The night was brisk and the cool wind chills her shoulders as Eru Chitanda undoes the first clasp on her coat, preparing to remove it as she reaches the stone steps of her destination for the evening. The illustrious estate of the Irisu family stood before her, grand staircase leading up to a set of ornate double doors where a pair of doormen ushered incoming guests. Chitanda was ushered in behind an elderly couple, giving a smile and a small curtsy to the doorman that held the door for her.
Warmth brushed over Chitanda’s face as she stepped into the brightly lit foyer; candles burned brightly above her head on a massive chandelier, the crystals hanging from its elegant curves casting glittering fractals of light all around. Chitanda took a deep breath in, picking up the myriad of perfume scents from the guests that milled about, the sweet waft of champagne served by butlers passing by, and the distant savory roast of the evening’s dishes being prepared. None of this could be picked up by any average guest, but Chitanda was far from average.
“Good evening. Miss Chitanda, I presume?”
Chitanda ‘s attention snapped to the voice addressing her. A sweet looking maid, perhaps three or four years older than Chitanda herself, curtsied in greeting. Chitanda smiled and nodded in confirmation.
“Yes, that’s me.”
The maid’s smile grew. “Wonderful. Lady Irisu bids you welcome to her home. She is deeply sorry she cannot be here to greet you at the door as she is attending to another matter, but insists that you make yourself comfortable until she can meet with you. May I take your coat?”
The maid extended an offering hand, and Chitanda swiftly removed the coat off her shoulders, folding the collar inward and handing it over to the woman. “Thank you ma’am,” Chitanda said, clasping her empty hands together. The maid folded the coat over her arm and gestured to the stairs. “Of course you are welcome to enjoy the party but if you would like to rest, I could escort you to a spare room.”
Chitanda shook her head. “Thank you, but I will mingle if that’s alright.”
The maid nodded. “Very well, I shall notify you when Lady Irisu is ready to see you.”
With that, she gave another curtsy and walked off with Chitanda’s coat. Chitanda gave a breath of relief that she’d have some time before having to engage in a formal meeting - she had an inkling as to what the topic was, but welcomed the brief break before having to conduct herself once again.
One of the passing butlers held their silver tray of crystal flutes with sparkling champagne towards her, offering the drink with a smile. Chitanda smiled back, politely taking the glass and holding the delicate stem between her fingers. She wouldn’t be drinking tonight if she could help it; her visit was partially a business one and she didn’t hold her alcohol well, a fact that Mayaka liked to poke fun at when they drank wine together.
The faces she saw as she made her way through the room were familiar to her; the Irisu family ran the local hospital and were notorious in academic health circles. Being of an older family, they were acquainted with the Chitandas for generations, along with all the other wealthy families that were present when the town was founded. Many of those she passed, she would see at any social gathering her family was invited to; several had attended her Debutante ball three years ago.
Not wanting to dive right into the politics of conversation, Chitanda chose to occupy a quiet corner to watch the live pianist playing a slow melody for guests to dance to, next to a man who held a full flute of untouched champagne much like her own, in gloved hands. She curtsied and asked him, “Excuse me, would it be alright if I stood here for a few minutes?”
The man looked over at her, an indescribable expression within his green eyes that passed and faded in the moment it took to regard her. He quietly nodded and gestured to the space she intended to occupy, shuffling stiffly to his right. Chitanda nodded back and took her place, casting her gaze around the room again. A stutter of movement caught her eye to her right - the man she was standing next to tucked his hand into his pocket and shifted his weight. Chitanda decided to speak up, giving him a disarming smile. “If you don’t mind me saying, you seem uncomfortable. Are you not enjoying the party?”
The man glanced at her cryptically. He looked back at the party, somewhat dismissively. “I don't go out at night because people like them see me for what I am.”
Ah, now here was someone interesting! Chitanda had recognized the quote instantly from the well worn copy of the Oliver Twist novel she kept at home. Most in attendance at the party would consider the book scandalous and beneath their academic level, thus viewing this man in contempt - was that what he was hoping her reaction would be? But he had said it with no hesitation, why would he do so when he had accepted her invasion of space? She grew curious instantly, and it took all her decorum not to violently turn to face this man. Instead, she prodded.
