Authors: JEFFREY COHEN
Tags: #Detective, #funny, #new jersey, #writer, #groucho marx, #aaron tucker, #autism, #stink bomb, #lobbyist, #freelance, #washington, #dc, #jewish, #stinkbomb, #high school, #elementary school
“How you doing, Faith?” I said. “Is Estella having a
good school year?”
Her mind immediately compartmentalized me, and she
knew how to respond. Faith rolled her eyes. “It’s been a
nightmare,” she said. “She’s not being challenged by the curriculum
at all. Gifted children are totally ignored by this school
I knew Faith’s daughter Estella from Leah’s Brownie
troop, and the only time she’s actually “gifted” is on the first
night of Chanukah. I let that go, however, and nodded at Faith in a
“Did you hear about this stink bomb thing?” I asked
as casually as I could. But I did pump a little harder on the
Her eyes practically sprang out of her head, and
since she only had the MIT on level 2 for resistance, I knew I’d
struck a nerve. “It’s a disgrace!” she said loudly enough that a
75-year-old codger on the treadmill halfway across the room took
off his headphones and stared at her. “Some little hooligan thinks
he can ruin three days for a bunch of girls who just want to play
soccer, or close the gym for three whole days, and they’re going to
let him get away with it. Why, Karen Mystroft’s little girl didn’t
even want to go to school the next day, she was so upset.”
For the moment, I shook the word out of my head and
concentrated on the task at hand, ignoring the fact that Faith
didn’t care if boys couldn’t use the bathroom, because she doesn’t
have a son. “Him? You know who did it?” I asked.
“Well, it was obviously a boy,” she replied, with
the air of someone explaining that the sky is, indeed, blue. She
also said the word “boy” with the same inflection most people
reserve for “slug.” “A girl wouldn’t have thrown such a projectile
into her own locker room,” she added.
“Why not? I would have been happy to throw a stink
bomb into my high school locker room if I didn’t have to shower
with Harold Ramiriak for a week.”
Holy mackerel, did I say that out loud? Worse, could
Harold Ramiriak? The way she was looking
at me, it was possible
’d actually showered with him, and
believed it to be a more enjoyable experience than she was having
“Of course,” I added, trying to cover my faux pas,
Faith chose to ignore me, which is something I’m
used to. “Any way you look at it, it’s the administration’s fault,”
she went on after a stunned pause. “Things just haven’t been the
same since Mr. Ramsey left.”
Elliot Ramsey, the principal of Buzbee for seven
years before Anne Mignano took over, was the type of self-help
psychologist, crunchy-granola-bar principal that Midland Heights
took to its bosom. I’d met him only once, since my children hadn’t
started yet at Buzbee when he left, but his sneaker-wearing,
benignly smiling demeanor practically begged for New Age music to
be played behind him as a soundtrack. By some parents in the school
district, he was considered to be an appropriate candidate for
sainthood. Thus, one didn’t argue with Mr. Ramsey.
So I didn’t. I nodded reverently, then adopted the
most confidential tone I could muster, and leaned over toward her.
She almost recoiled, thinking I had designs on her fabulous body,
but then she realized I was going to speak quietly, and leaned
toward me expectantly.
“Who do you think did it?” I asked, as if I had my
own suspicions and wanted her to confirm them.
Faith looked profoundly disappointed, and went back
to pumping away on the MIT. “I haven’t the faintest idea,” she
said, looking away from me. She spotted another soccer mom walking
in, and waved, doing her best to point herself in another
direction. “Hi, Marcie!” she cried, and was soon involved in a
heated discussion of Harry Potter vs. Lemony Snicket.
I put my headphones on and cranked up Fastball so I
would-n’t have to hear the conversation taking place to my right.
But no matter how loud the music was, it couldn’t drown out one
question left over from the last conversation: Did she actually say
fter a shower at home (I
wouldn’t shower at the Y for fear of getting athlete’s everything),
I dressed for lunch with Stephanie, and headed to R.W.
Muntbugger’s, a New Brunswick restaurant so adorable you pretty
much want to adopt it and take it home with you.
