Deceptive Assassin
 

 

 

 

 

 

One

Adrian’s Landing, Louisiana 2017

 

Felicia Thornberry had only to think about Belle Femme and the hairs on her arms would stand on end. Growing up in Adrian’s Landing, she’d made sure to steer clear of that place, especially on Halloween. Even a double-dog-dare-you couldn’t tempt her or any of her friends to set foot on that property, much less peek into a window. So, imagine her surprise when twenty years later, she received a call from the owner of the long-abandoned landmark.

 

At seventy-five years of age, philanthropist and world traveler Jeffery Harrington had decided to stop frittering away his life and consider his legacy. He came to the conclusion that nothing would be more fitting than the restoration of the family home.

 

“Ms. Thornberry,” he said, “I know I haven’t done the town any favors by ignoring Belle Femme, but I’m hoping to make amends. I intend to restore the house to its original grandeur and would very much like to hire you and your company to landscape the grounds.”

 

At the time of the call, Felicia was working in her nursery and was surrounded by a throng of Saturday customers, all wanting information about a particular plant. The hubbub and Mr. Harrington’s unexpected request left her confused and speechless. Was he insane? Everyone knew the place was haunted. Finally, she found her voice. She smiled at the people wanting her advice and pointed at the phone. The chatter quieted somewhat.

 

“Excuse me,” she said to the customers. “I’ll be with you in just a minute.” She turned away and covered her other ear. “Would you mind repeating that?” she asked Mr. Harrington.

 

“Young lady, I’m offering you a chance to make a great deal of money, not to mention the notoriety that will come from completing such an undertaking. That’s something any good business owner should appreciate.”

 

“Yes, but why me?” she asked. “Thornberry Nursery is a small operation.”

 

“The size of your business had nothing to do with my decision. Of all the candidates I researched, you were the only one with a degree in both horticulture and landscape architecture. And you have another qualification that sets you apart, one I consider most important. You’re a native of Adrian’s Landing, the town my great grandfather, Adrian Sherburne Harrington, founded.”

 

Felicia was flattered that he held her in such high esteem, and she seldom turned down a job, but this just might be the exception. When she hesitated to respond, Mr. Harrington continued.

 

“Would you at least meet with me and discuss the matter?”

 

“I, uh, guess I could do that,” she stammered. “Wonderful. I’m presently in New Orleans but have to be at the house Monday morning at nine o’clock to receive a delivery of construction material. Would you be available around ten?”

 

“That’ll work for me.”

 

“Thank you, Ms. Thornberry. I’ll advise my housekeeper to expect you.”

 

Felicia stood there cradling the receiver to the office phone, the dial tone buzzing in her ear. His housekeeper? At Belle Femme? She couldn’t imagine the place livable enough to accommodate anyone. Was he really bringing a housekeeper? Hmm, perhaps she was actually his companion…or, considering his age, his nurse.

 

Megan McCoy, the nursery’s office worker, glanced up from her computer. “You look worried. Is something wrong?”

 

Felicia shook her head and replaced the receiver on Megan’s desk phone. “I hope not,” she said, rubbing the back of her neck. “Tell the guys I want to meet in the break room in an hour.” She turned her attention back to the customers. “Sorry about that. Now, how can I help you?” ~ * ~

 

Thornberry Nursery’s employees totaled five— three nursery laborers, an office worker, and Felicia. They were a close-knit group who had built a reputation for quality of work and timely completion of a project. Restoring the grounds of Belle Femme would be the biggest job the nursery had ever tackled. Even so, Felicia was confident they could handle it. With a name like Thornberry, how could they possibly fail?

 

The revival of Belle Femme would mean a boon to Adrian’s Landing. If Mr. Harrington opened the house or grounds to visitors, the tourist trade alone would boost the economy. She could visualize the addition of a new motel, maybe a few bed and breakfast facilities, even another family restaurant, but nothing that would spoil the town’s quaint, rural atmosphere.

 

In fact, Felicia couldn’t imagine anything disrupting the lifestyle of those who for generations had lived at Adrian’s Landing. Several years earlier, one of the fast-food chains opened an establishment in the heart of the town. It had lasted all of three months. The locals continued to support the homegrown eateries. Same held true for a chain drug store. Who else but Mr. Chaucer would fill your prescription in the wee hours and deliver it to you personally?

 

While the nursery was Adrian’s Landing’s most productive business, the town’s population of 1,500 forced Felicia to reach out to the surrounding communities for the bulk of her jobs. Nevertheless, the rural setting had its advantages. The low price of land made it possible for her to expand her physical operation. The latest purchase of fifty acres had been turned into a tree farm.

 

The nursery was her father’s dream, and over the years, he’d taught Felicia everything about the business. Throughout high school and college, she’d spent summers and holidays working alongside him. Things were different now. He was no longer with her.

