“Show yourself, Phantom!”
Charlie’s shout bounced off the dark blue walls of the Salle des États. The Venetian paintings shook in their frames. The Mona Lisa watched Charlie with a proud smile, for she knew she would be protected.
Phantom R had sent a warning note to the Constabulary last week. His next target was none other than da Vinci’s masterpiece— the most iconic portrait in the Louvre… in all of France.
The Louvre had been placed under complete lockdown, much to the indignation of some fifteen thousand visitors.
Outside, Charlie’s father had the museum surrounded. The Constabulary was slightly debilitated from its usual might— a few officers had called in sick— but they were still confident they would catch Phantom R before he entered the building.
Idiots. Did they really expect Phantom R to waltz through the front doors? No, Charlie knew he would have found a secret way in.
She herself had gotten in through the roof.
She had already checked the security cameras, but they hadn’t picked anything up.
Charlie twirled her football in her hands. “I know you’re here,” she hollered, “so there’s no point in hiding!” He was good at hiding, but Charlie was even better at finding him.
Her eyes scanned the subjects of the artworks as if one of them would leap out at her. Was that an uninvited guest at The Wedding at Cana? Or was there something off about Jupiter Hurling Thunderbolts at the Vices…?
Phantom R’s white dog would stick out like a sore thumb. The dog would be his downfall.
Smirking, Charlie pulled a packet of chips out of her coat pocket. She rustled the packet loudly.
“Miam! Cheese-flavoured chips! My favourite!”
She tore open the packet and dropped some chips. Several minutes passed, but she didn’t hear paws skittering across the floor. Silence was her only enemy.
Charlie huffed. Fine. She would use this spare time for practice. She started playing keepy-uppy with her football.
By the time she had reached one thousand keep-ups, she was furious and famished. She had finished eating those chips hours ago.
“Come ooooon, Phantom!” she moaned, sprawled across the floor. “You absolute COWARD—!”
Gasping, Charlie sat up to see her father had entered the gallery.
He huffed, “What are you doing in here?”
“What are you doing in here?”
They would be here all night at this rate. Her father must have been tired enough to concede defeat.
"Half of my officers claimed they were 'cold' and went home." (Pansies.) "The commissioner called the whole operation off after that." He glanced around the gallery. "I just wanted to do a final check before I left."
"Don't bother," Charlie snorted, nodding at The Mona Lisa. "I've got it covered."
"A minute ago, you were lying on the floor," her father pointed out dryly. "You're lucky Phantom R didn't sneak past you."
"Maybe he will if you keep distracting me!"
He took off his glasses and cleaned them on his sleeve. "Or maybe it's time to call it a night."
"What? And let Phantom R steal The Mona Lisa?"
"I don't think he will— not tonight."
"But... But his note!" Charlie protested.
All that earned her was a shrug. "It could have been faked by Phantom R or a copycat.”
"No, it has to be him. The handwriting matched his previous notes." Charlie hummed. "He must be trying to throw us off! Have there been any other museum thefts this evening?"
"Not that I'm aware of, no, but I'll find out tomorrow if there have been... I'm going now. I'll be getting a takeaway on the way home. Are you coming?"
Charlie's stomach growled. Her father grinned. "Ugh, fine," Charlie agreed, following him out of the the Salle des États. "But it's your fault if Phantom R breaks in."
Much to Charlie's consternation, there was no news of a break-in the next morning, or the morning after that. The Mona Lisa, along with every other artefact, remained in their rightful places.
Where Charlie should have felt triumphant, she only felt a sense of loss.
It was like that time a rival team she was playing had forfeited a match. Charlie's team had been pronounced the winners, but only by default. What was the point in that? Where was the fun if she couldn't rub her rival's face in the dirt?
But surely Phantom R wouldn't cancel a planned heist. This was the same thief who had walked off a bullet wound.
Phantom R didn't just give up... Not without a good reason.
Had he run into some trouble? (There were those chevaliers Charlie had encountered beneath Les Invalides…)
Charlie wanted to arrange a nationwide search for Phantom R, but her father would have none of it.
How could her father be so insufferable even when he was feeling ill?
Of all the times for him take sick leave off work...
"You can just STAY IN BED THEN," Charlie yelled before she slammed their apartment door. She couldn't afford to catch his cold. She needed to find Phantom R and she knew just the place to start.
“Bonjour… Please can I speak to Marie?” Charlie asked at the black iron front gates of Duchess Elizabeth’s manse.
