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“Are you sure about this?” Marina asks. A frown has appeared over her eyes this morning over breakfast and it has not budged yet.
Helena reaches around and lifts the box with kittens from the back seat. “Absolutely.” She gets out and closes the door with her hip. “Let Rick sleep in a little, he has had a tough night.”
“Like you, you mean?”
Helena shrugs. “I had a few hours on your couch! Besides, I am starting to think I may be running on adrenaline by now which is a very useful fuel for my engine at the moment.”
“Until it isn’t. Adrenaline has a way of demanding payback, and making engines crash when you least need it. When is it your time to rest?”
“Not just yet,” Helena says, already eyeing the parking lot. The black car with the scratch on its hood is gone. A number of other cars have already arrived but none that she recognises. Except for one: the security guard’s car is still there. Or is it a different one? She cannot make it out.
“Well, let’s get this shop open and the café up and running shall we?”
Shoulder to shoulder, just like an eternity ago when nothing interesting was happening ever, they approach the visitor centre. Marina bends down to open the lock at the bottom of the glass door when a voice rings out over the parking.
“Excuse me? Miss?”
They both turn around. Helena feels the kittens in her box shift position and begs silently for them to stay quiet. A young woman in an inadequate knitted vest is walking towards them from the direction of the great house. Her heels are tottering on the sandy lane and she is shivering.
“Yes? Can I help you?” Marina replies, keys still in hand.
“Um, yes, maybe!” the young woman calls, “Are you Helena Young?”
“That would be me,” Helena responds and shifts the box in her arm to free her right hand.
“Right. Great! Brilliant!” The girl seems to need a few short words before every sentence to get a run-up, Helena thinks. “Uhm,” the woman continues, “the thing is, could you perhaps come to the office with me for a second? There are some things we would like to discuss with you, you see?” She looks apologetic, which is unfair considering she hasn’t done anything wrong yet.
“What is this about?” Helena asks, “You see, I need to open the shop in half an hour, and help my friend here with the café, and it is going to take some time to get everything ready” she explains, “so could it maybe be another time?”
“No. Not really. No I don’t think so,” the woman in the vest says, shaking her head. Her red curls are tied in a bun that is threatening to come loose. The wind is tugging at her fringe.
“Right, well in that case you will still have to give me a few minutes to put some things in order-“ she indicates the box and the visitor centre with the shop and the café “-and I will be with you as quick as I can. Will that do?”
The woman eyes the box but decides not to enquire any further. “Yes. Yes that will do.”
“Thank you,” Helena replies and immediately turns her back on the woman so she won’t see the panic that is now filling her up on the inside like a rising tide. Likewise, Marina immediately drops her keys to the floor and scrambles to pick them up and insert them into the keyhole. The young woman, meanwhile, seems not to have noticed the sudden panic she has caused and returns to the house.
Once inside, the two women stare at each other in the gloom.
“Did the guard see you last night?”
“No I don’t think so! How would they know I was inside?” Helena trembles, “Fingerprints? Footsteps?”
“So quick? No way! There is no reason for them to suspect you at all!”
“Then how would they know?” Deep breaths, deep breaths.
“It wasn’t Rick! I am certain of it! He would never betray you.”
“Oh gods I hope not. Besides I have done nothing wrong. Have I?” The memory of the dark and silent cellar with stuffed toys strewn all over the floor returns to her. “Oh heavens, maybe I have.”
They stare some more, unsure what to do.
A soft ‘meew’ interrupts their shared panic. Marina puts the box on the café counter and turns the lights on in the café. After they feed the kittens and put them safely under the counter, they open the windows and set up the tables together in time for the first customers. When Marina fires up the espresso machine for the day, she says softly: “You better go.”
