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
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
“My name is Benson Fisher.
I’m an attorney in nearby Westport and represent Alexis
Well, Ms. du Bois
certainly didn’t waste time.
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?
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
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?”
“Then there’s no
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,
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
“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.
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.”
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
Once through the
leaded-glass door, she stepped into a foyer surrounded by
mahogany paneling, exquisite paintings, and highly polished
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 cluttered papers.
The place smelled of money.
“May I help you?” the receptionist
“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
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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?”
“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.
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.”
“I’ll tell you all about it when I see
Stephanie arrived first
at the small pizzeria near campus.
She decided on a table near the back and ordered a large
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
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
As Maddie took her
seat, Stephanie opened her purse and dangled the deposit slip.
“Upfront money for travel and lodging, enough to cover a
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.
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.”
I can’t just up and go in an instant.
“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
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.
Maybe if I weren’t around, he’d realize what he’s
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
She smoothed her hair
and licked her lips, ready for that all-important first
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.”
Tears brimmed in the woman’s eyes.
“I’m your mother, and I’m dying.”