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  Escape Fiction For Eager Minds
Pemberley Press
Corona del Mar, CA 92625
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Cover of Deadly Design by Marion Moore Hill

... excerpt from

Deadly Design

-- Chapter One --

Could her life get any better? Millie wondered as she tooled along U. S. Highway 221, eager to immerse herself and her son in the world of Thomas Jefferson, with time and money enough to enjoy it. The early-July morning felt fresh and cool after an overnight shower, and the rolling hills of the Virginia countryside seemed to draw her back to the early nineteenth century.

She and Danny had driven east from the Blue Ridge Parkway, he craning his nine-year-old neck for the first glimpse of what would be their temporary home, the small city of Lynchburg. Seeing a sign ahead indicating a turn-off to “Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest,” Millie slowed her vehicle. She’d intended to go straight to the house in town that her friend Alice had rented, waiting until tomorrow to tour the third president’s octagonal house. But knowing his retreat was so close tempted her.

As she hesitated, a motorcycle roared up behind her, its motor loud in the relative quiet of mid-morning. The helmeted rider slowed to let a car in the other lane go past, then zipped around Millie’s car. She got a quick impression of burly strength in the way he sat his bike, the way his muscles filled out his blue T-shirt and jeans.

Then, suddenly, he braked hard and leaned into a right turn. Millie’s heart leapt into her throat. She hit her own brakes and jerked the steering wheel left. With tires screeching, she cringed, bracing herself for the strike of chrome on chrome, the impact of metal on flesh.

Miraculously, she missed him. As the biker completed his turn, she twisted the wheel back and fought for control of her car. The reflection in her side mirror showed the biker giving a thumbs-up sign, as he accelerated down the road towards Jefferson’s retreat.

“Cool!” Danny cried, his small hands clutching the seat belt that had snapped taut.

Trembling from fright, Millie breathed deeply, trying to regain her composure. Her pleasant contemplation had been broken, her sense of well-being shattered by the incident. Before wrenching the wheel left, she’d thought the oncoming lane was clear. But what if that quick impression had been wrong? A head-on collision could have killed both her and Danny, plus people in the other car.

That man’s recklessness endangered several lives, Millie imagined Sylva’s indignant voice saying. The strong bond between Millie and her elderly Dallas friend often made her feel Sylva was traveling with her, commenting on events and people.

Doesn’t he remind you of someone?

A memory flashed through Millie’s mind, of her ex-husband riding his motorcycle in much the same fashion as this biker.

When she and Jack had gone together during high school, Millie had thought him dashing, adventurous. After they’d married, his devil-may-care attitude had increasingly worried her. When Danny was a tiny baby and Jack had threatened to take him for a ride on his motorcycle—to “introduce the kid to the open road and the wind in his hair”—Millie had come unglued.

Jack had stormed out that night. She hadn’t seen him again for two years, and only then when he came to borrow money for a car payment. Foolishly she had given him twenty-two dollars she had saved towards a coat for Danny.

He hadn’t paid it back, of course. A couple of months later, he’d surfaced again, wanting to borrow more. That time, she’d hedged, said she had none to lend, and the discussion had turned ugly. Jack had threatened to seek custody of Danny if she wouldn’t give him money.

Anger and fright had gripped Millie, as if the walls of their drab living room had closed in, wedging her between. But somehow, from deep within, she had dredged up the courage to say a definite no.

Jack had made good his threat and filed for custody. He hadn’t had much of a case, having been AWOL through most of his young son’s life, but legal bills had worsened Millie’s already difficult financial situation.

After that, fear had stalked her for months. When anyone knocked on the door, she’d felt sure it was someone with a subpoena demanding she appear in court. She’d dreaded collecting the mail, for fear there’d be an official-looking letter. But finally, the anxiety had dissipated. She now had only an occasional nightmare about losing her son.

Now the note of hero-worship she’d heard in Danny’s voice troubled her.

“That was dangerous,” she muttered to Danny. “We’re very lucky we weren’t meeting another car.”

He twisted in his seat to gaze after the motorcycle.

Maybe she shouldn’t go to Poplar Forest now and risk running into the biker again. But he probably wasn’t headed to the historic dwelling, just taking the smaller road because he’d suddenly remembered a short cut to somewhere else.

