We began this saga at the end of March and conclude it at the end of April. No details, no spoilers.
There are several musical shout-outs in the final chapter. Here’s the last one in the book:
Repeat after me: this is the final installment. A reminder that you can catch up on earlier chapters of Project Novel by clicking here.
Thanks again for reading.
Our story continues after the break.
July 19, 1992
It had been one of the strangest weeks of my life and it was about to get even stranger. Hope and I had been hiding out in a motel in Biloxi under police guard. The cops had sent Diana and her husband on the protective vacation of their dreams too, but I didn’t know, or want to know, where.
The bombing had brought the FBI onto the case. Fortunately, the head local fed was a friend of Camille’s who was willing to go along with his unorthodox plan. The feds followed the first rule of bureaucratic survival; never fight a turf war if there’s a good chance that your own blood will wind up on the floor. That’s why the feds preferred not to take the lead in making an arrest that could lead to Guy Zeringue’s release. That was fine with Camille who desperately wanted to keep the streets calm if Zeringue walked. Camille believed that trading a white supremacist for a mad bomber couldn’t be sold as an even deal by the white bread feds. It was up to the NOPD.
By Friday I was feeling better, but you would never have guessed it from reading the newspaper. In the past week, Camille had run a disinformation campaign to convince Jack that he was safe. Camille had planted a story with Zoltan Nagy that I was knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door. I couldn’t tell anyone that I was okay; only Camille, Hope, Diana, Charles, Ian and my parents knew the truth. A second story had been leaked. It implied that the FBI believed that the Aryan League For Life existed and had been responsible for the Super Dome bombing.
Jack had finally gone too far when he put that bomb in Susan’s car. Nothing but speculation had ever linked Jack to the law school murders, but the Super Dome bombing and my shooting were quickly connected. Traces of Semtex, a plastique explosive often used by terrorists, were detected on both the bullets shot at me and on a burnt-out car found just outside Baton Rouge. It was still unclear how Jack had laid his hands on the Semtex, but I didn’t care. I just wanted him put away for the rest of his unnatural life.
There was more. Jack could have carried the Semtex onto an airplane because U.S. airports don’t use the only device that detects plastique explosives. And a man calling himself Tom Rathbone, who fit Jack’s general description had flown from Boston to Charlotte to Baton Rouge on the day before the bombing. Nobody on the flight crew could make a positive ID based on pictures of Jack. But when the feds used computer graphics to alter the pictures, one of the stewards identified Rathbone as Jack. I wasn’t surprised. When I heard that alias, I knew it had to be my fellow film buff, Jack. The only Rathbone that I’d ever heard of was the full-time screen villain and part-time Sherlock Holmes, Basil Rathbone. Yes, Basil as in Basil Goodfriend. It was twisted and corny at the same time.
Camille and I were sitting in a car outside the New Orleans Opera Guild Home on Prytania Street. The surveillance team had called to tell Camille that Jack had shown up on time-as usual- looking like he’d just gotten into town. We were not alone; a small army of unmarked cop cars was staking out the Garden District mansion. Inside, the rehearsal for Ian and Tracy’s wedding was about to get underway. I nudged Camille when I saw Cyril Goodfriend, who was performing the ceremony, walk past us. Camille shushed me, looked at his watch and slouched down in the driver’s seat.
While I was on ice, Ian had been our reluctant inside man. His job was to keep Jack after the others left to give us time to get into position. Ian had also played a crucial role in the disinformation campaign. Jack had called Ian several times during the week and Ian had made sure that he heard about my perilous condition. Jack claimed to be horrified and even sent a get-well card. How nice of him. Ian didn’t have to tell Jack about the Aryan League For Life and the bomb, because he’d read about it in the New York Times. For Camille, it was like pitching and winning both ends of a double header: He had fed Jack’s sense of omnipotence and deceived the press at the same time. Louis had once told me that Camille was a lousy liar. He was wrong.
It was payback time for Camille. When I looked over at him as we waited to spring the trap, he was grinning like a kid on the last day of school. I think he was pleased that Jack hadn’t shown up at his father’s house and would be busted after the rehearsal instead; it was more dramatic. It seemed risky to wait until it was over to make the arrest, but Camille wanted to have the place surrounded in case something went wrong. He’d also promised Ian to try not to ruin the wedding any more than having a murderer as his best man already had. Poor Ian. I didn’t envy his having to explain this mess to Tracy after Jack’s arrest.
