Both Jane and Helen heard the purr of a helicopter outside. Its rotors spinning; chopping through the air rapidly, and it almost felt as though a torrent of air was beaten into the villa. A chill went up either woman’s spine as they had intuited that the ex-wife had arrived.
Simultaneously, the two women said, “Evesong.”
Then Helen muttered with apparent English inflection, “Bitch.”
Jane nearly broke composure, at her colleague’s snide whisper, and her tight lips nearly parted to form a smile.
In a more serious manner Jane said, “Um… did Alfeo find you?”
Helen replied sheepishly, “Er, no. I was attending to some business with Mr. Murray.”
Jane said quietly, “Did he give you any trouble?”
Hiding her feelings well, Helen said with a grin, “Nothing I haven’t handled before.”
There was a pause in the conversation. Helen needn’t have explained, for Jane already knew what was happening. Their employer was taking advantage of her and his other female employees, as he always did. He got away with it because of his ability to make money out of thin air and disappear lawsuits. And whether or not he was married or engaged never came into play.
Jane nodded in understanding and continued, “Alright. Well, Alfeo was just letting everyone know the boat had arrived. I imagine you can probably see a row of passengers, on the approach.”
“Ah, well, that’s perfect timing then!” said Helen jovially. “Perhaps we should meet our guests.”
“Yes. Head high.”
“And look sharp.”
Helen and Jane strode o’er imported Jordanian limestone cobbles, passed once trim hedges, windstruck fleurs and an original Cretan fountain. The focal point of the courtyard.
The font featured a triad of bare-breasted mermaids holding a cauldron which spilled water down their marbled forms. Though most striking of all were their tails, which were studded with emeralds and ruby scales.
For a few moments more, as the women came to the edge of the courtyard, the animated wind buffeted them with stale air until the helicopter blades stopped dead.
On the lawn, Helen watched as Alfeo accepted a pair of suitcases from the pilot. And Iryna greeted her only surviving predecessor; both of them planted kisses on one another’s cheeks.
Next she scanned the slope and saw Mr. Murray’s guests. Taking the lead, apparently uninterested in the two crew members’ commentary of the island, was Mr. Clark, whom she’d met only once before when she accompanied Mr. Murray to a gallery in Florence. Almost six months prior.
And past the crewmen, Antonio and Raffi, were only eight more out of ten of the guests. The last of which Helen assumed was still on the yacht. Very briefly, she wondered who the straggler might be. Who could be missing. Why?
Jane leaned over to her co-worker and whispered, “Do you want the wing or the tower?”
To which Helen replied, “I’ll take the wing.”
At last, the bulk of the boaters, Ms. Evesong, as well as Iryna and Alfeo wandered up to the courtyard. A hesitant and reserved Helen cleared her throat, awaiting everyone’s attention, before relaying her prepared words.
“Signore e Signori! Ladies and Gentlemen! Gather ‘round!”
Dry and cracked lips were suddenly pursed, and half-glazed eyes turned upon Helen. Most of them were strangers. Foreign faces. Some were worried. Some looked confident. Others confused as to why they were there, and questioning if they should stay. Yet, they were rapt and silent as the grave.
“Thank you…” she rebegan. “To those of you who don’t know me, my name is Helen Muster. I am Linden Murray’s executive assistant. On behalf of your host, the staff and myself, we welcome you to Fiori Mortali. And we hope that each and every one of you enjoy your stay.”
There was no applause, or cheering from the crowd, for which Helen was grateful, and they all remained very much focused on her.
“Now,” added Helen, “if Ms. Evesong, Ms. Lourdes, Ms. Georgiou and Mr. Gutierrez would follow my colleague Ms. Eaglemont, she will show you to your rooms. Everyone else, please follow me.”
While Jane, Iryna and Alfeo guided the lesser group to the East Wing tower, the others followed Helen. And as they crossed the courtyard, the helicopter started back up. It’s engine made a healthy roar; and it’s rotors began to whir once again.
Rather than lead the guests through the main entrance and give a tour, Mr. Murray had prescribed that Helen show the guests directly to their rooms so that they might freshen up before dinner. Insisting, that his guests explore the villa on their free time. That it would add some intrigue and mystery to their stay on the island. And so, Helen led them to the East Wing corner entrance.
“I heard that he’s dying,” Meredith declared all of a sudden.
Miss Abernathy hissed to silence the young woman, but Helen brushed off her rudeness, and Meredith ignored Eleanor. Helen was accustomed to the disrespect. She recognised her from the girl’s boarding school.
