Slipping the note into my pocket I decided there was no urgency on my part to go down to the main part of the house, so returned to my room and after locking the door, went to take a shower. Sometimes when the fog of the hot water is rising, I find the fog in my brain lifts. As I stood under the powerful jets that battered the sore, taught muscles in my back, I carefully assembled the information I learned, sometimes tracing my finger through the steamed glass to better help me “connect the dots.”
Why did Lillian have that book?
How old was her estate?
How long had she lived in the area? Was her wealth a derivative of her own success or was it inherited?
With a tightness that began in my chest and squeezed my windpipe, I stepped from the warmth of the shower onto the mat and toweled off, then hastily dressed. I was fully prepared to do some first-rate sleuthing and felt the best place to start was going to be right there in the mansion.
Only my cell phone had three messages displayed on it—2 were text, one a voice mail. My hand shook as I opened the cell phone realizing that since that night and my conversation the following morning with Helena, that was my first communication with anyone “outside.” I wasn’t sure who had been trying to reach me but what had really bothered me was whether I wanted to know.
I took the messages in the order they arrived. The first was one of the text messages. I didn’t know who it was from because it had been sent from, as far as I could tell, AT&T’s website.
“Lisa: Been trying to get ahold of you. You’re not answering your phone at home. It’s important. Please call me when you get this message. Dan.”
“Yeah, that’s not happening,” I said as I flipped over to the voice mail and waited for it to ring through to my mailbox.
“Damn it,” was all that had been recorded. The message had arrived while I’d been in the shower. It was a male voice, somewhat familiar but based upon those two words, I didn’t know whom for sure it was. I couldn’t even guess. I signed out of the system and brought up a record of missed calls. I should have known. The call came from a “private number.” No help there. Somehow I doubted it had been Billy. Finally I opened the last text message. It was from Helena. Someone had been calling her looking for me.
I racked my brain trying to remember if I’d ever given her number out to anyone. I couldn’t come up with anything. I even scrolled through the cell phone address book as I went downstairs to the kitchen to grab a cup of lukewarm coffee and the remainder of the shrimp. Still not thinking of who that could be, I started to dial Helena’s number until I looked at the signal strength and saw I had nothing at all.
Hadn’t Lillian said to let the staff field calls? I didn’t notice anyone around but figured with a place that big, it was perceivable someone, even several people, were there. I snatched up the phone to call Lillian. Only instead of a dial tone, there was silence.
“Hello?” I said into the receiver. I could hear myself, so the line wasn’t dead, but no one responded. A moment later I swore I heard a click. I pressed down on the buttons to disconnect the line and then released the button. I heard the dial tone.
“I was thinking maybe you should go home and stay with your parents for a bit at least until things settle down,” Lillian told me shortly after I reached her at the office.
“When?” I rinsed out the coffee mug and put it into the dishwasher mostly out of habit.
“Whenever. No real urgency. I don’t mind you being there, I just figured you might feel more comfortable at home.”
For some reason I wasn’t so sure she was being completely honest with me. “Do you really think this is going to keep going on? Indefinitely?”
“I wish I could say no, but it’s already been over two days and we still haven’t heard anything about what the police found in that shelter, so if that’s any indication…”
“Why would they share that with you?” I frowned as I looked out the window overlooking a small rose garden.
“Hang on,” she quickly said and then put me on hold. Was she dodging the question? Off in the distance I saw a figure moving along the shrub fence line. The gardener?
“Sorry, Lisa. I’ve got to take this call. Let’s talk more tonight,” she said and without saying anything further, hung up. I fingered the button on the phone and dialed out again, this time connecting to my apartment phone. When the answering machine’s out-going message came on, I punched in the secret code and waited for the messages to play back: all twenty-six.
Over half the calls were hang-ups but some, according to the date stamp, came during the time Dan had to have been in the shed. Was it someone else, like Billy, calling? Or had Dan been calling from the shed in an attempt to lure me to the shed? Had he ever been in the shed? Of course, I was assuming the hang-ups had been from either Dan or Billy. They could have been anyone: Delilah, Jeff, Lindsey, classmates trying to get a hold of Alexandria or me… This clearly wasn’t helping. It would have been so much easier if I were able to look at the caller ID display, but I couldn’t very well do that sequestered at Lillian’s.
My fingernails rapped alongside the laptop. Crap. I hadn’t sent the drafted email to the synthetic lawn manufacturer. I quickly sat down and got to work on sending that off, then popped open a spreadsheet where I began assembling a rather crude timeline along with my notes.
Billy had to have something to do with Dan being in the shed. It was as plain as day. The only people I told anything to had been Helena and Billy. Unless, I reasoned, Billy had said something to Lindsey or this was all just payback. Shit. I was nowhere closer to resolving this than I had been two days ago! If anything, I was only complicating matters.
I pushed up out of my chair, my legs twitching from being motionless for so long. I felt claustrophobic, in desperate need to get out of my room, even out of the house. I snatched up my Bayou sweatshirt and headed towards the main hall.
“Miss Knowles,” a sharp voice called out as I stepped down onto the marble tile at the foot of the stairs. I turned toward the direction of the voice.
“Miss Lillian wanted me to make certain you did not leave the house,” the older woman dressed in a drab, matronly dress that hung from her shoulders moved quickly towards me. I immediately drew back a step.
“I’m sorry,” I brushed my hair out of my face with my fingertips and gazed at her. “Have we been introduced?”
“My apologies, Miss,” she curtsied slightly as she lowered her hazel eyes towards my feet. “I am Mrs. Gutierrez, the head mistress.”
“Head mistress?” The title sounded odd for a maid, more appropriate had we been at a private boarding school.
“Yes, well, when this home was reverted to a private residence, no one felt it necessary to change our titles. They are, after all, only titles and otherwise meaningless.”
I nodded, dumbfounded. Her English was perfect, even better than most of my classmates. I suppose it was a bit presumptuous to assume she would speak with a heavy Spanish accent. “So, I can’t even go outside to stretch my legs, get some fresh air, clear my head?”
“Well,” she was clearly flustered.
“Because I probably could go out on a balcony, but I’d think I’d be a bigger target than if I were out back in the gardens where it’s secluded.”
“Yes, well, I suppose there’s not harm in that. I believe her concern was in keeping you here at Bellsworth,” she curtsied apologetically and began to turn away on her crepe-bottomed shoes.
“Bellsworth?” She seemed too full of useful information to let loose so quickly and didn’t seem to be in such a terrible hurry because she turned back around towards me.
“You used the name ‘Bellsworth.’ Is that the estate’s name?”
“Yes,” her chin wobbled like a turkey’s when she pulled it towards her chest.
“So, that was the name of the school?” I was guessing. She never did say what the house had been used for before it was “reverted.”
“No,” her head swayed to and fro. “It was called the Young Women’s Academy of Arts.”
“And you were the head mistress?”
“No, Miss. That was my mother’s position. I was still a young girl when the school opened first and not much older when it closed.”
“I’m curious,” I felt it necessary to explain. “Can you tell me some more about Bellsworth’s history?”
The woman, whom I guessed was in her late 50s, early 60s, pushed up the sleeve of her uniform and peered down through her glasses at the wristwatch before answering. “I suppose, but it would…”
“I can walk with you, follow you as you do your job if that would make it any easier,” I smiled warmly. She was agreeable and led me into the conservatory where she busied herself with dusting the room’s contents, answering my questions in storybook fashion as each one seemed to elicit quite a bit of memorable detail in her responses.