As soon as she could do so safely, she reversed and drove back, this time taking the turn-off. They wound through a residential area, made a few turns, and soon were ascending a long hill. At its peak sat a classical-styled dwelling, red brick with white columns, topped with multiple chimneys.

Poplar Forest.

Millie caught her breath. Thomas Jefferson’s own private getaway. And she’d be working here.

A few weeks ago, her friend Alice had phoned to invite her and Danny to join her in Lynchburg for the summer, to share a house and an experience in American history, a love they had in common. They had met last year when Millie had flown to Newark to pay condolences following the death of Alice’s husband, Millie’s fellow heir under an odd two hundred-year-old legacy. Earlier that year, Millie had unexpectedly received a letter from a lawyer, telling her that she was an heir of a relative she’d never heard of, Nathan Henry, who had died in the nineteenth century. Henry had based his unusual will, which involved accumulating interest on money for two centuries before legatees inherited, on the trusts Benjamin Franklin had created for Philadelphia and Boston. Nearly as excited over her ancestor’s tie to a Founding Father as at the prospect of wealth, Millie had gone to meet her fellow heirs at the testator’s Philadelphia mansion. But the experience had had a nightmarish side. Several of Henry’s descendants, including Alice’s husband, Hamilton Ross, had died because of someone’s greed. Millie hadn’t liked all her newfound relatives but had become fond of several during the few days in their company.

Hamilton Ross, for one. For another, Scott Wyrick.

In Philadelphia, Millie and Scott, a very distant relative from Colorado, had developed an easy camaraderie that had grown into something more. Millie liked his sense of humor, his strength in a crisis, his dedication to his teaching career, and his encouragement of her own academic efforts. Not to mention his intelligent dark eyes, broad shoulders, and shy grin.

When Millie had visited the widow Ross in New Jersey, the women had bonded over common interests and their shared loss of Hamilton. So when Alice had found herself in Lynchburg for an indefinite period, volunteering at a historic site she knew Millie would love, she had made the call. Besides the prospect of a fun break from routine in Dallas, the invitation offered Millie an irresistible chance to involve Danny in her passion for history: a one-week camp in July in which he’d learn about Thomas Jefferson, life in another era, and archaeology. Millie had dropped the summer college classes she’d enrolled in, packed up the new Prius she’d bought with part of her inheritance, and set off with Danny on an extended “history trip” together—the first of many, she hoped.

Henry’s legacy made such impromptu decisions possible, she thought now with gratitude. It had changed her life in other ways, too. She’d switched her education plan, from acquiring college hours slowly at night, working towards a computer major she didn’t want at technology-oriented University of Texas at Dallas, to studying history and literature full-time at the Dallas campus of Texas Woman’s University. She had also quit her day job as nurse’s aide at the upscale nursing home where Sylva was a resident. And she’d bought things she and Danny needed, including the car and a small house with a yard. By the standards of many in the world, they were rich. But years of grinding poverty had made Millie cautious about spending.

Sylva had helped her gain some useful perspective on this. Millie had gone to visit her soon after Alice’s phone call. “I’ve just heard about a summer camp that sounds perfect for Danny,” she’d told her. “You remember my telling you about visiting Alice Ross in Newark? Before I came home from Philadelphia last year?”

“Sure. The widow of your African-American relative.”

“Well, she called last night.” Millie told Sylva about Alice’s volunteer work and the children’s camp. “Doesn’t that sound fun for a kid?”

“For a kid, nothing. I want to go! You’re planning to do all those things with him, aren’t you?”

“Hope so. I e-mailed from the Poplar Forest Web site to ask if I could be one of the adults helping with the camp.”

The reply to Millie’s message had said that the children’s summer program already had enough volunteers, but it had encouraged her to volunteer in another capacity. Millie had opted to work at the archaeology lab with Alice. The dates and hours were fairly flexible, and she hoped she could make arrangements for a sitter for Danny, so she could work there longer than his one-week camp would allow.

“Great, Kirchner,” Sylva said. “How long you plan to be gone?”

“Long enough for Danny and me to do a real Thomas Jefferson tour. We could see Monticello, Williamsburg, Richmond—lots of places associated with him.”

“Excellent. I admire your restraint about spending your inherited wealth, dear—many your age would’ve blown it all immediately—but you also need to enjoy some of it.”

