Deadly Illusions
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

Stephanie Warren yanked her shiny, new diploma from the wall and tossed it into a basket of Charmin next to the toilet, right where it belonged.  Two months and not one job offer, not even a request for an interview.

A second later she plucked the sheepskin from the cushy hamper and clutched it to her chest.  So what if the economy was in the tank.  So what if rejection letters filled the wastebasket.  She would overcome this hurdle just as she had others in her past.

When opening the laptop to pull up the next list of potential employers, she noticed a stray envelope on the floor.  “Ah, one more chance,” she muttered and unfolded a single sheet of paper.  

Dear Ms. Warren,

I am aware you are a recent graduate of Hanson College with a major in English.  I have quite a story to tell, but failing health requires that I hire a ghost writer.  Would you be interested?

My attorney will contact you shortly with details and financial arrangements.

Alexis du Bois

The Mandeville, Louisiana, postmark intrigued her and conjured up images of antebellum homes with wide verandas.  She tapped the letter against her palm and continued to daydream. 

The ringing of the phone cut short her musing.  Hoping for a real job offer, she cleared her throat and summoned her most professional voice.

“Hello.”

“Stephanie Warren?”

“Yes.”

“My name is Benson Fisher.  I’m an attorney in nearby Westport and represent Alexis du Bois.”

Well, Ms. du Bois certainly didn’t waste time.  Westport?  She had to be loaded to hire such a high-powered firm.  Stephanie pictured the luxurious estates lining the lake in this upstate New York community.  She hadn’t so much as crossed the threshold of one of them.  Maybe her vision about the South wasn’t so farfetched.

Still, the letter and now a call from a stranger made her suspicious.  She might not have graduated with honors, but she was no dummy.  “Okay, who put you up to this?  Trevor?  Maddie?  For a minute, you had me going.”

“I assure you, Ms. Warren, this is no joke.  Did you receive Ms. du Bois’s letter?”

“That’s the problem, Mr. Fisher.  I only applied locally.  Perhaps her letter was meant for another Stephanie.”

“According to my records your date of birth is September 2, 1989.  You live at 3643 Summit Drive, Hanson, New York.  Am I correct?”

“Yes, but--”

“Then there’s no mistake.  Ms. Warren, this isn’t something we can discuss over the phone.  Would you be available to meet at my office tomorrow…say around ten o’clock?”

In the seconds that followed, her ears crackled--a static-like sound that came to her at times. More often than not, it warned of bad news.  But what could be bad about finding a job?

“Where are you located?”

“320 Oak Avenue, behind the courthouse.”

“I’ll be there, Mr. Fisher.”

Stephanie hung up and continued to stare at the letter.  While the offer sounded legit, she could hear Maddie saying, “Gotcha.”   She picked up the phone and punched in her best friend’s number.

Madeline Price had graduated with Stephanie and was also job hunting.  With a degree in art, she was having as difficult a time.  Cuts in funding forced many schools to drop electives from their curriculum.  Having flooded the surrounding area with her resume, Maddie was never more than a ring away from her phone.  Today was no exception.

“Hello,” she answered with a cheery voice, no doubt one practiced for prospective employers.

“Okay,” Stephanie blurted, “how’d you manage the postmark, and who’d you con into playing the attorney?”

“What are you talking about?”

“The letter from Louisiana offering me a ghost writing job.”

“I didn’t send you anything.  You really got a request like that?  What’d it say?”

Stephanie read the letter.

“Louisiana?  That’s like at the end of the world.  I thought we’d start our careers in the same town or at least close by.  You move there, and I might never see you again.”

“Right now, I don’t have a choice.  Anyway, it wouldn’t be forever, just till I finish the book.”

“What’s it about, and how in the world did she find you?”

“The attorney didn’t volunteer information, said he’d prefer to discuss the matter in person. I’m meeting with him tomorrow at ten.  Ms. du Bois must really want to talk with me since she researched attorneys from Westport.”