 

Five years ago, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, such a cruel disease. There wasn’t anything she could do but stand by him and love him, and that she did. He lost his battle after three years. By then, he no longer recognized her. The day she buried him, a part of her died, too. She would give anything for one more glimpse of his smiling face. Clutching her arms into a hug, she looked out over a sea of flowering plants. Her heart swelled at the profusion of colors. Yes, he was gone, but his presence was everywhere.

 

As the men shuffled into the break room adjacent to the main office, she turned her thoughts to the present. The small room was bare of plants. Shiplap walls surrounded a Spartan interior: a wooden table, a scattering of plastic chairs, a metal file cabinet, a sink, and a small refrigerator. It provided just enough space to grab a quick lunch and something to drink, not a place to while away one’s time. Chairs screeched across the flagstone as they gathered around the table.

 

Megan settled into a chair near the door. A hint of her perfume wafted on the air. In such close quarters, the scent was refreshing.

 

“I’ll sit here in case we have a customer,” she said.

 

Megan McCoy was a local girl. After two years of college at Southeastern, she’d told Felicia she was ready for permanent employment, adding that campus life didn’t appeal to her. Felicia believed something more was behind Megan’s reason for withdrawal, but she’d offered no other explanation. Felicia wasn’t one to pry but made it clear she was available should Megan ever want to talk.

 

“What’s up, boss?” Luis Romero asked over the chatter of the other two men. At thirty-eight, he was the oldest and considered the unofficial foreman of the group. A native of San Salvador, Luis had been with the nursery from the beginning. He and her father had formed a special bond, and Luis had taken her father’s passing very hard.

 

Luis was loyal, trustworthy, and dependable. He also knew the business inside and out and had an easy-going temperament. Physically, he was by far the strongest. His tanned, muscular arms and scarred hands spoke volumes about his life. He and his wife had come to America on work visas, and after applying for and meeting all the requirements, they had obtained their citizenship. Both of their children were born in America.

 

Greg Wheeler and Harley Wilkes hailed from the surrounding area. They were quick to learn, dependable, and several years younger than Luis. Being single, their paychecks were adequate for now, but more than likely, they would move on to higher-paying jobs. Turnover in the nursery business was a given.

 

Felicia remained standing. She leaned against a wall and brushed remnants of an earlier pruning job from her blouse. “I know you’re all familiar with the old Harrington mansion on the outskirts of town,” she said. “Well, I just received a call from the owner.”

 

The men stared at each other in silence but with eyebrows raised.

 

Felicia continued. “He plans to restore the house and wants Thornberry Nursery to handle the grounds.”

 

Luis was the first to respond. He gave a quick nod and a low whistle. “We know the house, okay. The grounds are enormous, and they look like a jungle. It’ll take several months to clear out all the undergrowth. Did Mr. Harrington include combat pay in his offer?”

 

Everyone laughed.

 

“If the offer is as good as he hinted, everyone will see a bonus.”

 

The mention of extra money brought a cheer.

 

“When can we start?” Luis asked.

 

“I’m meeting with him Monday morning to discuss the project. If I agree to take the offer, we’ll want to move fast. It’s April, and that means new growth is already getting the jump on us. That’s something we don’t need. So, stop what you’re working on and start getting things ready. Sharpen everything and make sure the power equipment is in good running condition.

 

“Greg, I want you to fill up the truck and have it ready to load. The checklist is on top of the file cabinet. You’ll work the grounds with Luis and me. Harley, I want you to stay with Megan and help with the nursery.”

 

Harley nodded, but a frown crossed his brow. Felicia guessed at what he was thinking. “Cheer up, Harley. Whether you go with us or work the nursery, everyone will get the same bonus. We’re family here.”

 

A grin stretched across his face. “Yeah, doggy.” ~ * ~

At six o’clock Monday morning, Felicia’s alarm blasted out the sound of clanging bells loud enough to wake the dead. She slapped at the phone on the nightstand, finally pressing the right button. “I’ve got to change that ring tone,” she grumbled. Pulling the twisted sheet from her legs, she forced her eyes to open. The morning light burned like fire, thanks to a night with little sleep, a night where her mind had refused to turn off. Instead, a montage of her life, like scenes from an old black-and-white movie, flashed over and over again on the back of her eyelids.

 

Why me? She thought. And why today of all days? She had so wanted to look her best—fat chance. Thank goodness the coffee pot was on a timer. She might see things differently after a jolt of caffeine. Like the Pied Piper, the rich aroma called to her from down the hall. Oblivious to everything else, she stumbled into the kitchen. After two cups of dark roast and a protein bar, she rejoined the world of the living.

