I first noticed the Baron and Baroness holding hands over lunch on the Orient Express. No, “held” is too strong a word, and it’s important to be precise in matters of possible missing persons. Her hand was slack and 30 years younger than his. It didn’t hold as much as tolerate being held. A dead hand, it could have been, though it’s his I fear may now be permanently immobile.
These are my recollections from my recent journey on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, a Belmond Train, which I rode from Venice to Brussels, where I then caught a connection to Paris and now find myself recording these notes in the comfort and safety of a lavish suite at the Le Royal Monceau – Raffles Paris. On the writing desk is a stylized map of Paris, under glass. To which corners of which arrondissements, I wonder, might the suspects of this maybe-crime be scattered?
Allow me to review them, my fellow passengers on this famous train, which has been in service on and off since 1883 and under the direction of the esteemed Belmond brand since 1982. The VSOE carried at most 108 guests at a time, though onboard the luxurious carriages, iced with Lalique glass and etched in rosewood Art Deco marquetry, it feels like far fewer. Almost immediately you begin to recognize faces, then perhaps you learn names, and then, who knows what. As Monsieur Bouc, the train manager in Agatha Christie’s whodunit, says, “For three days these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together. They sleep and eat under one roof, they cannot get away from each other. At the end of three days they part, they go their several ways, never perhaps to see each other again.”
While the modern day VSOE does run multi-day journeys — the five-night Paris-Istanbul route goes once a year — most guests book one-night routes, embarking like we did from Venice just shy of noon and alighting in Brussels just past it the following day. In Murder on the Orient Express, twelve passengers executed an intricate revenge plot within those three nights. Might a straightforward kidnapping be possible in a just one? In any event, I’ve catalogued my own twelve. As previously mentioned, the VSOE carries more, but this list is limited to the passengers last seen in the company of the Baron. May I present:
- The Baroness: Bejeweled, blonde, bored
- The Artist: Sculpture mostly, cropped hair the color of raspberry jam, East London before it got gentrified
- The Influencer: Dutch, demure for her profession, so tall her head nearly grazes the train’s filigreed arched ceilings
- The Handler: Traveling with/stage-managing/perhaps engaged to the above, showy timepiece, bald
- The Restaurant Critic: Manor-born, big into jungle prints, says “umami” often
- The Nomadic Newlyweds: Bright young Millennials, hard-to-place accents, SoHo House memberships
- The American Boomers: Second marriage, winter in Florida, season tickets for the Commanders (but refuse to call them that)
- The English Aunties: Never married, winter in London (but Provence-based), polite not nice
- The Journalist: Yours truly, annoyingly observant, not a suspect he promises
To fully clear myself of suspicion, let me recount my whereabouts. After I first encountered the Baron and Baroness at lunch, I retired to my gleaming suite to work as the VSOE soared past Lake Garda. The two dutiful stewards for my cabin (one of eight renovated last June) can confirm I was there the entire afternoon. They periodically checked in to pour Veuve Clicquot and, later, coffee; to collect my black Piedmontese wool suit for steaming; and collect notes I’d written to family on branded postcards. Around 6 in the evening, I began getting ready for dinner in the suite’s compact but luxurious bathroom, where hand-laid mosaic tiles create overlapping rings of white and blue across the floor. By the time we crossed the Swiss border, the ivory-jacketed Italian waitstaff in the dining cars were lining up silverware and polishing glasses for dinner service.
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There are three “restaurants” onboard the VSOE, and the train manager schedules guests for a meal in each. Promptly at half-past 7, after a pre-dinner champagne cocktail (called the Guilty Twelve — coincidence?) in the lively bar, I stepped into L’Oriental for dinner. Joining me among the mustard velvet chairs and tasseled cream curtains tied back with zebra-striped ropes were the eleven aforementioned passengers, along with the tux-clad Baron, sitting across from his wife. He looked sleepy before the first course arrived — delicate seared scallops and walnuts with vin jaune sauce.
Famed Parisian chef Jean Imbert is the consulting chef for the train, and the quality of the ingredients and cooking befits his association. While the rest of us devoured confit of beef — brimming with umami, declared the Restaurant Critic swathed in giraffe-quilted silk — and tarragon-scented lobster Thermidor, the Baron seemed not at all interested in eating. I chatted across tables with the English Aunties, who seemed unimpressed with my recent travels in the Luberon, and eavesdropped on the Artist, lamenting the recent loss of a lucrative museum commission. The music played, and wine flowed, and ambiance was lighthearted and convivial and glowing. Then the Baron stood up. No, “stood” is too strong a word. The Baron tipped forward in his chair, gravity propelling him forward, then lumbered upright. I thought for a moment he’d tip over, but he found his footing and moved toward the exit like a great, sweaty, unsteady penguin.
The cheese! The waiters brought a large silver tray over to each table, laden with French fromages, glossy marmalades and fresh figs, and began cutting plates to order. It was all such a great, delicious distraction, I didn’t notice until a few moments later that the Artist had departed.
The Newlyweds’ table was also suddenly empty. The Boomers put on a show of swooning over the cheeses, but each had one eye trained on the Baroness, who continued her meal in silence but for the scrape of her cheese knife across a wedge of Fourme d’Ambert. Ten minutes went by. No Baron. The waiters began serving dessert. The Influencer declined and got up from the table, the Handler scurrying behind her. Twenty. No Baron. The Aunties retired, and the Boomers retreated to the bar car. The only passengers remaining were myself, the Baroness, and the Restaurant Critic — no way she was missing the chocolate-and-hazelnut dessert — rumbling through the dark Swiss capital of Bern. And when I took my leave of the dining car around 10 in the evening, and glanced over my shoulder, it could have been my imagination, but I caught a flash of giraffe-quilted silk drift into the chair opposite the Baroness.
I suppose I didn’t think much of it at the time. While I was at dinner, my stewards had converted the cerulean sofa in my suite into a comfortable bed, and I went to sleep curious about, but not overly concerned for, the Baron. I had nearly forgotten the affair by the next morning, pacified by the absurd pleasure of croissants and cappuccinos in bed as the VSOE passed through the Netherlands and into Belgium. But when we disembarked the train in Brussels and headed to a lounge to await our connection to Gare du Nord, I found the dinner guests again assembled on sundry chaises and settees. Gazes shifted. Legs twitched. Twelve passengers. No Baron.
This is not a novel, and there is no grand reveal, no pretty bow to tie around this mystery. As previously stated, I’m the Journalist, not the Detective, and I do not know the fate of the Baron. Perhaps I missed him in the disembarkation hullabaloo. Perhaps he remained in Brussels on business or caught a car to Paris or elsewhere. Or perhaps something more nefarious transpired between the lobster and the after-dinner cordials. I do not know. What I do know is that I would be happy to investigate further and return to the storied Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, if only to collect additional evidence, perhaps on the Paris-to-Istanbul route this time.
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