chapter two — the squirrel in the hatbox
Soon enough, they came to a stop at another station and changed trains to a mountain railway that led deep into the Alps. This railway was built on the Abt system, which enabled trains to climb steep mountain grades with the help of cogwheels that ran on toothed rails. This time, the interior was very starkly furnished, and no longer sported the elegant windows or silk curtains of the previous train. The lighting was dim, and the temperature felt slightly cooler.
Shuddering from side to side, the train slowly started into motion with a loud clang. The metallic squeals of the cogwheels grinding against the toothed rails vibrated through the floor.
A pallid glow akin to moonlight swathed the interior of the train. Victorique sat quietly next to Kazuya, her normally rosy pink cheeks now tinged in faint blue. Pale blue glass encased the lanterns hanging from the wall, emanating a weak moon-like gleam that flickered upon the two people below.
“Oh, my. Is this another coincidence?”
The flimsy door to their compartment swung open, and a young woman walked inside—the same nun who had accompanied them on the previous train.
Kazuya wasn’t expecting this. “Huh? Um, you’re taking this train, too…?”
“Yes. Really now, where are you two going?”
That’s what I’d like to know, Kazuya said to himself, and glanced at Victorique.
She maintained her stubborn silence, avoiding his gaze. When Kazuya tried to relieve his confusion by asking her questions, her irritation only seemed to grow. Up until now, he was under the assumption that she had a toothache, but that was apparently not the case. Her cheeks had looked swollen, but it occurred to him that perhaps they had always been that plump, and the thought caused him to sink even deeper into a morass of confusion.
As the nun plunked down in the seat before them, Kazuya gave her a troubled look. Ever since the ride on the previous train, he had been itching with the desire to tell Victorique about this nun. Since there was no way he could do that right in front of her, he had hoped to broach the subject once they switched to the mountain railway, but little did he know that they would be riding the same train again….
Left with no other option, Kazuya tried to communicate with Victorique using gestures, trying to convey to her that this was the same nun whom she had identified as the suspect in the theft of the Dresden plate.
For some reason, Inspector de Blois had been unable to arrest the culprit, and the case was still unsolved….
When the music box fell apart to the surprise of onlookers, the nun distracted the crowd by releasing a dove into the air from beneath her skirts, and then loudly proclaimed that the plate had gone missing…. Kazuya tried to pantomime this chain of events to Victorique. But she ignored him and turned away, pressing herself against the window like a child, even though it was pitch black outside and there was nothing to see.
Kazuya dejectedly let his hands fall.
And then his eyes wandered over to the nun who sat in front of him.
The light of the lantern, as pale as moonlight, undulated to and fro in time with the movement of the train. In the daytime, the nun’s narrowed blue-grey eyes had looked like those of any healthy, cheerful young woman, but now they were unfathomable, eerie in their lack of expression. Her eyelashes cast oddly long shadows against her pale, freckled cheeks.
Whenever the lantern flickered, her pallid face would light up, then fall dark again. As Kazuya gazed at her, he felt a sense of unease.
The nun suddenly began to speak. Her voice was upbeat, the polar opposite of her unsettling air. “So, where you two headed? There’s only mountains from here on out.”
“And it’s the middle of the night.”
“Where might you be headed, sister?”
The nun closed her mouth, and fixed Kazuya with a hard glare. “…What about you?”
“Um, we’re going to Horowitz….”
“Well, whaddya know. That’s where I’m going. No wonder we got on the same train.”
“Oh, you’re going there, too? Why is that?”
“What about you?”
Each time Kazuya asked her a question, she repeated it back at him. Feeling bewildered, he went quiet, thinking to himself, then said, “Well … it’s a long story. And you?”
“I was, um … raised there. That’s why.”
“Oh, really! What kind of town is Horowitz?”
For a split second, the nun’s face froze in panic. She clicked her tongue, then replied, “I guess … it’s like any other town.”
She chose not to elaborate on her answer.
Victorique’s eyes shifted from the view outside the window to the reflection of the nun’s face on the glass. She looked at her only briefly, but the nun noticed, and she threw Victorique a flinty look. But by that time, Victorique had already turned back to looking outside, her chin resting in her hands.
The nun thought for a moment, then let her gaze fall from Victorique’s small form. “…I’m Mildred. Mildred Arbogast. Who might you two be?”
“I’m Kujou. Kazuya Kujou. And this is my friend, Victorique.”
“How about the girl you were with yesterday?”
The nun with the blue-grey eyes, who called herself Mildred, suddenly lowered her voice mockingly, taking Kazuya by surprise. Confused, he answered, “Yesterday? Oh, yes, the girl who came with me to the bazaar yesterday; that’s Avril. She’s my classmate.” Thinking back to the events from the day before, he asked the nun, “Speaking of yesterday, what happened afterwards? That plate was stolen…”
“…Beats me. No one’s been able to find it.” Her tone was rueful, but her expression struck a jolly contrast to her words. The corners of her mouth quivered as if she could burst into hearty laughter at any moment.
“Who could have stolen it?”
“…I wonder. And how did they pull it off? It really is a mystery.”
“Oh, look! We’re almost there.” Mildred made a show of pointing outside the window.
While they were occupied with their conversation, the train had forged its way through the mountains and was about to arrive at their next stop.
The town in that classified ad.