“And that would be?” Chitanda inquired, turning her head to regard the mystery man. He turned his head in kind, the ghost of a mischievous smile playing on his face.
“Perhaps the famed Lady Sherlock would venture a guess.”
Chitanda deflated just a little bit inside. “It seems my reputation precedes me. Very well, I shall take you up on that challenge” she declared. Using the opportunity, she studied her new mystery companion.
Striking green eyes sat under strays of curly dark brown hair escaping the pomade that attempted to keep them slicked back. The skin of his high cheekbones were slightly flushed, and Chitanda’s eyes followed their curve down to his face to his pressed lips down to his chin. None of this was needed to really identify him of course, so it was mischievous of her but she simply filed away her observations of admiration in her mind and moved on to the task at hand. He sported a slick tuxedo of a more modern style with gold buttons and a grey vest, tailored to his fit. Surprisingly fashion-conscious, Chitanda noted, if only a tad casual compared to the frocks of the men in attendance. Definitely not of high society, but certainly not a commoner either.
He wasn’t a familiar face, and the confidence in the challenge he posed would suggest he doesn’t frequent her circles at all. He most likely recognized her from the local papers that print her cases, putting him as a member of the populace - they were much more fond of her nickname than any of her family’s acquaintances, most of whom had expressed mild disapproval of her detective passion.
The clues were building up but what really gave him away was the piece of evidence he kept hidden in his pocket - the pair of white gloves he wore. The gave off a sheen different from the silk and cotton that was commonly popular. They were also noticeably soft and slightly thick but most of all, well kept despite age. Fraying threads were trimmed and neatly burned, and an odd stitch ran down one of the fingers that was holding the glass. Chitanda had seen these gloves before in a profession, and began to put all the pieces together.
“If you’ll permit me a question, you are an antique’s appraiser, are you not?”
The question caught the man off guard, widening his eyes, but his recovery was swift. He only nodded in confirmation, waiting for her verdict.
“Well, I only know of two appraiser families in this town. There’s Mr. Ephraim, whom is an elderly widow and deals purely with art paintings. And quite surly during our last meeting" Chitanda tapped her chin thoughtfully, leaning towards him. "The other I haven't met formally but have heard much about: the Oreki household, with the eldest daughter a famed traveller who procures antiques from around the world to sell in their shop in town, adjacent to quite a fine tailor."
The ghost of a smile returned to his face once more and then it was gone, much too soon for Chitanda's liking. She pressed on regardless. "I would deduce, good sir, that you are the second child of the Oreki household."
The accused stood motionless, leaning slightly back at the decreasing proximity between them. After a beat, Chitanda stepped back to give him some space and looked up at him triumphantly.
He turned his face back towards the room, and spoke quietly. “That’s correct. My name is Houtarou Oreki, of Oreki Antiques.”
Chitanda’s eyes lingered on Oreki, gauging his reaction to her deduction, before they flitted back to the party. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Oreki.” Oreki gave a courteous nod.
They stood in companionable silence while the music changed to an upbeat tune, and something nagged at the back of Chitanda’s mind as she replayed their conversation in her head. She decided to ask.
“Mr. Oreki, may I ask, why did you quote Oliver Twist when I first approached you? Especially if you already knew who I was?”
Oreki’s eyes glanced at her, but he did not turn his head to meet hers. “Are you truly curious?”
Chitanda squared her shoulders. “I could infer, but surely I too enjoy healthy conversation as much as the next person, don’t you think?” If Oreki was bothered by her inquiries, he did not show it.
Oreki’s stiff posture relaxed slightly and he turned himself slightly towards her. “I read it years ago, but being here made me recall it. That line in particular.”
Chitanda nodded. “You do not normally frequent these parties?”
Oreki shook his head. “My sister is normally invited, but she’s in the Andes so I had to attend on her behalf.”
Chitanda goaded some more. “I can’t help but think you’re using the book as a repellent for those you do not wish to acquaint yourself with. Most here did not enjoy it.” Chitanda gave a chuckle to show her jab was a jest.
Oreki seemed to huff at that. “I just have a literary preference.”
Chitanda didn't stop the smile blooming on her face. “Then it seems I’ve found a kindred spirit.”