 

Coffee, followed by a shower, worked wonders. Wrapped in a towel, she opened her closet door. A less than sterling wardrobe stared back—not exactly a selection of what’s hot; more like what’s not. Nursery business and the night life didn’t mix. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d bought a new outfit. Fingering through the hangers, she settled on a plain, blue sheath and matching heels. Simple is never out of style, she told herself. A colorful scarf and medium-sized hoop earrings added a little flare.

 

Taking a seat at her vanity, she reached for the tube of concealer. She was tempted to apply it everywhere, but showed restraint and limited the cover-up to the dark circles under her eyes. A touch of blush put a glow on her pale cheeks, and a light dusting of eye shadow, followed by brown eyeliner, brought a sparkle to her hazel eyes. Some mauve lipstick provided just enough color. Yes, the person staring back from the mirror was finally alive. Now she had only to perk up her auburn hair with some gel. For the first time that morning, a smile curled her lips. Her short, spikey cut was perfect for her line of work but so not her. Her best friend, Holly Ingram, had convinced her to take the plunge.

 

Felicia tucked her purse under her arm, grabbed her keys, and headed out the door. To say she was more than a little anxious about meeting Mr. Harrington would be an understatement. No butterflies in her stomach; more like a flight of birds. Over the years, she had seen pictures of the family in news reports and magazines, but she had never actually met a Harrington. They were like royalty to Adrian’s Landing—filthy rich and all glitz and glamour. Then there was Belle Femme itself. Her stomach still wrenched, thinking back to her youth. “No,” she said, shutting out childhood tales. It was time to let the past stay in the past, time to finally step on those grounds, even enter the fabled house.

 

Felicia lived a mile east of the town in a small, ranch-style house her father had built. The Harrington mansion was located five miles south of town and across from the landing, but the ten-minute drive wasn’t nearly long enough to calm her nerves. She was still gathering her thoughts by the time she arrived. With a few minutes to spare, she steered her white Chevy truck onto the shoulder of the road, left the vehicle, and walked over to the wrought-iron fence that fronted the property.

 

Wrapping her fingers around one of the metal bars, she glanced up at the spear-like tips that lined the top of the structure. A fleeting thought crossed her mind—were they meant to keep people out or the spirits in? It seemed she was fighting a losing battle with her memories.

 

“Enough,” she mumbled. Others were counting on her to ink a contract. She needed to concentrate on this job. Drawing a deep breath, she scanned the grounds. How long had Belle Femme sat abandoned—ten or fifteen years? In the humid south, that was a lifetime. Reclamation would indeed be a grueling job. To her surprise, the gates were open, something she hadn’t seen in a long time. Then she remembered Mr. Harrington was also expecting a delivery. Could be he had other appointments as well.

 

Like sentinels from a time long passed, ancient live oaks lined the driveway. Some limbs had grown so massive they could no longer bear their own weight and had come to rest on the ground. In many cases, they provided support for the main trunk that might otherwise have a tendency to split under such pressure. Strong and less heavy limbs grew thinner as they climbed high overhead and interlaced with others to form a living tunnel. Moss, like silvery shawls, hung in long strands from gnarled branches and swayed gently on the morning breeze—an eerie but awesome sight. Not even time could diminish their beauty. Felicia took pride in knowing that with her help, a new day would soon dawn for them.

 

The lawn was a patchwork of dirt, weeds, and exposed roots. It would require a tremendous amount of sod. The shrubs and ornamental trees were almost unrecognizable. Out-of-bounds camellias and crepe myrtles mimicked a miniature forest, their existence threatened by briars and other vines. Beyond the immediate grounds, a forest of oaks, pines, maples, cottonwood and numerous other varieties of trees cluttered the landscape. Ponds lay dry, and fountains filled with leaves. The same had to hold true for structures beyond her sight.

 

At the end of the drive, Belle Femme stood derelict, no longer synonymous with its name, pretty lady. English ivy covered the first-floor walls, its stem roots digging into the façade. Grayish-green mold had invaded most of the white paint. Plaster littered the ground beneath the eight Doric columns that graced the main entrance. Two large wings on each side of the main structure held three floor-to-ceiling arched windows, their once-gleaming panes dulled by layers of dirt and grime. Like eyes sealed shut against the world, they closed out any view of the interior.

 

As she continued to assess the grounds from afar, a white truck loaded with lumber and stacked high with building material, barreled down the long driveway and disappeared behind the house. That had to be the nine o’clock delivery Mr. Harrington was expecting. If so, it was late.

 

After brushing her skirt, Felicia climbed behind the steering wheel and drove to the front entrance. Hers was the only vehicle present. After parking, she stepped from the cab and stared up at the columns. The house loomed larger and more intimidating than it had from the road, but she stood tall and gathered her resolve. Time to make a good impression—shoulders back, head high, she told herself as she stepped to the front door.

 

Leaded glass panels distorted the view within. Felicia rang the doorbell. No one answered. She tried again. Then a woman screamed. ” 

 

 

 

 

     

 

 



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