“Huh?  You’re talking big bucks.  She must be rolling in dough.  Make sure she pays you enough.  I’d want to see something in writing and an advance before I’d traipse halfway across the country.”

“That’s the only way I could make the trip.  I’m flat broke.  Soon as I leave the attorney’s office, I’ll call you.  We can discuss it over pizza.”

# # #

The following morning Stephanie turned her white, 2005 Toyota Camry into the driveway of a two-story, red brick building.  A large sign out front confirmed she was at the right place--Fisher and Associates.  She wheeled into a space marked for guests under the shade of a large maple tree.

Taking a deep breath, she stepped out of the car and told herself to chill.  She was only here to check it out.  Maybe the offer wouldn’t interest her.  Who was she kidding?  She needed a job…any job.

Hugging her shoulder purse to her waist, she crossed the parking lot and passed cars parked in reserved spaces--two Mercedes, one BMW, a Bentley, and a Ferrari.  Must be nice.  She continued around the building on a cobblestone sidewalk that bordered a bed of creeping juniper and variegated Hostas.

Once through the leaded-glass door, she stepped into a foyer surrounded by mahogany paneling, exquisite paintings, and highly polished floors.  A receptionist sat behind a desk that looked more like a pier table in a museum than a work station.  On one end, fresh flowers filled a crystal vase.  No computer.  No cluttered papers.

The place smelled of money.

“May I help you?” the receptionist asked.

“I’m Stephanie Warren.  I have a ten o’clock appointment.”

The woman glanced at her desk calendar then pushed a button on the telephone.  “Mr. Fisher, Ms. Warren is here to see you.”

Within a few minutes, a side door opened, and a short, slender man strode toward her with an outstretched hand.  Halfway across the room, he paused and blinked as if remembering the reason for her presence.  Then he introduced himself.  “I’m Benson Fisher.  Let’s step into my office.”

Her black pumps tapped across the hardwood floor as she followed the attorney into the adjoining room.  Floor to ceiling windows looked out on the main street and flooded the room with light, nothing like the atmosphere in the foyer.  This was more to her liking.  The attorney motioned for her to have a seat in one of two wingback chairs while he moved behind his desk and settled into a leather rocker.

Benson Fisher, wearing a pinstriped suit, looked every inch the professional.  His salt-and-pepper hair and a trimmed mustache cut quite a debonair figure.  From the smattering of laugh lines about the eyes, she guessed him to be in his fifties.  He straightened his tie then followed her gaze to the row of golf trophies behind him.

“You play?” he asked.

“I tried once.  Spent most of my time hunting for the ball.”

He smiled back at her.  “I’ve had those days.”  He leaned over his desk and opened a file.  “As much as I’d like to talk about golf, I’m sure you’re anxious to get on with the business at hand.”

“Do you mind my asking why Ms. du Bois felt it necessary to hire an attorney?  Couldn’t she just have made me an offer?”

“Alexis is a native of Westport, and our firm has represented her family for generations.  She preferred I corroborate the legitimacy of the offer and assure you she is not some crack-pot.”

“How sick is she?”

“Alexis didn’t elaborate on her medical condition except to say it’s serious.  I realize a trip to Mandeville will be costly, and if you’re like most college graduates, you’re probably low on funds.  This should more than cover your round-trip travel and lodging.”  He turned the check so she could read the amount.

Five-thousand dollars!  She drew her lips tight, afraid of drooling.  With forty-dollars in her checking account, her hands itched to stuff the check into her purse.  Somehow, she managed to remain calm and collected, at least on the outside. 

“You’re right.  That’s more than enough.  Why me?  I won a few awards but was far from the top of my class.”

“You’ll have to ask her.  Alexis didn’t discuss her selection process.  But as a financial contributor to Hanson College, she probably got your name from the English Department.  Are you interested?”

Stephanie nodded.  “Give me a week to have my car serviced and put my affairs in order.  I want to be prepared to stay if things work out.  I should be able to meet with her by next Wednesday.  Let’s say about three o’clock.  If that’s not doable, you can call me with another time.”