Helena wipes her sweaty hands on her trousers and enters the building that houses the administrative units of the Trust. The hallways looks very different during the daytime and she takes a few moments to take in the splendid marble and dark wooden wainscotting. It reminds her strongly of the house on the Herengracht. She thinks of the photos she has seen of the people who lived here in the early twentieth century. Old Theodore who could not get over his wife’s death and refused to follow in his father’s footsteps in the tradition of demon worship – holy shit, what a family tradition to have! And to now want to get back into that… Who would even contemplate such a thing?
“Helena!” Stephan’s voice rings through the hallway like the crack of a whip. “What an absolute delight to see you again! Such a long time no see!” He is coming out the room to the left of the entrance, where Helena knows the main conference room is. It is a stately room that has retained much of its old grandeur, and is mostly used to ply and impress future donors and sponsors. The Trust director can be seen behind Stephan, beaming at someone else in the room like she is glad the meeting is going so well.
Stephan’s welcoming and hearty tone of voice does not reach his eyes or face. He approaches her with a steady gaze that has intimidation etched into its very core. When he reaches the centre of the hall where she is standing he attempts to grab her arms, but Helena immediately takes a step back so he misses. The last time she saw this man’s face was when he was telling his husband to force her into giving up the stone. And then he chased her down through the streets of Amsterdam in a car. They stare at each other for what seems like an eternity without saying anything until the young woman, who called Helena in, enters through the door on the other side of the hall. “Ah good, so glad you made it!”
Stephan’s face immediately turns into a wide smile. “How have you been?” he asks, “Busy?”
“Fairly,” Helena answers, her tone level.
“So my dear husband tells me,” he says, all sugar and syrup, “he told me all about you, you know!”
“How interesting. He has not told me all about you,” Helena replies, and turns to the redhead hovering around them, smiling. “Was this what you invited me in for?”
The woman nods, unsure about the sharpness in Helena’s tone. “Yes, thank you for coming in. The director…”
But the director herself has already joined the conversation. She shakes Helena’s hand. “Meyer. How do you do? Thank you Tina,” she says, “and thank you, Helena, for coming in. Mister Langdon and I were discussing the park, you know: history, current state of the grounds and our plans for the future. Fascinating stuff. His husband Fred is the forest ranger here, as of course you know, but Mister Langdon hardly ever visits the natural park himself. It turns out that his family once owned this estate! Isn’t that a wonderful coincidence?” she beams.
“Wonderful. Coincidence.” She turns to Stephan. “Why don’t you visit more often? Any particular reason?”
Stephan laughs, a bit too theatrically for Helena’s taste. “My father had a strange aversion to this park for some reason, and I guess I inherited it from him. But I am completely ready for a change of mind!”
“Oh yes!” Tina trills, “Mister Langdon has expressed a wish to get to know the estate better, and perhaps re-establish the ties between the land and his family-“ she winks at the director, an awkward gesture for everyone involved “-and since his husband is away for a few days…”
“Is he?” Helena raises her eyebrows, “I saw him only… oh… yesterday!”
“He is not in the area,” says Stephan, still with the broad smile on his face, “so I would be ever so grateful if perhaps you, as his intern, could show me around the grounds?”
Tina actually claps her hands with delight. The director is still beaming.
“Ah,” says Helena, “you see I am actually working today. I run the gift shop, you see, and I don’t think we can do without the income from that for even a day. Or so my supervisor informs me.”
“Yes, I have no doubt Rick said something like that. He even filled in for you for a short while, or so I understand,” Meyer says with a slight frown on her face. “Highly irregular for someone from middle management, I must say, and not something I would normally applaud, but I am glad he has been able to give you some, ah, no doubt much-needed rest.” She takes off her glasses and polishes them, then puts them back on. “I am sure that he will be able to take on just a few more hours, to give you a chance to show off our wonderful park to Mister Langdon! Show him where the deer graze and whatnot.”
“I don’t think Rick is in today…”
“He will be here in fifteen minutes, he assured me so on the phone just now.” The director is smiling again. “Really, there is no need to worry. The shop will be in more than able hands with your manager.”
tl;dr Helena returns to work the next day but her director calls her in. A potential donor wants a tour of the park: Stephan!
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