Tea and an Art Thief
A Short Story
By Manelle Oliphant
Tiffanie ran into her father’s office and slammed the door. “Father,” she gulped for breath, “quite by chance I’ve found out the information we need.”
Mr. Barton looked up from the documents spread over his desk. Tiffanie held on to the wingback chair across from him with one hand, while she pressed the other into her side. “Just give me a second.” she wheezed, “ran all the way from Aunt Laurena’s … stitch in my side.”
Mr. Barton looked stern. “You know you aren’t supposed to run on the skywalk Tiffanie.”
Tiffanie glanced at her father and slumped down in the chair. She gave him a dismissive wave. “Don’t be silly. You and your men do it all the time.”
“I and my men are police officers. Sometimes we must chase criminals. You are a young lady. If your Aunt Laurena knew how much time you spend here…”
Tiffanie sat up. “Oh tish Aunt Laurena. Don’t you want to hear what I found out at her house today?”
“I hope you don’t use language like that in front of your aunt.”
“Of course not. I hardly get a chance to speak a word around Aunt Laurena, as you well know. Besides that doesn’t matter right now.” Her voice got louder. “Father, not only did I find out the name of our gentleman thief but I also found out when he and his gang are planning to steal the necklace from Leopatra’s tomb.”
Her father looked nonplussed. He planned a sting operation to catch a gang of gentlemen thieves, but had been missing one crucial bit of information. They knew the necklace on display at the national museum was the target, and they knew the gang’s usual methods for stealing objects in similar environments, but despite the many formally worded textograph messages they’d intercepted, he still didn’t know when the gang planned to strike. He cleared his throat. “My apologies dear. Please, do tell me your story.”
“Well, as you know, I was late.”
“You should make an effort to correct that dear.”
Tiffanie sighed. “I sometimes wonder if I accidentally make myself late on purpose, since I never want to be there.”
Mr. Barton’s mouth twitched up at the corner but he managed not to smile. “What does this have to do with your discovery?”
Tiffanie paused. “Sorry, I got off my train. I shall skip to the good bits, shall I?”
Mr. Barton smiled at his daughter. He was used to her somewhat muddled conversation. “Please do.”
“When I arrived I paused on the stoop to catch my breath. I didn’t want to get scolded, for I did run much of the way, and I was positively gasping. That’s when Mrs. Harrison opened the door.
“She looked quite harassed when she said, ‘Miss Barton, you’re here at last.’ So I knew Aunt Laurena must be in a right pickle at me being late. Which, of course, meant we were having tea with a rich and eligible man.
“Harrison took my hat and gloves and sighed with relief. ‘They are in the parlor miss. You best hurry.’
“Her manner made me ever so nervous, and my stomach flopped about as I walked toward the parlor door. The last time she’d looked that fagged, Aunt Laurena introduced me to the fat duke who was at least 40 and kept buying me all those flowers. You remember him Father?”
“Indeed I do. I don’t know what your aunt could have been thinking.”
“She thought he was very rich, as you well know.”
He frowned. “Indeed. Well, was it a fat duke?”
“No. I had a moment to appraise the back of his head and it was quite well formed. Unfortunately, Aunt Laurena sat in her favorite chair where she could see the doorway so I couldn’t lurk for long. She scowled at me but quickly went into her simpering impress-the-gentleman attitude. You know how she is. ‘Ah, Tiffanie, you are here at last. Come. Sit. Meet our guest.’ She motioned to the sofa’s empty spot right next to the gentleman. I moved forward, but he turned around and about choked on his tea when he saw me. I admit, if I’d been drinking tea at that moment I would’ve had a similar reaction. Instead, I froze in my tracks and made a noise that sounded like Aunt Laurena’s old lapdog.”
“Well, who was it?” Mr. Barton interrupted.
“It was our art thief of course.”
“Quite sure. I have seen him at least two times you know.”
“Yes. Although I don’t know how you seem to be the only one who ever runs into him. Sergeant Beckstand has only glimpsed the back of his head.”
Tiffanie grinned. “Did he tell you it was well formed?”
Mr. Barton smiled at her joke, “I still wonder how you’ve been the only one to see him.”
“You know both times happened by chance. I was in the right place at the right time.”
“Or the wrong place at the wrong time. You shouldn’t have been there at all.”
“Let’s not go into that again Father. Do you want to learn his name or not?”
Mr. Barton sighed but motioned for his daughter to continue.
“Okay, well, I sat down. All the while Aunt Laurena scolded me for the dog noise. You know how she is. ‘What is the matter with you child? Such unladylike noises. What will our guest think?’
“She, of course, didn’t notice how ‘our guest’ mopped tea off of his tie with her best Egyptian cotton napkins. It was very hard not to laugh, I tell you. Aunt Laurena was trying to marry me off to a criminal who just spilled tea all over himself. If she only knew!
“Eventually she finished her scolding and saw fit to introduce us. ‘Tiffanie dear, this is Mr. Charles Havendish of the Saagford Havendish’s. Mr. Havendish this is my great niece Miss Barton.’”
Mr. Barton smacked the desk with his fist. “Mr. Havendish! I never would’ve guessed. We knew our thief was gentry, but he’s rich as blazes. I assumed it would be a man down on his luck. How did we not see it?”
“Well. I know how I did not see it. I’ve heard of Mr. Havendish of course, but we’ve never been introduced until today.”
“He recognized you. Do you think he meant to put you on your guard?”
“No, he was as surprised as I. One does not usually spill tea all over one’s self you know.”
Mr. Barton chuckled. “True.” He paused, “Did you not tell me you found out when they plan to steal the necklace? Please continue.”
“Well, after introductions we sat like civilized people to enjoy our tea. Except Mr. Havendish kept smirking at me. It’s a smile that… that just, rankles. If I was a man I would have punched him.”
