Villa St. Antoine was reached by a long, winding drive through trees, after a four-hour high-speed train-ride from Frankfurt Airport. Jeronica sat in the back of a limousine wearing sunglasses as though worried that someone might somehow peer through the tinted windows and discern her there. In fact the sunglasses were electronically tuned to the windows and allowed her to see through them as though they were plain glass. She watched the landscaping go past and observed to herself that the winding route, the soft hills and the tall, ancient, thick-trunked trees were surely laid out like this to prevent any easy assault on the Villa.
Which made a certain kind of sense, as the head of Data Analytics Marketetic Normalisations, Jeremy Diseased-Rat, had the kind of paranoia that made it very difficult to deal with him unless you were his favoured kind of prostitute or in a large venue with very many other people around at a sufficiently discrete distance. Jeronica liked neither of these things, but was keenly aware of the need to socialise and network, and so forced herself to attend most functions that the company arranged. Such as the Management Off-Site here at Villa St. Antoine.
The car pulled up in front of the doors of the Villa with a soft crunch of white gravel and she waited while a doorman dressed in burgundy and gold-braid sauntered from his post to open the door of her car. She was pleased to note that though a second limousine came in behind her thirty seconds later the doorman didn’t even acknowledge, attending to her car first. The door opened soundlessly and she stepped out. She made sure she was stood firmly on the ground and then tilted her wrist slightly. The mercury tilt-switch sewn into the sleeve responded, and the heels on her shoes smoothly elevated her by eleven inches. The doorman barely flinched, though he did lean back very slightly to make eye contact with her.
“Guests are asked to report to the Viridian Drawing Room,” he said. There was a touch of insolence to his tone, she thought. “Please enter through the main door and turn left, then left again. It may interest you to know that the Villa was built over one hundred years ago, and most of the doors are slightly lower than six feet high.” Perhaps she’d mistaken warmth for insolence. She was already on her guard against her colleagues and was probably looking for traps where there were none. She smiled, about to thank him, and then realised that she had no way to verify his directions. She smiled a little more broadly, and laid a hand on his his shoulder.
“Perhaps you could show me the way,” she said, squeezing a little. The man had muscles. “My sense of geography has always been poor.”
The car behind them crunched the gravel very gently as though the driver, getting impatient, had moved it an inch forwards. The doorman looked slightly puzzled.
“One moment,” said Jeronica. She crossed to the car behind, allowing her heels to slide down to only three inches high, and rapped imperiously on the driver’s window with a white-gloved hand. The window slid down a quarter-inch. “Tell your passenger that we’re meeting in the Drawing Room,” she said. “I need the doorman.” She walked off without waiting for an answer, hoping and expecting that if there was a Viridian Drawing Room there would be others as well.
“You may bring my bags,” she said the doorman as she returned. His face remained immobile, but she fancied that there was a hint of annoyance as he moved to collect them from where her driver had positioned them on the gravel next to the car. “And lead on!”
The Villa St. Antoine had been built for use by gentlemen and then seized the by the Nazis during the war and used as a refuge for thugs and layabouts, which combination meant that the entire place was opulent like a harem and decadent like the court of the Sun King. As she walked inside her heels sank into carpet with pile so deep that with just three inch heels she appeared to be walking smooth on its surface, while the doorman struggled slightly to keep up his pace. There was a cloakroom to the right that appeared to have a four-person staff of its own, and there was the smell of freshly opened champagne in the air, bright and acidic. Bowls of strawberries were set out on a counter, and smaller bowls of thick, clotted cream were set adjacent to them. Silver spoons, hallmarked visibly, waited nearby for use as well. Jeronica picked up three of each and followed the doorman. She hated strawberries, but she knew how to act the part.
The Viridian Drawing room was left and left again as promised, and when she arrived she dismissed the doorman to take her bags to her room. She looked around: Margoyle was already there and sitting in a high-backed chair near an empty fireplace, and Stephanotte was stood surrounded by three accountants that were her de-facto bodyguards. None of them had strawberries.
“Not hungry?” asked Jeronica casually, allowing her heels to elevate her another two inches.