
While I should have felt vindicated, I was depressed instead; I’d wanted to be proven wrong. “What did he say about Jack’s mom?”
“Smith made it sound like Cyril’s parish was a hothouse of gossip that made Tulane Law seem tame in comparison. And gossip seemed to stick to Constance Goodfriend like gum to a shoe: insanity; shock treatments; pills, you name it. Those were just the rumors, but some of the gossip was true. She drank too much, even by New Orleans standards, and apparently took the term lay men too literally. She’d caused a parish scandal because of her affairs with two married men, the family’s doctor and their attorney, Michael Pike.”
Ian interrupted Camille. “Michael Pike?” Ian said. “The managing partner at Sexton, Pike? My future boss of bosses?”
“So, he was Constance Goodfriend’s lover,” I said. “I met him at Diana’s wedding. You know, that reminds me of something Jack said that day…”
“What?” Ian sounded as though nothing would ever shock him again. I knew how he felt.
“He said that Sophia reminded him of his mother. At the time, I assumed it was a compliment but now…”
“That’s interesting,” Camille said. He stopped pacing, leaned against the wall, and scratched his head. “His mama’s death smells fishy too.”
Smith was convinced that the circumstances of Constance’s death had been covered up. She’d mixed downers with gin and overdosed. The attending physician-her ex-lover-had diagnosed it as an accidental death. The inquest had confirmed his finding. Because they’d been lovers, parish gossip had it that her death was no accident but either suicide or murder.
“Did they think it was the croaker?” asked Ian.
“Some did,” Camille said. “But other people at the church, Smith, for one, thought that Jack was a weirdo. He helped take care of his mama; brought her medication. She took too many pills. Catch my drift?”
I did indeed. People close to Jack had been dying in mysterious circumstances long before law school.
“How reliable is Smith’s story?” I said.
Camille shrugged. “I’m taking parts of it with a grain of salt. He hated the Rev’s views on Vietnam, integration; you name it. But I think the core of his story is true.” He rolled his eyes and laughed. “Even if his attempt at flattery backfired.”
“He said that some of his best friends are mulattos like me. He actually asked if I’d ever tried passing,” he said, cackling.
Normally, I would have cracked up, but that at moment I’d misplaced my sense of humor. “Whatever really happened to Constance Goodfriend,” I said, “she was a sinner; just like the others. And Jack said that Sophia, who was killed for her so-called sins, reminded him of his mother.”
Camille sat down on the bed and said, “Jack has a documented history of mental illness and the more I learn about him, the more he sounds like an organized serial killer to me.”
“Organized serial killer?” Ian said. “What’s that?”
“It’s a killer who plans his crimes with an eye on getting away with it. Like the murders committed at Jones Hall.”
“Anal retentive, huh?”
“Jack is tidy and organized and Guy Zeringue is a mess,” Ian said. “But what about last night? Looks desperate to me.”
“It’s what happens to organized serial killers at the end of the line; they unravel and go into a homicidal frenzy,” Camille explained. “If we can prove it was him last night, we got him.”
Ian looked miserable, but he followed our logic. “I see what you mean. The killer methodically goes after people who are sinners, authority figures or know too much to live.”
“Busybodies like Susan and me,” I said feebly. “I guess he sees himself as some sort of moral hygienist cleansing the world of sinners. And killing anybody who threatens him is self defense.”
Ian looked at Camille. “Does Jack really believe that he’s this hanging judge? Have you run that by a shrink?”
“Of course.” Camille was so annoyed that his raised eyebrows looked like two question marks. “But they think that Jack is more inspired by the Judge’s example than anything else. Or that it’s a delusion or rationalization. Think about it, if Jack killed his brother and mama years before he heard of his ancestor.”
I was woozy but I struggled to stay awake to find out what Camille’s next move would be. I tried to concentrate but my mind drifted back to Jack’s state of mind. “I was just thinking about Jim Gordon,” I said. “He was the drummer for Traffic and Derek and the Dominoes…”
My friends both looked baffled. “You feeling okay, man?” said Camille solicitously. “This is a strange time for music trivia.”
I shook my head. “No, that’s not it. Gordon said that there was a voice in his head that told him to kill his mother and he did. Do you think Jack is like Gordon? Does he hear the judge’s voice in his head?”
Camille looked relieved. “Thinking like a defense lawyer already, eh? Who knows? We won’t know for sure until he’s in custody. I’ve got enough to bring him in for questioning but not enough to extradite him. So, we need to lure him back.” He looked directly at Ian, who drooped in his chair and stared at the floor. His shoulders were hunched over as if trying to shrink himself to present a smaller target. Poor Ian: He was beginning to believe that his best man was a murderer.
“But what about the bomb that killed Susan?” Ian said. “Does Jack have the expertise to build a car bomb?”
“Good point,” said Camille. “But it was a simple device set off by a cheap watch; the kind of bomb that some sick fuck described in “The Anarchist’s Cookbook” back in the Sixties. Say, is Jack into computers? He one of those Internet geeks?”
“Yeah,” Ian said. “Why do you ask?”
“Buncha twisted dweebs are trading bomb recipes on the Internet. Ain’t technology grand?” Camille sighed. “And there’s something else, a call from a group, that nobody’s heard of, claiming responsibility for the bomb.”
