the town hall mystery (part eight)

This story started here.

After we were seated, we started with drinks (at least Professor Lebrun and I did — my employer seldom drank).

When the drinks arrived, the professor sipped his Tom Collins, nodded, took another sip, and then put it down. He smiled. “Please don’t keep me in suspense. Dinner with you two is always enjoyable, but when the call comes at the last minute, with such an undertone of urgency…”

My employer nodded. “Your deduction is correct. What have you heard about recent events in town?”

He shrugged (his shrugs were always slow, expressive, and somehow undeniably European). “The Town Hall burned down — I know that. One of my students was there — something to do with her driver’s license — and she told me all about it in an attempt to explain why she’d been late for class.”

“A successful attempt, I assume,” I put in.

He smiled and sipped his drink. “Yes, of course. So, you’re investigating the fire? That seems a bit… out of your usual routine.”

“It would be. No, there are other recent incidents which have, rather forcibly, claimed my attention–” She glanced at me, to make sure that I was aware that, whatever happened, it was all going to be my fault for dragging her into this and distracting her from her true vocation: writing her book. “–a death, apparently not natural, across the street from the fire, and another death, apparently natural, as far as we know so far, at the Devane house.”

The professor had some more of his drink. “I had thought that the Devane house was closed up, unoccupied.”

“That’s where we need your help, because that’s what I thought, too.” She gave a very bare-bones account of what we knew about the two deaths, leaving out some things she wanted to keep to herself. There were people at most of the neighboring tables, and when you’re a locally famous amateur detective people do tend to try to listen in when you’re having a conversation in a public place.

By the time she finished, the professor and I were done with our soup and she hadn’t touched hers.

The professor leaned back in his chair as the waitress collected our soup bowls (my employer waved away her full bowl). “I can direct you to somebody who knows about the Devane family,” he said. “They gave a building to the college some years ago, so I’m sure the college history office has information about them — but, frankly, who cares?” He smiled impishly. “The thing that intrigues me is the young man who died while the Town Hall was burning.”

My employer nodded. “Me, too, I confess. A family being prominent, wealthy, and so on — that doesn’t make them interesting. Not as interesting as that young man, and the woman…”

Our entrees arrived. My employer gestured with a long, bony finger at the outside deck that ran around two sides of the restaurant. The professor frowned, not understanding, but I indicated that all would become clear later.

So, we ate in near silence — the food was very good — punctuated by small talk.

My employer had the idea that the Claremont College press might publish her Bellona book. A possibly controversial book, based on a series of popular (and sometimes controversial) articles, written from the middle of a civil war that the United States had several fingers in, written by a distinguished alumna of the college…

The professor, his attention clearly focused on his broiled scallops, said that he would put her in touch with the editorial staff of the press.

Then his mouth quirked under his mustache. “You know,” he said, “you sent me to my dictionaries. Websters, for example, does say that ‘alumna’ refers to a woman who graduated from, or attended, a college or university. (Emphasis mine, of course.) But some other dictionaries do require graduation as a prerequisite for the use of the term.”

“Websters is, of course–“

“Oh, of course.”

As I said, small talk.

After we’d finished our main course, my employer indicated to the waitress that we’d have our coffee outside on the deck, as was our usual practice.

We — my employer and I — often had our coffee on the deck when we ate at this restaurant, which was called Captain Hisgens. This was primarily so that she could smoke, but it was also convenient to be able to relax and speak privately.

When we were at our usual outside table with Professor Lebrun, along with a pot of coffee, three mugs, cream and sugar, and an ashtray, my companions got their pipes going and I poured coffee all around.

The evening was cool, and we were the only people on the deck. None of the other tables had place settings, so it seemed that the restaurant hadn’t thought it would be a night when people would want to eat outside.

We didn’t mind the temperature, though. I’d brought a sweatshirt, and the professor and my employer were wearing suits. (His suit was tweed, with elbow patches, in the standard academic style. My employer’s was dark blue pinstripe — her extensive collection of clothing didn’t include even one tweed suit.)

The professor added cream and sugar to his coffee as my employer said, “What I did not want to mention inside is the connection — the possible connection — between the dead man on Main Street and the Devane house.”

She explained about my search for Rabson keys. The professor nodded as he listened, then he said, “That’s hardly conclusive.”

Her smile suggested that things which were conclusive were not very much fun at all.

Then, as she turned to me, still smiling, I could feel my stomach start to clench up. I’d been expecting this.

“There are two things we most need to know,” she said slowly, drawing out her words. “We need to know who the dead man was, obviously, and we need to know if his key fits the lock at the Devane house. Is it just a Rabson lock, or is it the same Rabson lock?”

Professor Lebrun smiled. “If it turns out to be a different lock, then you can forget about the boring Devane family and concentrate on the (much more interesting) News Store death.”

My employer kept her eyes on me. “Where is that key now?”

I sighed. “In a blue plastic tray, probably in some cabinet at the morgue.” She winked at me, with her head turned so that the professor couldn’t see. As I’d expected, it was only a matter of time before she dispatched me to obtain — by some means yet to be devised — the key.

“It’s not evidence?” the professor asked, pouring us all some more coffee. “Not at police headquarters, being examined by our sheriff and her highly competent staff?”

I shrugged. “Maybe it is by now, but I’d bet not. Remember, Rhonda’s position is that this was a suicide, and that the man was alone on the roof when he died. If there was no crime, then it’s not evidence.”

My employer nodded. “From what you’ve said, Rhonda is very focused on the death at the Devane house, and, as far as we can tell, indifferent to the death on Main Street.”

“That appears to be the case.”

The professor shook his head. “She has apparently decided that the death was a suicide, despite a reliable witness bringing forward credible testimony which would contradict that, or at least make it open to question, and she’s also decided, it would appear, that a different death, apparently — it seems — a result of natural causes, was actually suspicious.” He shrugged. “The question had to be asked: Does she know something you don’t?”

He then leaned over and cupped his hand to whisper, quite audibly, into my employer’s ear: “We’re relying quite heavily on your assistant’s ability to tell the difference between men and women. Has he generally demonstrated competence in this area?”

To be continued…

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