New Brunswick, NJ is the home of Rutgers, the state
university. In the 1970s, when I was an undergraduate there, New
Brunswick was a depressed little city with a glorious past
(Benjamin Franklin and John Adams used to get drunk there) and a
lot of porno theatres. But since then, the city has undergone
something of a renaissance, mostly due to the continued presence of
its number one benefactor, the Johnson & Johnson company.
These days, downtown New Brunswick still has a
number of stores that sell cheap merchandise to the people who
actually live in the city. But it also boasts any number of trendy
restaurants, three separate live theatre venues, a wine store, and
an Ethiopian boutique. Not a porno theatre (or, for that matter, a
movie theatre) anywhere to be found. This, in New Jersey, is called
Muntbugger’s is a prime example of what is right and
wrong with New Brunswick. In an attempt to please people blatant
enough to embarrass a cocker spaniel, the restaurant tries to be
all things to all patrons. It boasts a homey atmosphere in a
building that could accommodate a small warehouse, has “antiques”
hanging from its walls and ceiling, calls its hamburgers
“Muntburgers,” which borders on the disgusting, and charges $4 for
an imported beer like Molson, which is imported all the way from
Canada. In a truck.
Naturally, such an establishment packs ‘em in, as
Rutgers professors and J&J execs alike have decided they
“discovered” the place, so normally, one has to wait a good 20 to
45 minutes to get a table at lunchtime. This was apparently not the
case for Mrs. Louis Gibson. I actually found Steph at a table the
minute I walked in.
She was resplendent in black, but her widow’s weeds
were in this case a black Gap T-shirt and a pair of black jeans. No
sense being uncomfortable just because somebody else was dead.
I sat down as she smiled at me, and apologized for
being late, despite the fact that I was on time. Finding her
waiting for me made it feel like I was late.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I just sat down when you
walked in.” The fact that she already had a drink, and had consumed
about half of it, gave away the lie, but I let it go.
I ordered a Diet Coke and we both ordered salads. I
was pretending to be dieting, and she was just showing off. After
the waiter left, I pulled my interview cassette recorder from my
jacket and put it down on the table.
Steph looked a little surprised. “We’re taping?” she
“I’m on assignment. You wouldn’t want me to misquote
“Wouldn’t I? Anything you make up would probably
sound better than the truth.”
I gave her my famous half-grin, guaranteed to be
ingratiating. “I’m forty-three,” I told her. “You can’t expect my
memory to be what it once was. Who are you, again?”
She smiled. “An old friend.”
“You don’t really mind the tape recorder, do
She thought about it, but shook her head. “It’s
okay,” she said.
I hit the record button. “You didn’t seem terribly
upset when Louis was killed. Do you worry that makes you seem like
Stephanie’s eyes widened. “Whoa!” she said. “You
don’t waste any time, do you?”
“Who’s got time to waste?” I said. I looked at her
for a few moments, letting her know I was waiting for her to answer
the question. She exhaled grandly.
“Okay,” she said. “I said you could have unlimited
access. Well, you know Louis was not a model husband.”
“He had affairs.”
“He was rarely
having an affair,” she
said, her voice empty of emotion. She didn’t seem upset, just
reporting an unhappy fact. “Once he became well known in
Washington, he could pretty much have his pick of the cute blondes,
and there was a long succession of them.”
“Anyone who thinks you’re not enough is an idiot,” I
blurted. Sometimes, even I don’t understand why I say some
She smiled. “You’re not seeing me clearly. You look
at me through a haze of twenty-five years.”
“Not at all. I see you the way you are now. It was
Legs who was trying to get back to being eighteen again.”
“You’re sweet,” she said. “But Louis needed younger
women. He didn’t care who they were, or even if he liked them. He
did-n’t care if he was embarrassing me by being seen with them. He
didn’t care if his children knew about it, either. After a while, I
stopped caring, too.”
“A lot of people would say that was reason enough to
have him killed,” I suggested. Strangely, she smiled.
“You have to care to be that angry,” she said
quietly. “You can’t have a crime of passion if you don’t have the
you react?” I asked.
