Notes and Disclaimers: This is an original story that is, I hope going to be the first of a new series. I think the world is more than ready for a French Revolution/Edwardian/Modern mashup mystery series, don’t you? This story was designed to be the kind of thing one might read in a Mystery Story Magazine. Quick, light, one-shot. But then, I realized I really like the characters. So maybe there will be another one. BTW, La Maupin was a real person. You should go read about her, she sounds like a load of fun. This will be quite apparent from the story itself, but I know nothing about fencing. If my lack of knowledge enrages you, please feel free to offer suggestions.
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La Maupin and the Dear John Letter
It was late and I had just finished laying a fire in the grate when she spoke. Her voice was quiet, but commanding, and I turned to give her my full attention.
“Thank you. Come, have a drink and keep me company, Bernard.”
This is my employer’s little joke. My name is Nick, Nick Rivers, but ever since a history teacher dubbed her “La Maupin,” after the French adventuress, she decided that I, as her assistant, should also have a French name. After months of being called Laurent, Marcel, Gilles, she settled on “Bernard,”and has been calling me that ever since.
I poured myself a drink. My employer, Madeline Bates, fencing instructor at Hudson Academy and known to her friends and admirers as “La Maupin,” lay stretched out on her plum-colored sofa. Her blonde, Pre-Raphaelite curls spread out around her head like…well, like a Pre-Raphaelite painting. With the light from the fire gently coloring her cheeks, she was breathtakingly beautiful, like a heroine from a French Revolution tragedy. If I hadn’t reminded myself of the wonderful man waiting at home for me, I might have forgotten myself. Instead, I took a seat and sipped at my drink.
“Bernard,” she spoke lazily, “have I ever told you about my first ‘case’?” She made the quote marks with her fingers in the air. I shook my head. In the five years I’d worked with her, I never ceased to be amazed by her. I settled myself in my chair and waited for the story.
“It happened before you joined me – only a few years after I’d started at HA….”
It was late autumn when the English teacher Abigail Parks stopped by La Maupin’s office. Fencing practice was over, and the instructor sat at her desk working on a line-up for the next match. Abigail’s’ dark eyes looked tired and her face pale.
“Madeline, I….,” the young teacher blushed. “I’m not sure why I’m here, really. It’s just,” she laughed, embarrassed. “You always seem to be so…together.”
La Maupin smiled up at Abby, gesturing for her to sit in the visitor’s chair. “It’s always a pleasure to see you – if I can be of some assistance…” her blues eyes sparkled with curiosity.
“I’m in a terrible bind, Maddy…Maupin. Do you know Gerald DeBraun?”
“De Braun? Gerald DeBraun of Western? Yes, we’ve had a few run-ins.” La Maupin’s expression did not give away her true feelings for the subject of the discussion.
“Yes, that’s DeBraun. I thought you would know him since he teaches fencing, too. He…has something that belongs to me.”
La Maupin’s pale eyebrows rose. “Oh?”
Abby’s face went white. “And I need it back. Soon.”
“He won’t give it back to you?”
“No.” The English teacher’s hand shook as she pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. “I’m afraid I sound like a cheap Edwardian novel, but…he wants money.”
“Yes. I know, it’s all so tawdry, but….”
Sitting back in her chair, La Maupin locked her fingers together. “So,” she asked quietly, “what steps have you taken to retrieve the ‘object?’”
“It’s a letter. A letter from me to an old boyfriend.” Abby smiled, embarrassed once more. “This is sounding worse and worse, isn’t it? It would be funny, if it weren’t so awful.” She angrily wiped away the tears that threatened to fall from her eyes. La Maupin reached into her pocket and pulled out a handkerchief and handed it over.
“Worse and worse,” Abby said, as she dabbed at her face. “If you light a pipe, or pull out brandy to ‘hearten me,’ I’ll have to get up and leave.”
La Maupin smiled sympathetically. “I promise to light no pipe, nor offer brandy – and I’ve left my Watson at home.” She paused for a moment, letting her friend pull herself together. “Why don’t you start from the beginning?”
The English teacher sniffled and visibly forced herself to breathe deeply and sit up straight. “When I was just out of school, I took a position in a public school. I was quite young and I…fell in love with a student.”
It’s not what you think,” Abby said defensively. “He, John, was 18 and I was just 22. It wasn’t anything illegal or immoral – he wasn’t in any of my classes or anything. We didn’t even meet at the school. He stopped to help me one night, it was raining, my car had a blown tire and we ended up going out for dinner….” She sighed, “And I’m digressing. The point is, it may have not been illegal or even immoral, but it was certainly not the best judgment call I’ve ever made.” Abby sighed again. “As I said, I was young and foolish. He and I wrote a few notes to one another – you know how it is.”
“I do,” La Maupin nodded. “And DeBraun has one of those notes.”