The attorney slipped the check into the folder and handed it to Stephanie.  “I’ll let Alexis know.  If you don’t hear back from me, you’ll find directions inside, along with both our phone numbers.”

“What’s she like?  Did she say what the book is about?”

“It’s best you draw your own conclusions.  As to the subject matter, I haven’t a clue.  But knowing Alexis, it will be anything but dull.”

Benson rose and walked her to the foyer.  “It’s been a pleasure, Ms. Warren.”

Stephanie thanked him and clutched the folder to her chest.  On her way to the front door, she returned the receptionist’s mechanical smile, the one that inferred she knew everything when she didn’t know jack.

Once outside, Stephanie all but sprinted to her car, pulled the check from the folder and stared at it again to make sure it was real.  Five-thousand dollars!  Yes!  She drove straight to the bank and deposited that baby, minus a little cash withdrawal.  Only then did she call Maddie.

“Meet me at Jeno’s.  I’m on my way.”

“What happened?”

“I’ll tell you all about it when I see you.”

Stephanie arrived first at the small pizzeria near campus.  She decided on a table near the back and ordered a large pepperoni.  While waiting, she flagged the waiter.  “I’ll have a light beer.”  The possibility of employment called for celebration.  Stephanie took a swallow and tried to imagine her new surroundings.  What if Ms. du Bois really did live in a stately mansion, complete with its own ghost?  That would be way cool.

A group of college students hustled through the door and scooted into a booth.  Maddie entered on their heels.  Jangling bracelets announced her arrival. 

 Stephanie waved to get her attention.

As Maddie took her seat, Stephanie opened her purse and dangled the deposit slip.  “Upfront money for travel and lodging, enough to cover a return trip.”

Maddie plucked the flimsy paper from Stephanie’s fingers and squinted.  Her dark brown eyes grew wide and sparkled.

“Damn, girlfriend, you hit the jackpot.”

Stephanie raised her arm and pulled it down as if playing a slot machine.  “Cha-ching!  It’s enough for two.  Are you game?  I hate the thought of traveling alone, and you might have better luck finding a job there.”

“Get serious.  I can’t just up and go in an instant.  I--”

“Come on, Maddie.  Where’s your sense of adventure?  We’ve been buried in books for four years.  Finally a door opens.  Don’t you want to see what’s on the other side?”

“Don’t tempt me.  You know I’m impetuous, but there’s…”

“Yeah, I know--Trevor.  He’s too much into partying to suit me, not to mention he has a serious gambling problem.  But I don’t have to tell you that.  Are you going to wait forever for him to get his act together?”

Maddie tossed her short, black curls.  “You must have listened in on our conversation last night.  He swore he loved me, but he obviously loves his lifestyle more.  You’re right.  Maybe if I weren’t around, he’d realize what he’s throwing away.  Okay, friend, if I don’t find a job in another week or two, look for me on your doorstep.”

“Now you’re cooking.  In the meantime, why don’t you check the Internet for schools in the Mandeville area?  See what’s available.”

# # #

Stephanie rubbed a weary eye and glanced at the passing Louisiana landscape.  A wall of trees lined both sides of a monotonous, straight highway.  Undoubtedly, the road ended somewhere, but that somewhere never seemed to get any closer.

This morning she had hit the road at daybreak after a sleepless night in a mom-and-pop motel.  While the sheets seemed clean and the mattress comfortable, she wondered what microscopic critters might be sharing her bed.  Anyway, she wanted to reach Mandeville ahead of schedule.  Better early than late for her job interview with the mysterious Alexis du Bois.

The closer she got to her destination, the more her imagination ran amuck.  This time tranquil images turned sinister.  Moss scratched at white, above-ground graves, and a cypress swamp beckoned unsuspecting victims.  Hot, humid air carried with it the smell of mold.

As a clammy palm slid down the steering wheel, she shook the thoughts from her head.  She couldn’t afford to blow this job.  Besides, what did she have to fear?  Being alone was nothing new.