I was the one who figured out that Jack was the killer, so I insisted on tagging along. I was both scared and exhilarated to be involved in the end game. Scared of looking my would-be assassin in the eye; exhilarated that this slow-motion nightmare was finally reaching a climax.
I was so jittery that I jumped and hit my head on the ceiling when the back door opened. It was only Detective Sarah Mitchell. “Trying for another concussion?” she said. “Everything’s ready, Camille.”
He turned around and looked at her. “Side streets and back yard secured?”
“Yeah. No fuck-ups this time.”
“Security guard know the signal?”
“We planted a guy from homicide on the detail.”
“Good. You show him those pictures of Jack and Ian?”
She had. While they reviewed the details of the plan, I never took my eyes off the front windows. My blood pressure shot to the top of the charts when Ian appeared in the window. It was our signal to move into position.
When Camille saw Ian, he smiled and radioed the other cars. Then he patted his gun and turned to me. “Let’s go.”
Camille and Mitchell led the way with me trailing behind; I couldn’t walk as fast as usual with my arm in a sling. Camille opened the black cast-iron gate and led us to the side of the house where we hid behind an overgrown bush. It was darker than Johnny Cash’s wardrobe back there and I was dressed in black too; so I should have felt safe, but I didn’t. I tried to make myself invisible by leaning snug against the wall. I was worried that someone in the wedding party might see me and alert Jack.
Stress seems to heighten my senses. Just like the night I was wounded, my hearing seemed almost supernaturally sharp. We were fifty feet from the front door, but I swear that I heard the hinges creak as it swung open. Then I heard the wedding party as they came outside. I recognized Tracy’s voice as she gave directions to a restaurant in the Quarter. But one member of the wedding would miss the party. The police had other plans for the best man.
I kept my eyes focused on the moonlighting cop who was doubling as the Opera Guild’s rent-a-cop and our lookout. He was supposed to rap on the fence and wave when he spotted our quarry. He did. We stepped out of the shadows and walked briskly in the direction of the porch.
It didn’t go as planned. The lookout had signaled us prematurely. Jack and Ian hadn’t come to the top of the stairs yet. It was Cyril Goodfriend. He paused, first looking back over his shoulder at his son and then to his left. At that moment, the headlights of a parked car flashed on, illuminating my face like a spotlight. Cyril saw me and dropped his umbrella. “Oh, my lord! Nick, you’re better! Thank God!” Then he smiled and turned around. “Jack! Ian! It’s Nick Pappas.”
I only saw the startled expression on Jack’s face for a second before he fled but the cliché fit, he looked like he’d seen a ghost and I was it. Boo.
Camille pulled out his gun and took off after Jack. “Stop or I’ll shoot,” Camille demanded.
Forgetting that my arm was in a sling, I ran close behind him; too close. Jack shoved Ian down the stairs right in Camille’s path, my path, bowling us over. Strike. As I lay howling in pain and Camille disengaged himself from the knot of legs, Jack ran back inside. He slammed the door behind him with same ferocity that he’d used on his victim’s heads.
The next few minutes were as chaotic as the aftermath of an earthquake. The one thing that I’m sure of is that I was in pain: all 250 pounds of Camille had landed on my wounded right arm. It felt broken. Camille got up and waved his arm; Ian and I barely escaped being trampled by the suit-pack that came flying up the walk. When Camille got to the door, he started cussing up a storm; Jack had slid the deadbolt into place. Operating on pure adrenaline, Camille and an equally burly comrade smashed in the door on their second try.
My arm was twisted like a croissant, but I was determined to stay alert. Right next to me, Sarah Mitchell got on a cell phone and called for backup.
Ian stood up and shouted: “Upstairs! The second door to the left locks. It’s a short jump to the street. His car’s parked right below the window.”
He was probably right. The stairs were a straight shot from the front door and Jack didn’t have time to be clever. Ian grabbed my good arm. “We’re in the way. Come on, we can see what’s going on from the corner,” he said, pointing at Second Street.
A crowd had gathered on Prytania. Second Street was jumping with plainclothes cops and I heard sirens getting closer. And someone had alerted the press. A van drove up carrying cameras and reporters. The press would soon be crawling over the area like roaches on a kitchen counter after the lights go out.
