I bade Mary to hang back with me while the others disembarked – I wished to observe the faces of our companions as they were met in turn by the two strangers on the shore. However, if anyone recognised either of them, they hid it well.
Staying close behind, we were able to hear what was said as our companions moved along, and I noted the man introduced himself and his wife to each guest with the exact same phrase and the same intonation – if he was not a butler, he was doing a damn good impression of one.
As we drew level, the man gave a nod of the head and said, “Good morning sir. My name is Rogers. I am the butler here and this is my wife, Mrs Rogers. I trust you will both enjoy your stay on the island.”
I reached out a hand in greeting to which Rogers offered the hint of a smile and gave another deferential nod, indicating it was not his place to shake hands with guests.
With a cough, I brushed my hand down my jacket, as if that’s what I’d intended all along, but I was pleased to see my little ploy had at least proved Rogers played his part well.
Mary put in a small performance of her own with the man’s wife, giving the woman a pat on the arm and observing that it was nice to see the sun out again. The woman, a dark-haired and rather slight-looking thing, offered a curtsy and forced a smile, though her timid sideways glance at her husband told us she was very definitely under his thumb.
As we joined the others on the beach with our belongings, Rogers collected a quantity of mail and other items from the captain and announced that we should follow him up to the house where we would be shown to our rooms.
Trudging up the rough track that led to the house, one of our companions dropped back and fell into step with us.
“What d’you think, then, Doctor Watson?” said he, in a low voice.
“About what, Mister Blah?”
“Call me Billy,” he said, “everyone does. I mean about all this – all of us here, total strangers, gathered on a remote island in the hope of a nice bit of something coming our way.”
“A nice bit of something?” I said. “And what might that be in your case?”
“Murder, of course,” he said, with a laugh.
I stopped and stared at him. “Murder?”
He laughed again. “Not actual murder, no, I mean the board game – Murder. You know, each one gets to play a part, like Colonel Mustard, or Miss Green or whatever and everyone has to try and work out who the murderer is.”
“You think we’re here to play a game?” said Mary.
Billy Blah rolled his eyes. “Ain’t that what I just said? That’s why I’m here.”
Mary and I must have looked blank, for he continued, “My invitation said I was to organise a real-life version of the board game for a private party and I would be rewarded for my troubles.”
“Rewarded how?” said I.
“Well, with money, obviously.” He strode off quickly in an effort to catch up with the others.
Mary tugged my sleeve. “What did your invitation say? Doctor Armstrong’s I mean?”
Thinking back to that day at Baker Street, I recalled the wording on Armstrong’s invitation. “Rather ambiguous in his case, I’m afraid. The words ‘wonderful opportunity’ were mentioned, but otherwise it was spectacularly unspecific.”
She nodded. “Vera Claymore seemed to think there was a teaching post in the offing.”
I frowned. “Teaching? Here?” I shook my head. “Whatever each one of these people thought they were going to get out of this trip, it had to be enough of a temptation to lure them away from their everyday lives.”
“It’d be interesting to know what all the other invitations said.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “it certainly would. Though since the point must have been to get them to the island, the murderer is already ahead of the game.”
We had reached the crest of the incline and were now standing on the edge of a vast lawn. A flagged path snaked away through a series of topiaried hedges, depicting numerous animals of the woodland variety. There was something a little unnerving about the sculptures and I was reminded of a case Holmes had declined to get involved in, where a man had slaughtered his entire family with an axe at an isolated hotel in the Scottish Highlands. On that occasion, it eventually emerged that the killer had gone completely insane. Could the same thing be happening here? Was our host – whoever he or she was – just a total fucking nutcase?
Negotiating our way through the ornamental gardens, Rogers and his wife halted by a narrow gateway halfway along a high Leylandii hedge. Passing through the gate, we were finally confronted by the house itself. Like the lawn, it was vast, spanning at least two hundred yards across and three storeys high. Being a connoisseur of architecture, I recognised the style as vaguely Tudor Rivivalist, with the usual characteristics, including steeply pitched-roofs, mullioned windows and half-timbered herringbone brickwork. The place was striking in its sheer immensity and I couldn’t help but let out an appreciative gasp.
Mary tugged my hand and leaning over, whispered, “Whoever owns this must have an absolute shit-load of cash.”
I nodded, and we walked on, heading for the entrance hall with its studded wooden doors. As we approached, I let my eyes wander upwards and caught a glimpse of a shape at one of the windows. The woman’s face, for that is what I believed it to be, disappeared in an instant. Stepping up to where Rogers was waiting, his hand on the open door as our fellow travellers passed through, I tapped the man on his shoulder.
“I just saw someone at one of the upstairs windows. Would that be your Mistress?”
The butler blinked several times. “Mrs Owen, sir? Why no sir. Mister and Mrs Owen are away on business and won’t be back until this evening.”
“Ah,” I said. “Then it must have been one of the servants?”
A frown creased the other man’s forehead. “Servants, sir? No, sir. Only servants are Mrs Rogers and me.”
I took a few steps back and peered up at the window again. There was nothing to see.
Mary joined me and followed my gaze. “Perhaps it was a trick of the light, darling?”
“Yes,” I murmured. “I suppose it must have been.”
But as we made our way into the house, I knew I had witnessed no optical illusion. I had seen a face. And it was the face of Agatha Christie.