Tears filled the English teacher’s eyes once again. “Yes, and he’s threated to turn it over to the Board of Governors of Husdon, if I don’t come up with $250,000 by the end of the month! I’ll lose my job and I’ll never work as a teacher again…plus, if I my fiance’ should find out….”
La Maupin sucked on her teeth in thought. “Have you made any attempt to retrieve the letter?”
Nodding, Abby said, “I hired a private investigator. He’s followed DeBraun and ummm….” she hesitated, twisting the handkerchief nervously.
“He searches all the likely hiding places?” La Maupin waved away the obvious illegalities of the undertaking.
“Yes. Home and office and…there’s no safe-deposit box or anything like that. Abby’s pale cheeks now had two angry red spots. “I don’t know what you can do, really, but if you have any ideas….” her voice was strained with desperation.
La Maupin stared at her hands for a moment, then slapped her palms against her thighs. Standing, she leaned forward and pinned the hapless English teacher with a commanding gaze.
“Leave it to me,” she said confidently.
“No,” La Maupin said, raising one hand to forestall questions. “No questions. Just leave it to me. I’ll let you know when I have your letter or have destroyed it.”
Abby stared up at the fencing instructor. “You will? Maddy…thank you, thank you….” And this time, the tears poured freely down her cheeks.
Brewster Western Academy & Preparatory School looked much like any private school in the Hudson Valley. The architecture was ponderous, massive and impressively overbearing. La Maupin strode through halls of well-polished and well-worn wooden floors. The smell reminded her of her own alma mater and current home, Hudson Academy for Girls; sweat, floor polish, excitement and industrial cleaners competed for topnote.
The door was unmarked, but La Maupin knocked with confidence.
“Come.” The voice was deep, masculine and tinged with impatience.
As the door opened, the room’s occupant looked up with obvious irritation which changed quickly to surprise, then derision.
“Gerald,” La Maupin leaned in the doorway casually, one hand on her hip, the other on the doorjamb.
“Maddy…or should I call you Maupin?” He sneered the last word. “Your reputation has certainly become more colorful since we last met.”
Maupin shrugged, unconcerned. “I like to think that I’ve learned to live life to the fullest.” She smiled winningly at her peer. “And jealousy doesn’t suit you at all, Gerald.”
Gerald DeBraun stood, stepped around his desk and took a few steps across the room to directly confront his guest. “I’m not jealous, just…confused. I thought that we had something good, didn’t we, Maddy?” He stopped just outside touching distance, one hand lifted.
“Yes, it was good.” Maupin sighed. “It just wasn’t enough for me. I never meant to hurt you.”
DeBraun spun away, a sour look on his face. “You have a funny way of not hurting me. What is it you want? I don’t imagine that you’re here for a friendly chat.”
Maupin stood upright. “You have something that belongs to a friend of mine. Her voice dropped to a sad whisper. “Blackmail Gerald? That’s low. Has it come to that?”
DeBraun returned to his desk, lowering himself onto a corner, the sneer once again upon his face. “The little English teacher. You’re here to protect her? That’s pathetic…has it come to that?” he echoed unpleasantly.
With three quick steps, Maupin crossed the office, and slapped DeBraun smartly across the mouth.
DeBraun faced La Maupin, as dark as she was fair. His almost-black eyes bored into her blue ones.
“I demand a duel,” Maupin said firmly.
Maupin shrugged. “Why wait?”
Without another word, DeBraun stood and led the way out of his office, back into the hallway. A few moments brought them to the gymnasium and the closet where the fencing equipment was stored.
DeBraun took two helmets from the wall and tossed one to Maupin. She shook her head and set the helmet aside. She helped herself to gloves and chose a sword from the two DeBraun held out. DeBraun watched her sharply for a moment, then set his own helmet to the side.
Western’s fencing instructor wasted no time. He strode back into the gym, shed his jacket, and hung it on a hook on the wall.
The two fencers equipped themselves and stood at the ready. A quick salute, then they began to circle one another.
Both had fenced for many years, both were master fencers and both had studied other forms of sword fighting…but never had they come to blows before.
The first few moments were spent in experimental exchanges. Maupin found her opponent to be confident – maybe a trifle overconfident. They had different agendas in this fight, but only she knew both. She feinted an attack which DeBraun neatly turned away. Her sword flicked out, catching deBraun on the thigh, tearing his slacks. He responded with a slice to her head which, after a moment, drew blood.
DeBraun smiled tightly. “You’re out of practice.”
“I suppose so,” La Maupin replied evenly. “You’ll just have to update me.” Again, her sword reached out and opened a gash in DeBraun’s shirt. She had just enough time to deflect a strike aimed at her neck, and they separated, putting a little distance between them.
DeBraun looked down at his shirt. “What on earth are you up to, Maddy?”
Maupin shrugged. “Just making a point.” The next few moments were spent in attack and counterattack, with neither combatant gaining the upper hand.