Jack was a goner, but I refused to believe it until I saw him wearing handcuffs. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” had become my motto as well as the title of the Who anthem.
It was still for a minute as I stared at the upstairs window. Suddenly, anarchic noises filled the thick night air. I heard voices and muffled gunfire. Then, the shutters flew open, the screen clanged to the ground and Jack appeared on the ledge. I could have sworn that he looked right at me and flipped me off, but Ian told me later that I was seeing things. So much for heightened senses.
Shots rang out as Jack tried to jump on top of the eight-foot-high brick wall next to the cupola. Camille leaned out of the window holding a revolver. “I want him alive,” he ordered in a loud voice.
Jack had been hit. He grabbed his back and landed awkwardly on only one foot. He teetered on the top of the wall for an instant and then plummeted to the sidewalk. Armed detectives quickly encircled him.
Without thinking about the throbbing pain in my right arm, I pushed my way through the crowd with both hands. In the confusion, I had long since lost my sling, probably during the scrum at the foot of the stairs. As I elbowed past the horde of reporters, I shoved one of them hard up against the fence. I looked back and saw that it was Zoltan Nagy. He looked as astonished by my resurrection as Jack had. Finally, I found myself standing next to Detective Mitchell a few feet away from Jack. She nodded at me and leaned over to check on her prisoner. Jack was alive. He was lying on his back, grunting, and making incomprehensible noises.
I felt a hand on my shoulder; it was Cyril. His other hand was wrapped tightly around Ian’s arm. After steadying himself, Cyril tried to get closer to his son, but Mitchell ordered him to halt. He did, then stumbled back in our direction. “What on earth is going on?” he moaned. “I don’t understand.”
I didn’t know what to say. I looked at Ian, who shrugged and drafted me as spokesman with the blank look on his face. It was good practice for defending the indefensible, which is a big part of the art of lawyering.
I was blunt. “Jack shot me and planted the bomb at the Dome.” I saw Cyril’s face fall and hesitated for a second, but I went on. “It’s believed that he committed the law school murders.”
“No. That’s impossible! Not my son! Never,” he choked and began sobbing.
I was shocked. “But Cyril, I didn’t suspect him until I came to see you. You told me about Jack’s emotional problems, about your insane ancestor, about his brother’s death,” I explained. “I thought you were trying to warn me that Jack was dangerous.”
Cyril shook his head. “Warn you?”
I nodded. “That’s right.”
“So did I,” added Ian.
Cyril fidgeted with his shirt collar. “Warn you?” He looked at us with dull, glassy eyes. “No. I was worried about Jack. I told both of you that. You made me feel better.”
I felt like I was about to pass out and it wasn’t because of the pain in my arm. It was all a fluke, I thought. Lawyers are trained to be devious and check out all the angles, so sometimes I have a hard time believing that there are any straight lines at all. But my talk with Cyril had been what he’d said it was and nothing more. It was all a fluke, I repeated to myself. If I hadn’t been so paranoid Jack would have gotten away with murder, but Susan would still be alive. It was not a pleasant trade-off to contemplate. It was all a fluke.
Camille walked over to us. “Come with me,” he said, handing me the dirty rag that used to be my sling. “He’s in bad shape and fading fast. But he’s alert right now and I want a confession. I don’t want any doubt. I need your help.” He looked severely at Cyril. “All of you.”
I grabbed Camille’s arm and told him that Cyril hadn’t suspected anything. Camille looked at him and said, “Sorry for being harsh, sir. I know you’re in shock, but I need your help.”
Cyril looked down at the sidewalk. “I understand,” he mumbled. But I could tell that he was having a hard time absorbing everything so quickly. I couldn’t blame him; it took a bullet in the arm to finally convince me that Jack was a murderer.
Cyril looked up at Camille. “May I see my son now?”
Camille nodded and led us to where Jack lay on the sidewalk. Cyril sank to his knees next to Jack and gently lifted his head, putting it on his lap. “Son, how do feel?”
“I’m dying,” he whispered hoarsely.
Cyril wiped a tear off the end of his nose. “Jack,” he said, “if you have done anything wrong, you must clear your conscience before you die. God is merciful, my child.”
Jack groaned and said nothing.
“For my sake, son,” said Cyril, stroking Jack’s brow. “Please tell the truth.”