“I didn’t think the famed Lady Sherlock would be a fan of the popular titles.” Oreki reflected, and Chitanda felt herself deflate a little again at the name. Evidently, it must’ve shown on her face as well, because the next words out of his mouth were “You don’t seem to be a fan of that nickname.”
“I don’t mind it really,” Chitanda confessed, looking down to the drink in her hands. “But it feels as though I am riding on Mr. Holmes’s coattails, when he’s already disappeared 15 years ago. I love doing my detective work because it’s not attached to my family’s name, it’s something I’ve built on my own.
“But when the papers began to equate me to a previous legend, it feels undeserving. We work in different ways, and I think that how we approach each case lends to how it gets solved. I may not have been able to solve what he’s solved, but he also may not be able to solve what I’ve solved.” Chitanda finished, and felt her face grow hot. It was a little embarrassing to share this much to even to an acquaintance.
“Oh, I don’t mean to complain, I hope you won’t think less of me for it.”
“Then, may I refer to you as Ms. Chitanda?”
She looks up at his face again, and doesn’t find the disdain or boredom she was afraid she would see. Instead, Oreki simply regards her as she is.
“Yes, you may.” was all she could say. Feeling warm and embarrassed for another reason, she turned back to the party. She could hear the pianist on a slower song now, not able to recall what the last song even was.
“I’m sorry if i gave offense at using your nickname, Ms. Chitanda,” Oreki confessed, looking down at his drink. “I follow your story in the papers and became a bit of a fan.”
Chitanda smiled ruefully. “No offense taken, I assure you. I really meant it when I said that I didn’t mind the name. It does help rally the people on the side of justice.” She glanced at him. “Can I assume you wanted to ask about my recent cases though?”
Oreki’s ghostly smile came back. “Was it evident on my face?”
“No, just a common I question I get now. Everyone is curious about the gentleman thief”
Indeed it was so. Three months ago, the papers of London had broken out a headline that had the city in a complete uproar - “Arsene Lupin returns!” in large black type stretched across the front of her paper that morning. After a year of being called Lady Sherlock, the nemesis of her title’s namesake had returned in a glorious fashion from over two decades ago. Disappearing into nothing to only appear once again and shake London once again by stealing a valuable vase and leaving behind a familiar calling card.
Naturally Chitanda was the first one brought to the forefront of the case. Pressure to prove herself to the name she did not want; the baited breath of the populace waiting for her to catch the scoundrel as they’ve read her do so before; the support of the men she worked with after so much contempt from them. Everything changed with that case, and she was determined to catch this mystery thief in their tracks.
Yet the trail turned cold after two weeks of investigation, and her frustration grew - this was the first time it had taken her so long to solve a case. Chitanda needed something to go off of, anything! And it had to be fast, before she lost all that she spent so long and hard to build up. And then the Tomioka house reported a calling card left in their estate, stating they would steal their prized painting from Spain the next night.
It was a flurry of activity then - Scotland Yard was called to guard every point on the estate, constables barred and checked every man, woman and child entering or leaving and kept the press camped at the gate at bay, and Chitanda stood there that night staring at the painting, going over the entire mansion in her mind to make sure there were no holes in her plan. Despite the extended measures they went through to secure everything that night, a nagging feeling pricked at her neck and made her hairs stand on end, leaving an icy pit in her stomach that the smell of wisteria in the house did nothing to help alleviate. This level of security needed to catch a notorious thief and the cameras outside. This was a much different situation from the first Lupin cases, but it was to be expected. They were missing something, but what?
Chitanda had spent the hours of the night going over every branch of possibility that night, all while gazing at the painting. From what she knew, it was a 16th century piece depicting a man standing in defiance to a king and queen and their court. A beautiful painting of course, but far from the most valuable thing that resided in the Tomioka estate. Was it symbolism? Did this painting hold a special meaning to the thief?
It was not long after that when things began to unravel. It became suspicious when a couple of guards were off their patrol route, yet they insisted it was the route they were given. Higher ranks had to go over the entire house to check on routes once again and Chitanda could feel her teeth set on edge. It was the beginning, the meticulous detail that was put into every one of Arsene’s plans now coming into the light. And it made her uneasy feeling become nauseating.
And suddenly, an explosion broke out in the courtyard - firecrackers in the fountain outside, it would later be discovered - sent a jet of water sky high and drew the attention of nearly everyone in the premises. Everyone but her. For Chitanda knew when there was something set to grab your attention, you must turn your head the other way, for there would certainly be something that does not want to be seen.