“It’s true, Mr. Murray is in poor health. But he has one of the best doctors in the world working day and night to cure him.”
“And who is this doctor?” asked Mr. Clark.
“Dr. Warthering. He’s been staying with us for just over a month now.”
“And who was that coming out of the helicopter?” the reporter queried.
“That was Ms. Evesong. Mr. Murray’s ex-wife.”
“Right, but which one?”
The last question, Helen avoided, and she began her monologue. And after telling it so many times before, it was without passion. “This is the East Wing. It is reserved for storage, and for guests whenever they arrive.”
She opened a cypress door brought the guests inside, where they were reintroduced to central air.
“For safety, all of the interior and exterior doors on the lower level remain unlocked, except during periods of severe weather. Save for the bathrooms and bedrooms, of course. And currently, all of your rooms have the keys in the lock.”
She stopped as they came upon a staircase, and a hallway around the corner, and she faced her retinue. Mr. Clark, Mr. Cruickshank, Ms. Sawyer, Mr. Locke, Ms. Abernathy, Ms. Murray, and Mr. Strife. If she had to gauge their mood, Helen would have said: anxious.
“This hallway runs along the entire length of the lower level. Through the main building and the West Wing, up until either tower. Beyond the door, which you can see at the end on your left,” said Helen indicating with her hand, “is another staircase, which leads to the top of the tower, as well as the hallway above. And via the door on your right, is the main building.”
Helen focused on Eleanor, “Now, Ms. Abernathy, you will be staying in room five at the end.”
“Thank you very much,” said Eleanor gratefully.
Secondly, she turned to Meredith, and forced herself to smile, “Your room, dear, is number four.”
Meredith rolled her eyes.
She eyed Mr. Strife next, a tall, well-built specimen, and Helen couldn’t help but smile. “You sir, are in room number three.”
David merely nodded, but casually saluted. Likely instinctively.
Finally she glanced at her watch as she said to them all, “There are two bathrooms at both ends of this corridor as well as the one upstairs. There are unfortunately, none in any of your rooms. And dinner will be at eight thirty, which is nearly an hour from now.”
The three named guests, and Antonio, who carried Meredith’s dead weight, continued alone along the hall. The walls were a cool green, and the lights were bright. Most of them made note of the collection of art on the walls, which were not paintings but sketches. Mostly by Rubens, they hung between windows across from each bedroom door.
The remaining four arrived on the second floor, and Helen proceeded to explain more of the villa layout. “As below, this hall runs all the way to the tower, where you will find the staircase which spirals to Ms. Evesong’s suite. A parallel hall runs in the West Wing, and both connect to a balcony on the main building. However, the doors to said balcony, like the one on your right, are locked as the area is out of bounds.”
“And why is that? We are his guests.” asked Ms. Sawyer, breaking her silence.
Helen couldn’t think of a good reason why the area would be forbidden to guests, so said simply, “Mr. Murray is a private person. His bedroom is adjacent to the balcony.”
Neve stared at Helen, as if reading her, before Helen carried on. “Right. If everyone will come with me.”
Room after room, Helen’s group grew smaller as they walked down a sky blue hall. It’s windows were in the same places, with the same Mediterranean view, just higher up. And the works on the wall were Sisley and Pissaro.
Then came Henry’s room, which Helen was quick to point out, “Mr. Locke, you will be staying here for the week-end.”
“Thank you,” said Henry gratefully.
“Ms. Sawyer you are in room seven.”
“I thought I was in room seven,” Mr. Clark chimed in, mystified.
“I’m afraid not, Mr. Clark. You are in room ten, at the very end.”
James scratched his head, and began his parade down the rest of the passage.
Mr. Cruickshank was very familiar with Helen, having met with her numerous times off and on the island. And he said before Helen could get the words out, “Ah, room nine. As requested.”
“As requested,” repeated Helen. And she turned to leave, when she was interrupted by Neve.
“Wait a moment, who is staying in number eight? Or one and two for that matter?”
Looking at the inquisitive woman, Helen found herself exchanging glares. Yet, she answered politely, “Rooms one and two are currently being used for storage. As for the room beside yours, Mr. DeQuin will be staying there.”
“And where is Mr. DeQuin?”
Helen sighed, “I can only assume he is still aboard the yacht, ma’am.”
She smiled cheerily and then left, heels barely clicking on the worn Persian rug before disappearing down the dark and twisting staircase.