Jack’s dark eyes glanced at his father, then darted over and took me in. “Sorry, Nicholas,” Jack gasped. “I didn’t want to shoot you, you made me do it. Sorry about the calf’s tongue too… just trying to scare you off…guess it didn’t work.”
I wasn’t placated but Camille was thrilled because Jack had just admitted shooting me and he seemed ready to spill his guts. Camille waved Sarah Mitchell over. She had a micro-recorder pressed in the palm of her hand. Camille took it from her, knelt beside Cyril and glared at Jack. “Did you plant the bomb on Susan Wright’s car?” Camille demanded.
Jack coughed. “Yes. She tried to interfere with my work.”
“Work?” Camille spat the word out as if it were spoiled meat. “Work? You call murder work, you sick fuck?”
Cyril winced at Camille’s tough, but accurate, language and was about to protest but Jack wanted to explain himself. “Not work…my mission…”
“Mission, huh?” Camille shook his head. “You’re dying; that’s your mission now. You know that, don’t you?”
“Do you have anything to say about the law school murders? You wrote those letters and killed Sophia Kostecki, Salvador Maragall, and Steve Cohn, didn’t you?”
“Who figured it out,” groaned Jack, “you or Nicholas?”
“Never mind that,” Camille barked. He needed to record Jack saying in his own words exactly whom he’d dispatched, or a confession would be worthless. “Who did you kill?”
Jack coughed and blood ran down his chin. But his eyes lit up with depraved pride. “Sophia, Maragall and Cohn,” he muttered.
“What about Bill Sutton?”
“Not Bill. I found him murdered, very sloppily.” Jack’s voice was becoming progressively weaker, but his eyes still glowed with a fanatical desire to tell his story. “A great opportunity for me to avoid persecution.” He paused and wheezed. “I wrote that letter on his computer. But I did not kill Bill.”
I didn’t know what to believe but this was what Camille wanted to hear. The police had dreaded releasing Guy Zeringue from custody and now it wouldn’t be necessary. Camille nodded to me, then pressed on. “Were you aware that Sutton believed he knew who the killer was?”
“No.” Jack’s voice sounded like a record fading out at the end. “Executions, not murders.”
It was bad enough to read these horrible crimes described as executions in those damn letters but hearing it spoken aloud by the murderer infuriated me. Remembering Sophia’s crushed skull, I screamed at him. “Why, Jack? Sophia was your friend. Why?”
“No, she wasn’t. Basil had it right, immoral people deserve to die before they can do any more harm.”
“Harm? What harm did she ever do to you?”
“She was a harlot. Slut…flaunted herself. Disgusting. Just like that whore who gave birth to me.” His eyes were full of hatred as he peered at Cyril. “Am I really yours?”
Cyril’s shoulders slumped over as if he had been deboned. I worried that he was about to have a stroke because his already pale face had turned gray. I’d never witnessed such cruelty before. It was almost as evil as anything else Jack had done. Die, I thought, die, damn you!
Camille’s eyes were full of anger as he looked at the murderer he’d been chasing for so long. “Tell me why you executed Maragall and Cohn?” said Camille, playing Jack’s game.
“Read the letters, you fool,” Jack sneered. “Evil men with power…abused it…adulterers…guilty…death sentence.”
I watched Ian as we listened to Jack’s ravings. He was looking up at the moon and shaking his head. “What’s your name?” asked Ian.
“Basil? Tommy? Cyril? Calvin? Jack?” Jack’s skin began to take on the bluish color of death.
The ambulance pulled up, but it was too late; Jack was almost down for the count and I, for one, preferred it that way. If he lived, his father would become a freak pursued by the press for months instead of weeks. Camille signaled the EMTs to wait for a minute. That’s all it took.
Cyril stroked his son’s hand, his tears dripping on Jack’s forehead. “Thank you for telling the truth, son. I love you.” He sounded as if he meant it, even after Jack’s display of contempt for him.
Jack’s eyes were blank. “Jack?” He coughed and then seemed to remember who he was. “Yes. Tommy didn’t drown; hit him on head; told me what to do…had no right…no right…”
Jack’s legs jerked violently, and he sat up before collapsing. Then he was still, and his hand became limp in Cyril’s.