She smoothed her black slacks and tugged her white shell into place, not wanting to look as if she had stepped out of a suitcase…which she had.  Green eyes with flecks of black stared back from the rearview mirror.  Yes, the eye shadow and mascara looked fresh, and thanks to a straightening iron, she had tortured her red hair into place.

The horn of a semi blared.  The Camry had drifted across the center line, and the grill of a Mack truck bore down on her.  She gritted her teeth and swerved in time to avoid a collision.  Shaken and embarrassed, she raised a sheepish hand in apology to the taillights of the eighteen-wheeler.  Her car was no match for that monster of the highway.

Stephanie shifted in her seat, sat erect, and concentrated on her driving.  In the distance, a green sign indicated the Mandeville exit.  She left the main highway, pulled into a service station, and sprinted for the bathroom.  After freshening up, she topped off the gas tank.

The August heat rose from the cement like a quivering veil.  Perspiration coated her arms. Welcome to the South.  Back in the car, she cranked up the air conditioning and retrieved Benson’s map from the glove compartment.  A GPS was on her wish list, but for now, she was at the mercy of his squiggly drawing.  Thank goodness he included written instructions.

Go approximately five miles and turn right onto Lavey Road, a narrow, two-lane, blacktop with little or no shoulders.  Drive slowly.  Not all curves have warning signs.  You definitely don’t want to run off the road.  While the land might look firm, more than likely water lies beneath the surface.

Great, she’d hate to miss a turn and end up in the swamp.

Lavey Road ends at Shoreline Drive, so named because it follows the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.  Turn left.  Look for a long, black, wrought-iron fence on your left.  Vines cover most of structure, but not so much that you’ll miss it.  Every so often, a posted sign warns against trespassing.  Keep an eye out for the driveway.  The gate will be fastened but not locked.  Be sure to close the gate once you’ve entered.

Benson ended by enclosing his office and cell phone numbers, along with Alexis’s phone number.  On paper, the directions looked straightforward.  Even so, she placed the instructions within reach on the passenger’s seat.

Lavey Road lived up to Benson’s description, one unmarked curve after another.  Pine trees gave way to live oaks whose massive branches extended out twice as wide as the tree was high.  From the size of the trunks, many were several hundred years old.

When she reached Shoreline Drive, she slowed to a stop.  On her right, she spotted several white graves clustered beneath boughs of an oak, not unlike those she had imagined earlier.  Four rusted posts and a single chain fenced off the neglected area.  Goosebumps covered her arms like the pebbled skin of an orange.  She turned left and gunned the motor.  Several miles later, the iron fence came into view.  

Just beyond the entrance, the driveway curved into the woods.  She exited the car long enough to close the gate then drove at a snail’s pace, not knowing what to expect.  The woods gave way to a manicured lawn.  Azalea bushes dotted the landscape in front of an enormous, white house.  Columns surrounded what looked like a three-story structure, but a closer look revealed that lattice panels on the lower level hid a raised foundation.  A staircase led to the upper or first-floor living area.

Stephanie stepped out of the car, mesmerized by the scene and intent on studying it further.  On the upper or entrance level, wicker furniture sprawled across a wide porch that wrapped around the house.  Ferns cascaded from tall stands.  Geraniums in clay pots clustered beside wicker chairs and settees, offering a plethora of color--a perfect place to sit and write.

When sheers moved in one of windows, she grabbed her purse from the car and closed the door.  Whoever stood behind the curtain had disappeared.  Stephanie climbed the steps and pushed the doorbell.  Frosted etching on the leaded glass obscured the view of the interior.

She smoothed her hair and licked her lips, ready for that all-important first impression.

The door opened.

Stephanie gasped and stumbled backwards as she came face-to-face with her mirror image.

“It’s okay,” the woman said, taking Stephanie’s trembling hand.  “I’ve waited so long for this moment.”

“Who…are…you?”

Tears brimmed in the woman’s eyes.

“I’m your mother, and I’m dying.”

     

 

 



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