“What?” Ian and I exclaimed almost simultaneously.
“A group that calls itself the Aryan League For Life claims that they bombed Susan Wright’s car because she and Planned Parenthood are baby killers. Before hanging up, the caller said, Free Guy Zeringue.”
Ian suddenly looked a bit more hopeful that Jack wasn’t a murderer, but I was skeptical. “Do you buy it?” I asked Camille.
“Hell, no. We get calls from kooks all the time claiming responsibility for fires, murders, even hurricanes.” He shook his head. “It fits in too well with the DA’s conspiracy theory of skinheads swarmin’ ’round, killin’ lawyers. And why bring up Zeringue in a call about the bombing?”
Ian reminded him that several extremist groups had taken up Zeringue’s cause, claiming that he was a white male persecuted by minorities. Then Ian started interrogating Camille. “Where was the call made?”
“A phone booth in Baton Rouge.”
“Isn’t that a hotbed of anti-abortion activity?”
Camille nodded. “But if these are really right-to-life nuts, wouldn’t they kill a doctor who performs abortions?”
“Maybe,” conceded Ian.
“And how would they know that Planned Parenthood even has a board, let alone that Susan Wright was on it?”
“Two ways. First, she was in the news when the legislature tried to ban abortion last year. Second, it’s a non-profit corporation so the name of the board members are on file with the Secretary of State,” Ian said in a voice without conviction.
“Skinhead bombers who have long memories and do careful research? Yeah, right,” Camille retorted. “Lemme tell you something, man, I saw Zeringue this morning. He’s never heard of that group. Anyway, he’s not anti-abortion; thinks it’s the best way to reduce the numbers of Nigras.”
“Did you believe him?”
“Oh yeah. I guarantee you that he’d have slipped and broken his nose if he’d said that to somebody else. And believe me, I was tempted to punch in his ugly face.”
Ian was still resisting but Camille seemed to be wearing him down. Ian had one last question. “Don’t you think it’s possible that the bomb was planted by a group that doesn’t know, or care, what Guy thinks about abortion?”
“Anything’s possible.” Camille walked over to Ian and patted him on the shoulder. “That call is a phony and I think Jack made it,” Camille said, firmly. “He’s lost control and done something stupid. Until last night we didn’t have shit on him.” He grinned and licked his lips. “But there’s a way to see if the bomb and NP’s shooting are linked.”
“How?” sighed Ian.
“The lab is checking to see if there are traces of the bomb material on any of the bullets shot at NP.” Camille had seized the initiative and Ian was caving in. Camille walked over and looked at him cornea-to-cornea and said: “Here’s what we know for sure. Susan Wright was killed on the same night that NP nearly was. And they both suspected that Jack was a murderer.” He cocked his thumb in my direction and glared at Ian. “Call that a coincidence, man?”
“No, I don’t…can’t,” Ian quietly agreed. He began thinking out loud. “Jack knew that we were picking up Hope downtown and where we were going from there. Nick is sure that the shooter’s car followed us before dinner. Jack knew what kind of car Susan drove and where she lived. He could have followed her to the Dome and put the bomb in her car when the garage was empty. But what if he was in Boston last night and has an alibi?”
Camille ignored the question. “I think that Jack flew into Baton Rouge, stole or rented a car, then drove to New Orleans. Calls are being made about flights out of BR and New Orleans to Boston and to airports with connections to Logan Airport. I bet that Jack was on one of those flights under an assumed name.”
The room was quiet for a few minutes. Camille’s reasoning made sense to me. His information about Jack didn’t establish probable cause to arrest Jack for murder. Jack had overreacted to his chat with Diana; desperation and unrestrained madness had replaced the cool calculation of the earlier crimes.
Camille broke the silence. “Do me a favor and give him a call, Ian. I had a buddy on the Boston force check Jack’s apartment this morning. He wasn’t home.”
“That’s meaningless,” Ian shot back hollowly. “He’s an early riser. Unless he was on an airplane. I’ll call him tonight.”
“No time like the present.” Camille handed him the phone.
Jack didn’t answer. Ian left a message asking him to call back. Ian was still reluctant to admit that Jack was a killer. I understood. It took a bullet in the arm to convince me.
“Now what? Look, maybe Jack’s involved but that call proved nothing. He could be out running errands,” said Ian defensively.
“Maybe,” Camille said. “And if Jack has a decent alibi for last night, he’s off the hook. But I’m betting he doesn’t. I need your help, both of you.”
“But the wedding is on Saturday,” moaned Ian. “What do I tell Tracy? Oh, my God.”
I could tell that he was wavering. I’m a realtor’s kid, so I knew how to close the sale. “You have to help. What else can you do? Tell a serial killer that he can’t be your best man? You, or Tracy, could be next.”
Ian finally surrendered. “Okay. But I don’t want my wedding turned into a trap.”
Camille stood up once again. “I doubt that’ll be necessary.” A chill went up my spine as he repeated the vow that both he and Bill Sutton had made such a long time ago. “I intend to nail the bastard to the wall and make him bleed. And here’s how.”
©2020 by Peter Athas
The final installment will be posted on Wednesday. See you then.