Tiffanie looked affronted. “Of course not! Not in front of Aunt Laurena. I do have some sense you know.”
“I’m sorry dear. Although, I do wish those young officers had never taught you the finer points of sparing.”
“Well I didn’t punch him. I only thought about it. Which must have shown on my face, because Aunt Laurena said, ‘What is the matter with you child? You will get wrinkles if you constantly furrow your brow like that.’
I would have responded but Mr. Havendish cut me off, ‘You have a nice painting there on your mantel Mrs. Barton. It looks like a Marnet. Is it original?’
“He was obviously sporting with me. When Aunt Laurena turned toward the painting I sent him my most withering stare. He smiled at me over his teacup.
“I declare, Father, I detest the man. He’s an odious person who cased Aunt Laurena’s house right in front of me even though he knows I’m your daughter. Not to mention he kisses people when they least expect it.”
Mr. Barton jumped out of his seat. “What! He kissed you at your aunt’s house. I’ll murder the man!”
Tiffanie started in her seat. She looked a little abashed, “No, of course he didn’t kiss me at Aunt Laurena’s. Where did you get that idea?”
Mr. Barton stared down at his daughter. “Tiffanie, you just said…”
“Did I? No, I don’t think so.” She smiled and looked down at her hands. “Anyway, he did not kiss me at Aunt Laurena’s”
Mr. Barton sat down with a humph and stared across the desk at his daughter. She glanced up, then away.
“So the man did kiss you. When?”
Tiffanie squirmed in her seat. “It’s of no account.”
“Well, if you must know it was that first time I saw him, outside the museum. You’d gone inside with your men, while I waited on the skywalk.”
“You told me he ran up with the package under his arm, doffed his hat in your direction and ran on.”
“Well he did, but between the doffing and running, he kissed me.”
“And you have been protecting him!”
“I have not been protecting him, I’ve been helping you to catch him. Have I not? Besides I didn’t want you to overreact.”
“I am not overreacting. You are my daughter and despite some of your boyish tendencies, and my work here you are a lady of good birth. I will not have you treated thus.”
Tiffanie huffed but after a pause she grinned. “Well, I suppose we better catch him then.”
“Yes, I suppose we’d better.” He shrugged a hand in her direction. “Finish your story.”
“Thank you.” Tiffanie sat back in her chair. “We talked about the painting for a while. Luckily it wasn’t a Marnet, but one of his unknown students. So Aunt Laurena’s house is safe for now. After another bit of chitchat Harrison entered with a note on a tray. She held it out to Havendish. ‘Pardon me, Sir. This message just come for you on the textograph.’
“Havendish read the message and looked pleased. Then he looked at me, and winked! I glared at him. I had to see what that note said. He placed the note in his pocket, stood up, and said. ‘I’m sorry to say I’ll have to cut our tea short today.’ He bowed at us in turn, ‘It was enchanting to meet you Miss Barton, Mrs. Barton.’
“That’s when I made my move. As he walked past me I stood as well. We collided and there was a bit of a scuffle as he tried to extract himself.” Tiffanie giggled. “You should have seen me. I was at my best. ‘Oh! Mr. Havendish, I do apologize. Let me get that for you.’ and I made sure to brush lots of imaginary crumbs off of his jacket. Eventually he made his escape, and I got what I wanted!”
At this last statement Tiffanie held out a scrap of textograph paper.
Mr. Barton grinned. “That’s my girl! Got the message off him then?”
He took the paper and read it’s contents. “Invitations received and all have RSVP. We are ready for tonight.”
“They plan to hit the museum tonight!” Mr. Barton jumped up. “Why didn’t you say so at once, Tiffanie dear?” He bustled around his desk, grabbed his hat, and ran out of his office yelling, “Operation Gentle-thief is a go. We must act fast. They strike tonight!” His voice had changed. When talking to Tiffanie he was a doting father. Now he was the Chief of Police commanding his men. Tiffanie followed after him. She planned on being present when they arrested Mr. Havendish.
Tiffanie stood around the corner from the museum with Officer Jensen, her glorified nursemaid. She could give him the slip, but she knew when her father found out it would mean more teas with Aunt Laurena.
She’d sneaked into a cruiser with two younger officers but Mr. Barton caught her before she could follow them inside. So, instead of being part of the excitement she waited, feeling huffy. She found the clue, why should she not be present at the arrest?
Whistles and yelling came from the museum’s direction. A man ran around the corner being chased by a group of officers. Officer Jensen blew his whistle and raced forward. The man saw him coming and dodged around him. This brought him quite close to Tiffanie. She drew her fist back and brought it forward turning it over at the last second like she’d been taught. The man doubled over, and Tiffanie saw the back of Mr. Havendish’s well-formed head. She’d punched him square in the stomach. He was still gasping as his hands were cuffed and he was shoved into a cruiser.
For a few minutes there was still some commotion as the rest of the gang was apprehended. Once all the thieves were secure Mr. Barton pushed through the crowd of officers to his daughter. “Well done my girl! We caught them red handed. I take back my words earlier. I’m grateful those officers taught you to punch so well. Officer Jensen will take you home now.”
Tiffanie started to protest but Mr. Barton cut her off. “No arguments or I’ll tell your aunt what you’ve been up to.” Her shoulders slumped but she didn’t argue. He kissed the top of her head and left to arrange their caravan back to the station.
Tiffanie looked through the window at Mr. Havendish. When they made eye contact he grinned, gave her a respectful nod, and winked.
Tiffanie stared open mouthed as the cruiser pulled away from the skywalk. She expected a humbled man, who’d been punched by a girl, but he was just as cocky as ever. She smiled to herself. This game wasn’t over yet.
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