It was a more dignified death than he’d allowed his victims, I thought bitterly. Sophia had been his trophy victim and he put her on public display; flaunting his crime just as he’d accused her of flaunting her sexuality. Maragall died reeking of piss and fear. Cohn died alone; brain dead in a hospital room. Susan’s blood, bones, and tissue were spattered all over a parking garage. And I was supposed to have bled to death in a gutter. There were other victims too: all the suspects, but especially Monique Gautreaux and, as much as I hated to admit it, Bob Benjamin.
A teary-eyed Ian wrapped his arm around my shoulder. I don’t know if it was out of relief or grief, but my tear ducts began filling up too. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jack’s body being put on a stretcher for its slow journey to the morgue. Cyril was wandering around, his gray pants stained red with Jack’s blood. He brushed by Ian as if not seeing him or anything else.
I took the whole scene in: Camille and Mitchell shaking hands; cars pulling out to leave. Two uniformed officers were hanging the plastic yellow line marking the area as a crime scene as some TV types strained to surge past it. I heard the reporters yelling out Camille’s name and demanding a statement. “The public has a right to know,” one of them yelled. I wanted to yell back “Is that what you really are? Public servants?” But I didn’t.
Ignoring the press, Camille walked back to join us. He looked at Cyril and then at Ian and me. “I understand why the Rev. is crying. You love your kids no matter what.” He lowered his voice. “Even when they wreck your life and reputation. But are you guys applying for sainthood? NP, that psycho shot you and left you for dead in a stinking gutter last Friday.”
He was right. I couldn’t explain it until I saw Cyril sliding against the brick wall, winding up on the grass in a fetal position. I was crying for all of Jack’s victims; especially the last one, his own father. Cyril was all alone. Everyone in his immediate family had died before him: Tommy, Constance and now Jack. This good man’s world had been shattered by learning that his son was a serial killer and that Jack’s first victim may have been his own brother. His own brother.
Suddenly, my tears dried up, replaced by anger over Jack’s final act of viciousness; revealing his contempt for a father whom he saw as a cuckold and a weakling. Why did Jack tell Cyril that he’d drowned his brother, Tommy? It was cruelty disguised as a confession. But was it true or just another sick lie?
Ian patted me on the back and drifted off to rejoin his wedding party and try to explain. As Camille went to take questions from the press corps, I walked over to Cyril, sat down next to him, and embraced him. He muttered his thanks and buried his head on my chest. He kept repeating, “I’m a failure, failure, failure…”
I didn’t-couldn’t-say anything. It’s hard enough to find words to console any parent who has lost a child, but what can you say to a man whose life has just been ruined? Nothing. Watching Cyril grieve made the pain in my arm seem insignificant as if it were a bruise and not a fracture. I’d survive my pain, but I wasn’t sure if he’d survive his.
As Cyril wept, I thought about Jack’s confession. Just because he was dying didn’t mean he’d told the truth. I don’t accept the legal fiction that dying declarations are inherently credible. I’d learned all too recently that, to Jack, there was no distinction between the truth and his delusions. I believed that Jack had murdered Sophia, Susan, Maragall and Cohn, all right, but had Guy Zeringue really killed Bill? Jack claimed that he’d found the body and written that letter to blame the other murders on Bill’s killer. What if Zeringue was the victim of Jack’s last act of vengeance? Zeringue was a sinner too; a drunken racist. Jack’s statement ensured that Zeringue would stand trial. If a jury found him guilty of murder, he faced death by lethal injection. Would his execution be Jack’s final murder?
I wasn’t going to lose any sleep worrying about Guy Zeringue. He’d have the best defense money could buy. But I could get on with my life, justice had been done, and I’d helped it along.
Camille had finished talking to the press. He knelt next to me and shook me. “NP, you okay? You looked at your arm recently? It’s in bad shape.”
I looked down at my arm and nearly fainted because I could see bone. When Cyril saw it, he almost smiled. I understood why. I suppose that he was always better at coping with other people’s problems than with his own. Maybe I am too. I was so preoccupied with Cyril’s distress that I hadn’t noticed that my arm was twisted like a double helix.
“Mercy,” exclaimed Cyril. “You need a doctor.”
Camille nodded and helped me up. “That’s where we’re going right now, to the emergency room. I called Hope and she’ll meet us there. Lean on me.”
“Bill Withers,” I said, thinking of happier times.
“That’s right.” He patted Cyril on the shoulder. “Reverend Goodfriend, why dontcha come with us? You’re in no shape to drive.”
It was finally over.
©2020 by Peter Athas