The maid, holding a silk handkerchief to her nose, studied Charlie as if she was a stinking street urchin.
Charlie continued, “We're... friends." That was a lie— Charlie had had about three conversations with Marie. One of which comprised of Marie constantly thanking Charlie for saving her life.
"Friends?" the maid repeated with a scoff.
"My name is Charlie Vergier. My father works for the Constabulary." (She rarely resorted to the ‘My-father-is-an-inspector' card, but these were trying times.)
The maid sniffed. “Very well… I will inform Marie of your arrival."
She locked the gate and left Charlie waiting outside for fifteen minutes.
When the maid finally returned, she opened the gate, gripping the bars as if they would shield her from Charlie. She announced, “Marie will see you now—“
“Charlie!” Marie came bounding through the gate, much to Charlie and the maids’ surprise. "I hope you weren’t waiting too long," Marie said. "Please, come in! It's so wonderful to see you!"
If Charlie had intended for this to be a quick visit, she was mistaken.
Marie sat with her in the downstairs parlour (They had another one upstairs?) and offered her tea and cake. How could Charlie refuse?
The servants brought them a floral china teapot, matching cups and saucers, and a three tier cake stand filled with pastries.
It was more like they were having afternoon tea than a simple chat. They got past all the pleasantries— “How’s your father? How’s the Private Eye business going? How’s school?”— before Charlie was able to bring up Phantom R.
She inquired if Marie had had any contact with him recently.
Marie hesitated for the first time in their conversation. She lifted her teacup to her lips and stammered, “N-no, I haven’t heard anything from him in a while… Have you?” She sounded hopeful.
“He sent a note to the Constabulary saying he was going to nick The Mona Lisa,” Charlie revealed. Marie leaned forward in her red-and-gilt chair. “…But he never turned up.”
“Oh…” Marie wilted. “That’s not like him at all.”
“No, it isn’t.” Charlie started to devour a slice of hazelnut dacquoise, chewing thoughtfully.
Marie mumbled, “Are you worried about him?”
Charlie choked on her cake. A servant rushed to their table, ready to administer the Heimlich manoeuvre, but Charlie shook her head. She was fine and she definitely wasn’t worried about Phantom R. Worried about his whereabouts, yes, but not about him personally.
Marie patted her on the back. “It’s okay… I’m worried too. I’ve been wondering if I should go and check on him, but—”
“You know where he is?” Charlie gasped.
“Don’t you?” Marie blinked at her. “I thought you two were old friends?”
“W-we are!” Another lie, but Charlie seized her opportunity. “He just… never invited me over. What about you?”
“I stayed with him—” Marie went as red as the strawberry tarts on the cake stand. “I… I mean, when I was being targeted by the chevaliers!” She suddenly gripped the white lace table cloth. “You don’t think they… they came back for him, do you?”
“There’s only one way to find out,” Charlie said, “and I’d rather you didn’t go alone.”
“Alright…” Marie sighed and released the cloth. She gazed at Charlie, delicate as the china teacup, but just as sharp if broken. “Please— please don’t reveal his location to the Constabulary?”
“I give you my word as a Private Eye.” (She didn’t say anything about Charlie arresting him.)
Charlie expected Marie to call a chauffeur, but Marie decided they would take the Metro by themselves and walk the rest of the way. Of course— Phantom R’s lair must have been in a secluded seedy part of Paris…
Actually, it was down the road from Musée d'Orsay Station. A ten-minute stroll alongside the river, past some cafes and small shops, and Marie stopped outside an apartment building. Was this it?
Marie had paused for a moment, hands clasped above her chest. She took a deep breath and nodded to Charlie.
Charlie went in first, wielding her football. Whether they were facing Phantom R or the chevaliers, she would be ready.
The hallway looked empty— wait, was that noise coming from the stairs? No… just a little kid running around. All clear.
Charlie signalled to Marie, who followed her in. Marie crept to the door closest to the stairs.
She knocked. “Hello? P-phantom R, it’s me!”
A dog barked and scratched at the other side of the door. Charlie stepped back.
Marie smiled slightly. “Hi, Fondue! Is R… R there?”
“What’s the matter, boy?” Marie cooed, trying to peep through the keyhole. “Where’s Phantom R—?”
“Enough of this.” Charlie pounded the door with her fist. “Phantom! If you can hear me, open this door.”
