Professor Lebrun lived in a small cottage near the back of the college grounds. When my cab pulled up in front of his house, he was sitting on his front porch, talking with a student. He saw me and waved, standing up and putting his glasses on.
The student stood up also, brushing off her skirt. “Hi, Mr. Marshall!” she called. “Let me help you with those suitcases.”
She trotted over as the professor nodded and sat down again. He was putting us up, in his spare bedroom, rent free, but obviously he wasn’t planning on doing any heavy lifting himself.
Which was fine with me.
“I’m Suzy,” the student said as I put the last suitcase on the ground and paid the driver. “Let me help you with these. Prof has told me all about you.”
She grabbed one of the largest suitcases and headed toward the house. I didn’t point out that “Prof,” in telling her all about me, had apparently misinformed her about my name. “Marshall” is my first name, not my last name.
When all the suitcases were in the small bedroom my employer and I were to share, Suzy said she had a class and left.
Professor Lebrun was sitting at his desk when I came back into the living room after doing my best to unpack some things and put the suitcases where they would be at least somewhat out of the way. He stood up and we shook hands. He motioned for me to sit down, which I did, and he swiveled his desk chair around so he was facing me.
He was apparently in his sixties, more or less, with a slight accent that I couldn’t place. His hair was short and iron gray, and he had a well-trimmed beard.
“If there’s anything you need while you’re staying here, by the way, please do let me know,” he said. I nodded. “Do you smoke?” I shook my head. “Do you mind if I do?”
I smiled. “Of course not. If I minded smoking, I’d have to find a different employer.”
He laughed as he picked up a pipe from the rack on his desk and started to fill it with tobacco.
“Very good point. How long have you and Janice been together?”
“I’ve been working for her since about a month after she left school here.” (I have been asked that question many times, and I have learned to emphasize, without being explicit, that the relationship is professional. If I try to make that assertion too forcefully, people tend to assume I’m being evasive.)
He nodded. “Do you protect her?” This was not a common question.
“When needed. I’ve saved her life more than once. Vice versa, too.”
“That’s good. She can, at times, as I’m sure you’ve observed, step over the line between ‘brave’ and ‘reckless.'”
“I have seen this. Sometimes it’s more of a leap than a step. How do you know her, Professor? Was she a student of yours?”
He leaned back, his pipe finally going to his satisfaction. “Oh, no. I teach English literature, which was certainly not an interest of hers. No, she… There was an accusation against me, a fairly serious one, and she stepped in and did an investigation, proving that I was innocent.”
He spread his hands wide. “After that, letting her use my spare bedroom for a couple of weeks is little enough for her to ask. You’d be welcome to it for longer, but it’s rented out for the fall semester, to a student, but she’s not arriving for two weeks now.”
He gestured at the doorway. “There are two twin beds, as you saw, but I have double sheets, and people usually push the beds together…”
He gestured, bringing the palms of his hands together slowly.
I made the opposite gesture, moving my hands forcefully and slowly apart, palms out. “Apart, definitely. We’ll need twin bed sheets, if you have them. If not, we will improvise.”
He laughed. “I hope you’re not trying to spare my sensibilities. I–”
I repeated the gesture, with even more emphasis, smiling, and he laughed again.
“By the way, she’s told me a little about that case, the one you were involved with,” I said, not mentioning that, as with most of her stories, I’d assumed until now that it was at least somewhat exaggerated. “She told me that that’s when she knew she’d be good at solving mysteries.”
“I could tell,” he said slowly. “Something clicked into place for her at that time. I’ve been watching her career, casually and at a distance, ever since. I gather that she’s on the trail of a murderer now, but that’s not why you’re here in town?”
I shook my head, aware that, as usual, I wasn’t sure what my employer had revealed or what information I should withhold.
So, I started out slowly, trying to assess as I went exactly how much information he really wanted.
“My employer’s books were left in storage when she moved away after college. Now that we’re back in this country, she decided to come and get them, or at least to go through them.”
I shrugged, indicating that, as usual, the finer details of my employer’s plans had not been shared with the staff. The professor nodded, accepting this.
“When I say ‘in storage,’ of course, I mean in the Arkright family garage. And, in that garage, along with her books, we found a corpse.”
He nodded. “Madeleine Pontmercy. I’ve heard.” He shrugged. “I don’t know – didn’t know her. Suzy was just telling me that she and Madeleine had French class together and she was pretty sure that Madeleine knew ‘all sorts of French’ (as Suzy put it), but that she was hiding it in order to get the easy credit.” He smiled. “Which would not have been out of character for a girl as widely traveled as Marvel Phillips.”
He watched me as he said it, and I didn’t bother to suppress my laugh.
“I’ve been sworn to secrecy, of course,” he said.
It was starting to get dark outside, so he went into the kitchen and made us a light supper of sandwiches and soup. He apologized for his limited culinary capabilities, but I assured him that the meal was fine and very satisfying (which was true – particularly since I’d had no lunch).
“I knew Vinnie, you know,” he said after a minute or two. “Better than I knew Janice, at least until she rode in to my rescue. Well, she’s probably told you about that.” He took a bite of his sandwich and regarded me. “Or, perhaps not.”
He put his sandwich down. “When Janice was young, Vinnie worked hard to support them. They were living in some family’s basement – I think rather on charity – and he worked a lot, sometimes at two jobs. She ended up fairly… self-sufficient, I guess you could say.
“When she started to go to college, Vinnie had a better job and didn’t have to work so many hours, and he decided to take some courses himself. I know they studied Italian at the same time and tried to speak it around the house.
“I don’t think he’d got past high school before that, but sometimes the adult students here are the best.
“Anyway, he was in a couple of my classes, and we talked sometimes. I think he was the one who got Janice to help me out when I needed it.
“That was around the time that they rented the little white house, right down the street from the Arkright house, where the murder happened. It was really just a little summer cottage, and I guess it got cold during the winter, but I gather it beat living in a basement.”
I laughed. “An Irishman’s proudest boast–”
He laughed also. “–I paid my way.” He nodded. “Vinnie’s like that.”
As we were finishing up, the front door opened and my employer stepped in. She and I regarded each other for a moment, until she said, “If you must know, I did have a small glass of white wine, with the girls, in the course of today’s investigation.”
Professor Lebrun stood and started to clear away our dishes, keeping his face averted so she couldn’t see his expression.
“Perhaps you’d like a sandwich? Or some soup?” I prompted.
She looked thoughtful as I steered her to a chair. “I’m wondering why you’re posing that as an either-or construct…”
“I’ll handle the food,” the professor called from the kitchen. “You can handle the debriefing.”
My employer’s eyes widened and she leaned forward to whisper. “‘Debriefing.’ That sounds racy!”
“So,” I said in a firm and businesslike tone. “What have you found out?”
“Ah,” she said, and she winked at me.