DeBraun moved towards la Maupin, trying to force a clinch, in which his height and strength would be an advantage. La Maupin stepped in and brought her sword down in a sweep, once again slicing into the neat fold of DeBraun’s pants. He pulled away once again.
“Just think how lucky you are,” La Maupin said cheerfully, “that I have no interest in marking the flesh beneath your clothes.”
DeBraun growled audibly. His attacks were quick and La Maupin was hard-pressed to keep herself out of harm’s way. Even so, when she managed to put some space between them, her sleeve had torn and her arm sported two angry red lines.
Once again DeBraun moved in – La Maupin saw her chance. Evading him completely, she moved behind her opponent and threw her weight into him, sending him reeling. With a lunge, Maupin stabbed out, not at DeBraun, but at the jacket he had hung on the peg. With three lightning quick strokes, she had sliced cleanly through the material of all three pockets. Three more sharp cuts and Maupin stood back, panting.
DeBraun, now recovered, leapt forward with a cry. “Bitch!” he shouted, sword outstretched. Maupin slapped DeBraun’s arm away, then held him at sword’s point.
“Gerald,” she said coldly, “I’ll say this once. I’m sorry I hurt you. I’m sorry you’ve sunk this low. I won’t take this to the police, but I expect you to turn in your resignation by the end of the week.”
DeBraun’s face was twisted and angry. “La Maupin,” he spat. “You haven’t heard the last of me.”
La Maupin inched the sword closer to DeBraun’s neck. “Yes,” she pronounced, “I think I have.”
Abigail Parks opened the envelope with obvious trepidation. She gently extracted the shredded remains of her letter from the envelope.
“How did you…? How?” she asked in a hoarse whisper.
La Maupin set a cup of coffee in front of the teacher and took a drink from her own cup. “Once I persuaded him, Gerald was very enthusiastic about returning it. He won’t be bothering you again.”
“Gerald?” Abby’s eyes were huge as she took in the slices through the paper.
Seating herself behind her desk, La Maupin set her cup down. “We had a…thing. It ended when I left him. He took it rather badly.” She smiled enigmatically.
Abby hardly seemed to take in La Maupin’s words. “Did you fight?” She looked from the letter to the bandages on La Mapin’s arm.
The blonde waved it off. “It was nothing.”
Abby was on her feet and had La Mapuin’s hand in her own. “Thank you, oh thank you!” With a huge grin, Abby had her arms around the fencing instructor. As she pulled back, the English teacher asked, “I hate to finish off the Edwardian novel parallels but…how did you know where to find it?”
La Maupin chuckled. “It was quite simple, really. I knew from what you had told me that Gerald did not have the letter hidden. I know that if *I* wanted to keep something safe, I’d keep it on my person. During our fight, I’d determined that he did not have it in his pants or shirt pocket, so his jacket was the next obvious place to hide it.” La Maupin paused. “Now that I think about it, that doesn’t really make much sense, but it seemed to at the time.”
“Fighting a duel over a lady’s love letter…” Abby said, shaking her head in wonder. “You really *are* La Maupin.”
“All in a day’s work, my lady,” La Maupin stood and bowed extravagantly.
The fire had burned low by the time she had done telling her tale. I stood and added a log to the fire.
“And so, an illustrious career was born,” I said, as I refreshed both our drinks.
“Not a career,” she corrected, “an avocation. For one thing, I don’t charge.”
“There is one thing I don’t understand,” I said, after a long moment. “Why did Gerald take your breakup so hard? You two weren’t that serious, were you?” I couldn’t recall her ever speaking of a serious affair.
“No,” she laid back once again, crossing her legs upon the sofa’s arm. “No, we weren’t serious. He was upset because I left him for a woman.”
“Ah.” Another thing she had in common with the French adventuress whose name she had been given. “So, what brought this to mind?” I asked. I knew La Maupin well – nothing she did was entirely random.
“What indeed?” she replied and laughed. She stood in one smooth motion and walked over to her secretary. She pulled a piece of paper from the top of her mail pile. “I received this today.”
I took the sheet in my hand. The paper was unremarkable 20-lb paper stock. The letter had been typed on a computer in 12-point Times New Roman and printed out on an inkjet printer. It could have been from anywhere but, as I read it, I realized that the content could have only come from one place.
*La Maupin,” it read, “I hope you are happy. You have ruined my life and ruined my career. I said that you have not heard the last of me yet and I meant it. Poste, reposte, my dear Maddy. I’ll wait for your response.”*
It was signed – “G.”
When I was done, I looked up at my employer in askance. In response she shrugged.
“What can I do?” La Maupin pushed the blonde curls away from her face. “I’ll find him and I’ll defeat him once again.” The she did something that would have seemed strange coming from anyone else. She smiled brightly.
“What do you know, Bernard?” She chuckled, striking a pose in front of the fire. “I have an archenemy!” And, with that thought, La Maupin laughed.