Fondue must have recognised her voice or her scent, because he started growling.
Marie hissed, “Charlie, don’t—“
She would kick the door down if she had to. “PHANTOM R!”
Then she heard a pained groan. Fondue barked and scampered away. Charlie pressed her ear to the door. Marie did the same beside her.
“A’right, I’m up…” someone croaked from inside. Footsteps shuffled towards the door. “Marie? Is that you?”
“Y-yes!” Marie exclaimed. “Charlie’s here too. Are you okay?”
“Why did you take so long to answer?” Charlie added.
“I…I’m sick,” Phantom R replied.
“What?” Charlie and Marie said together.
“I think I—“ A car honked outside, obscuring his words.
Charlie said, “Come again?”
Phantom R raised his voice. “—Got a fever... and can’t stop coughing...” This was followed by a coughing fit for emphasis.
Charlie held her chin in her hand. It was true that a new strain of the flu virus was making its rounds of the city— her father and much of the Constabulary had become infected. Some of Charlie’s friends had also been absent from school.
But still... Could she really believe that Phantom R— elusive thief, ‘saviour’ of Paris— had been incapacitated by the flu?
Marie had no such qualms about Phantom R. “Aw, you poor thing!” she consoled, resting her palm against the door. “Why didn’t you call me?”
Phantom R laughed weakly. “I didn’t want you to catch it—“
“I want to see you,” Charlie demanded.
“You...” he wheezed. “Want to see me?”
“I want you to prove that you’re unwell, and not just hiding from your crimes.” She folded her arms. “We’re not leaving until you do.”
Again, Fondue growled at her.
Marie softened Charlie’s threat. “We can help you.”
Phantom R released a long sigh. “Okay... I’ll just... put Fondue in the other room—“
“So you can stash all of your stolen goods?” Charlie guessed.
“No. It’s so Fondue doesn’t bite your butt.” (How could he still insult Charlie if he was ill?)
They heard him move away from the front door with a grunt. “C’mon, Fondue...” Another door shut somewhere in the apartment. He returned to the front door a few minutes later.
“If you catch this, it’s your fault, Charlie,” Phantom R warned. The front door slowly opened.
Charlie barged inside. “Alright, Phantom...” She trailed off at the sight of him.
Before her stood a boy wrapped from head to toe in a blue duvet. Despite that, he wouldn’t stop shivering. His face, what little Charlie could see of it, looked pale and sweaty. His brown eyes were bleary.
He coughed, covering his mouth with the blanket. “Believe me now?”
Marie shoved past Charlie. She gently put her hands on Phantom R’s shoulders. “Of course we do. I wish you had told me sooner— I could have gotten you some medicine, or taken you to the doctor...”
“Sorry, didn’t want to... to worry you,” Phantom R muttered. “I’m used to this, really— it was much worse when I was little.” He tried to shrug under the blanket. “I sent Fondue out to get some supplies... but he just brought back some sausages, haha...” Oh, brilliant— now he sounded delirious!
“Shhhh.” Marie led him through the tissue-infested apartment. (It was quite spacious... Just how could he afford all of this?) “Let’s get you to bed,“ Marie said. Marie opened the door that presumably led to Phantom R’s bedroom.
Fondue burst out and made a beeline for Charlie’s leg.
“W-wait, Fondue!” Phantom spluttered, turning to them. “Charlie’s here to... to help us... right?”
Fondue halted his attack. Marie, still supporting Phantom R, sent Charlie a frown.
“...Right,” Charlie huffed. “You’re clearly not in any state to be dancing around the Louvre at the moment. But as soon as you’re back on your feet, I’ll be there to apprehend you.”
“Not if I get to The Mona Lisa first...” Phantom R smiled. “Thanks, Charlie.”
Marie smiled at her too before she herded Phantom R into his bedroom.
Charlie was left hovering near the doorway with Fondue. She pointed at the dog. “If Phantom R starts dying, come and fetch me. Understand?”
Charlie nipped to the pharmacy to pick up tablets, tissues and soap, along with some cheese-flavoured chips from the shop. She dropped them on Phantom R’s doorstep. Marie could stay with him and be his nurse.
Charlie already had one invalid to deal with at home.
She chucked a packet of tissues at her father as she walked through the door.
“Throw them away when you’re done with them,” Charlie ordered. “I don’t want your... your...” She broke off with a small cough.
“You were saying?” her father coughed from the armchair.
Curse you, Phantom R.