Lady Armand, Lady McKenzie, and Mr. Troughton sat at the table, sipping their after-dinner coffee and gazing out the window. The train had entered a tremendous horseshoe curve, and the valley below was lit by heavy afternoon sun.
Lady McKenzie set down her cup. “I meant to ask you: Have you heard the rumor that the Connoisseur is about this train?”
Lady Armand’s heavy-lidded eyes widened as much as they were able. “Oh dear! I thought I heard something of the sort. Mr Troughton, do you think what they say is true?”
“It very well might be, it very well might,” he said gruffly. His mustache and mutton chops seemed to keep him muzzled. He winced as he took another swallow of his very black coffee.
“That is perfectly dreadful,” Lady Armand declared, turning to gaze out the window. She did not look much perturbed.
“It’s a bit exciting if you ask me,” replied Lady McKenzie. “The Connoisseur may be a thief, but she has good taste. She only steals the finest pieces of art.”
Mr. Troughton sputtered, soaking his mustache with coffee. “Do you mean to say that the Connoisseur is of the fairer sex?”
“That is indeed what I am saying, Mr. Troughton. I have heard so from reliable sources. If you ask me, it is the reason she continues to escape capture.”
“I don’t think I understand,” said Lady Armand.
“It’s remarkably simple, actually. The police think like men. The Connoisseur is a woman. This gives her a great advantage, does it not?” Lady McKenzie nodded to emphasize the self-evidence of this point. Mr. Troughton used the momentary distraction to slip some brandy into his cup from a flask he kept in his suit pocket.
“Yes, of course, I see that you are right,” said Lady Armand. “How delightfully clever.”
“Excuse me.” A young woman with a pretty face interrupted their conversation. “May I join you? Most of the other tables are full, and the others are occupied by men I’d rather not spend time with.”
“Certainly,” replied Lady Armand, “but I must confess that we have already eaten. And will be leaving soon.”“Oh, that doesn’t matter. I don’t plan on staying long. I just wanted a change of scenery.” She slid in next to Mr. Troughton, who raised his thick eyebrows at the prospect of having such a pretty thing next to him. “My name is Charlotte.”
The other three introduced themselves, and then Lady McKenzie added: “We were just discussing the Connoisseur. We heard that she is on this train somewhere. Incognito, no doubt.”
Charlotte placed her elbows on the table in a unladylike manner and leaned forward, her bright eyes taking in the three of them. “She is here on the train. I know it.”
They took this news remarkably well, though the ladies each took a sip to calm their nerves and Mr. Troughton drank straight from his flask.
“How…er…how do you come by this information?” he asked.
“Never mind the specifics. But for the sake of conversation, let’s assume for a moment that I am the Connoisseur. Can you do that?”
“Oh, that is ridiculous,” cried Lady Armand, clearly agitated.
“Let us say you are,” said Lady McKenzie. “Why would you reveal yourself?”
“Are you three traveling together?” Charlotte asked.
“No. We met on the journey and discovered similar interests,” Lady McKenzie said.
“Good. If I am the Connoisseur, it is better that you three go your separate ways when this is all over. The story will spread more quickly.”
“The story?” Mr. Troughton inquired.
“How did you come to know the Connoisseur was on this train? Who told you?”
“Everyone is talking about it,” Lady Armand said decisively.” I heard it from several fellow travelers, and Lady Armand and Mr. Troughton certainly heard it from their acquaintances aboard. What is the point of this charade?”
“The point, my friends, is that I—I mean, the Connoisseur—craves attention as much as she craves fine art. My thefts—I’m sorry, her thefts—are spectacular. They are front page news. She fancies herself a work of art as great as those she snatches. She protects her fame jealously, and she won’t let any one else share in it. The rumor you all three heard exists because she began it.”
This quieted even the often chatty Lady McKenzie for a few moments.
“There is a detective on board!” McKenzie declared suddenly. “I spoke with him yesterday evening. Nice chap, taking a long awaited sabbatical from city life. We’ll report you.”
“I don’t think you will. It would ruin such a pleasant trip, wouldn’t it? And it’s exciting, sharing such a secret. The stories you’ll tell at home, Lady McKenzie! Would you give up this adventure for the sake of reporting poor, little me?”
“Mr. Troughton, then!”
Charlotte gave the man a glance. “Mr. Troughton would no more report the Connoisseur than turn down a friendly game of whist. Too irregular. Interviews, police proceedings—it makes life messy. Isn’t that right, sir?”
“Spot on, lass,” he muttered.
Lady Armand opened her mouth to give her opinion of the matter, but Charlotte cut her off. “I won’t stay much longer. But remember, my name’s Charlotte. Tell everyone. The public is hungry for details. Tell them about the encounter. Embellish if you wish.”
“This is absurd!” said Lady Armand loudly. “How do we know your name is really Charlotte?”
“Does it matter to you?”
“It matters a great deal! You come here telling us outrageous stories and expect us to swallow them hook, line, and sinker! You’re toying with us.”
“Perhaps I am. How can you be sure?”
“We can’t,” said Mr. Troughton, trying to keep up with the conversation.
“People will believe what you tell them,” Charlotte said. “The Connoisseur is all the rage. She’s on every lip—but she doesn’t even have a name. Now she does. It’s Charlotte.”
“Lies!” hissed Lady Armand.
“And tell them I’m transporting my latest theft in the baggage car, a Van Eyck.”
“Bah!” cried Lady Armand. “Rubbish. The latest heist was of a Da Vinci. Van Eyck! Hah! Amateur!”
“That hasn’t been revealed to the papers yet,” Charlotte said softly. “If you would stand quietly and come with me, we won’t make a scene, Emily.
“Emily?” Lady McKenzie said.
Lady Armand, stone-faced, nodded. “Yes, we must preserve the image. Thank you.”
“By Jove, what’s happening?” Mr. Troughton asked.
Charlotte stood as Lady Armand did. “Lady McKenzie was right when she said there was a detective on board. I am his daughter. As for the rest, well, let’s keep that between us four, shall we? At least for now. Bad publicity would be a mortal blow for the Connoisseur. Come on, Emily, let’s go.”