That was when she saw it - a faint mist crawling on the floor revealed by moonlight. Chitanda tried to warn those around her, yet there was nothing she could do as the mist robbed her throat of her voice and her legs of their strength. Near simultaneously, she and the guards collapsed, the smell of wisteria even stronger on the carpet. Chitanda had not questioned the smell of the wisteria that permeated the house because the crest of the Tomioka family was wisteria blossoms, but it was clear now that it was used to mask the substance that had made her feel sick this entire time.
As she fell, Chitanda heard the whisper of cloth before she saw it - a flowing black cape dancing above, worn by a man in a debonair black suit and tall black tophat. A scarf obscured his face as well as protected him from the substance in the air. He knew , Chitanda realized over her swimming vision. He knew of everything that was planned somehow, and countered it all. Her vision swam as she watched him reach for the painting before everything fell to black.
When she awoke, the man and painting gone, only a calling card left in their place.
“I’m not at liberty to discuss the details, Mr. Oreki, but all I can say as that is I’m confident I will catch this thief.”
Oreki looked at her with raised eyebrows. “What inspires this confidence if I may ask?”
Chitanda smiled with a more mischievous grin this time. “This Lupin is not the real Lupin.”
It would take two more of Lupin’s heists after the Tomioka incident and one drunken slip to Mayaka before the pieces started to connect. Mayaka, despite working at a newspaper, was an art buff and admired the collections that the families in town had, but she was also privy to information about them due to her seeking their history out. Chitanda had detailed the painting that was stolen and Mayaka revealed that there were rumors of fakes in circulation and being sold to noblemen. The Tomioka’s painting was one such suspect, which led Chitanda to speak with Mr. Ephraim of Ephraim Appraisals, and thus revealed a crucial clue that tied all the cases together - this Arsene was going after art that was suspected of illegal circulation. And finding the real one would lead to the ones who began circulation.
“The real Lupin, during Sherlock’s time, had different methods and motives. This Lupin is nothing more than a copycat.”
Oreki looked down at his drink once again, deep in thought. “Their methods are different? Their both stealing art and using the same calling cards, I don’t see how there’s a difference between them.”
Chitanda held a finger up. “Do you know why the first Lupin stole and left a calling card before he took his target?”
Oreki looked at her expectantly.
“Because to him, it was all a challenge. A bar he could measure himself up against. Not getting caught by the best detective, setting up a master plan with so much thought and precision to pull off the perfect heist. Thrill. These are what the first Lupin sought in his conquests.
“I’d sooner equate this new Arsene Lupin to Robin Hood than his true namesake.” Chitanda declared with more finality than intended - whether she was assuring Oreki or herself, she didn’t know.
Oreki though, gave off what seemed to be a genuine smile for the first time that night, if only half as bright as her own; she felt her face grow warm. “I wonder if the current Arsene would be upset to hear such a thing; that he had missed the mark of his initial intention.” Oreki thought aloud, almost in mirth at imagining the thief angry.
Before Chitanda could ponder further, the maid from when she walked in interrupted the conversation.
“Excuse me, Ms. Chitanda. Lady Irisu invites you upstairs.”
Chitanda nodded to the maid. “Yes, just a moment.” She turned her head to her companion that evening to find that he was gone, just a lonely champagne flute left on the windowsill. She placed her own beside his, wondering if she’d see him again soon; her kin in literature and conversation. It was a liberating experience unbound by duty or name or stature - one of common interests and differing perspectives instead. Chitanda made a note to one day visit the Oreki appraisal shop.
She followed the maid upstairs to one of the powder rooms, rich wood furniture and upholstered chairs decorating the room. At the vanity in one end sat her long-time family friend, Fuyumi Irisu. Her expression in the mirror was dark and matched the one her father wore as he stood on the other side of the room.
Chitanda ignored the icy tension and gave her curtsy and greetings, but the Irisus cut straight to the matter at hand.
“I’ll spare you the formalities, Eru.” Irisu declared, holding up something in her hands. “We received this just a few hours ago, in my room, while I was preparing for the party.
There, between her fingers, was the calling card of Arsene Lupin.