Stephanie hesitated. In fact, she came to a complete
halt, and if the lighting at Muntbugger’s hadn’t been fashionably
dim, I’d have sworn she was blushing. The waiter bailed her out by
bringing our lunch, and she waited until he left, then tried,
unsuccessfully, to express her thoughts again. She started her
answer more than once, and never uttered a complete word. I decided
to bail her out.
“You had affairs of your own,” I said, and she
looked down at her food, and nodded. “Why couldn’t you tell me
“I didn’t want you to think badly of me.” I had to
strain to hear her.
“I never thought my opinion meant so much to you,” I
“Well, it does.” She spoke quickly, to get past this
sticky point. “Anyway, I decided to match Louis embarrassment for
embarrassment, but I couldn’t do it. I had a couple of
quick. . . episodes, and then I gave up. He didn’t care,
and I learned not to care, too. Finally, our marriage found its
level of dysfunction, and we made it work for us.”
“Yeah,” she chuckled. “Besides, if I was going to
have Louis killed for having an affair, why wait for this
particular one? He’d had more than I could count.”
“Who do you think
have a reason to kill
“That’s what I’ve been agonizing over. Politically,
there were lots of people who didn’t like Louis. God knows, even
didn’t agree with him politically much
of the time. But to kill him? In Washington, if you don’t like
somebody, you make their life miserable. Killing him would just end
“How about personally? One of his
“Most of them were politically motivated—they wanted
to move up, and sleeping with a connected guy helped them up the
ladder. I can’t imagine any of them being in love with him,
certainly not enough to kill the next in line.” “Nonetheless,” I
said, “who was the one just before Ms. Cheri Braxton?” She winced
at the name.
“I just report the facts—I don’t make ’em up.”
“Let’s see. The most recent one I knew about was
named. . . oh, come on. . . Robyn. With a ‘y.’
Robyn Ezterhaus.” She spelled the last name, too.
“Did the affair with Robyn last an unusually long
time? Was it especially intense?”
“They all tend to run together, but I don’t think
so. And after all, Aaron. . .”
Stephanie frowned. “It doesn’t make sense. If she
wanted Louis so badly, she had to get rid of the competition. His
being married was the problem. Why didn’t she come after me?”
I stared down and speared a piece of grilled
chicken, which was the only thing making the salad even marginally
interesting. “Why, indeed?” I said.
tephanie gave me a few
names and phone numbers, including some of Legs’ political
adversaries (of whom there was a large selection). Somewhere on the
list was talk show host Estéban Suarez, with whom Legs had a very
public argument not long before he died. Through Internet sources,
I managed a few additional names. She promised to let me talk to
her sons, and to Legs’ mother. When I asked about his brother, she
said, “I don’t really know him very well. I can’t make any
predictions.” Still, she promised to try.
When I got home from lunch, I changed back into my
civilian clothes (which would have gotten me kicked out of even a
classy McDonald’s) and checked on the answering machine, which was
unblinking, and the computer, where there was a message for me on
Peter Arnowitz, a novelist, occasional screenwriter
(no credits on anything you’ve ever seen), and overall conspiracy
theorist, had read my post about Legs. Pete is the kind of guy who
has mysterious “sources” in every branch of the government, the
movie business, law enforcement, and for all I know, the local
7-Eleven. He never divulges a source, and he’s never wrong.
Pete’s reply read: “I can’t confirm this, but I’m
told through sources close to the investigation that the wife is
the prime suspect. An arrest could happen within days. No physical
evidence (that is, fingerprints) that I know of, but Gibson messed
around so much they figure his wife
to be mad at him.
What’s puzzling is why they’re looking to act so quickly. They
don’t have anything to go on, and a thin case could get tossed in
minutes by the wrong judge. That’s it for now. I’ll let you
That’s Peter. He never even asked why I needed to
know about the investigation. He probably knew already. Arnowitz
more than likely had sources inside
, or a bug on
my phone. If he did tap my phone, I hoped he didn’t listen to the
tapes. Pete is way too valuable a source to bore him to death.