“I worry that wealth which came suddenly could disappear just as fast.”

“Understandable. You walked a difficult road before the legacy.” A loving smile curved Sylva’s pale lips. “While you’re at Charlottesville to see Monticello, be sure to tour the University of Virginia. Did you know Jefferson designed his ‘Academical Village’ when he was already pushing eighty? He even planned its curriculum and hired the first faculty members. And they say old people aren’t good for much!”

“I’d never say that. I know a woman who must be seventy-five if she’s a day but acts like she’s thirty.”

“You’re misinformed, my dear. The woman you’re speaking of isn’t a minute over sixty-two.”

“If you’re just sixty-two, then I’m Eleanor Roosevelt.”

Sylva affected a curtsy as best she could in her wheelchair. “You’ve always been my favorite First Lady, Mrs. R, although I was very young during your tenure.”

“No doubt. Franklin died more than sixty years ago, taking my First-Ladyship with him.”

Sylva coughed several times, rolled to a bedside table for a lozenge, and popped it into her mouth. “The research you’ve been doing for that college course you’re taking must’ve made you familiar with lots of Jeffersonian buildings.”

“Yeah. It’s an interesting assignment, to write about some lesser-known aspect of a prominent historical figure. I knew Jefferson had been an architect, but not how many buildings he planned, and how many others he influenced.”

“He designed the state capitol in Richmond, didn’t he?”

Millie nodded. “With help from another architect. Plus a number of houses. His own two, of course, and several for neighbors and friends. He even designed a few county courthouses.”

“An accomplished man, Thomas Jefferson. Interested in, and knowledgeable about, so many subjects.”

“True.” Millie grimaced. “I just wish . . .”

“That he had managed to free all his slaves. Yes, we’ve had that conversation.”

Millie heaved a sigh. “I know he inherited debt from his father-in-law, also that he personally absorbed expenses of being President that taxpayers would pay for today. But—the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, a slaveholder?”

“I’m not defending the practice of slavery, Kirchner. Lots of people before you have wrestled with the contradictions that were Thomas Jefferson. But when you get to be my age—there, I’ve said it, and I used to vow I never would—however, when you do, you’ll realize that the same individual can be capable of both great good and great evil, sometimes at the same time.”

Millie nodded slowly. “I know the Founding Fathers, and Mothers, weren’t saints. But I revere them. And this—”

“Is hard to accept in anyone you admire. It should be. We mustn’t ever accept evils like slavery. But we have to live with the knowledge that they’ve occurred, and try to prevent their happening again.”

“’Try’ is the operative word, isn’t it?”

“People, and life, are works in progress. I’d be interested in knowing Alice Ross’s ‘take’ on Jefferson. She must not despise him, or she wouldn’t be volunteering at his home.” Sylva coughed again. “And I’d like to read your paper about him when it’s finished. Could I?”

“Sure. But I doubt you’ll find it riveting.”

“I could use a good soporific. Haven’t been sleeping too well lately.”

“A little arsenic in your tapioca could fix that.”

“You amateur chefs. Always tampering with recipes.”

Now, Millie felt Sylva was with her, as they followed a road that swept in front of the house, half-hidden behind a sea of boxwood bushes, and circled around it past a collection of frame buildings. They parked in a lot with several other cars and got out. Millie paused to drink in the sight of the structure from the rear, standing majestically a couple of hundred yards away.

She noticed something curious: The house had appeared from the front to be one-storied, but it was two stories at the back. The top level featured a gallery edged with white columns and a railing, the lower an arcade formed of brick archways. In the distance to the north and west, low peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains offered a picturesque backdrop.

As she locked her car, she glanced around and saw, nestled between two cars a few yards away, a black motorcycle accented with chrome.

Uh-oh, Millie thought, the biker had been coming here.

Briefly she considered bundling her son back into the car and driving off. But they were here now, and what excuse could she give Danny for leaving?

She decided it would be silly to turn tail and run. So what if they all ended up on the same tour? Danny and the biker might not even recognize each other, away from their respective “rides.”

Diverting her son’s gaze towards the buildings, in the hope he wouldn’t see the motorcycle, Millie eyed the house again. She hadn’t visited Monticello yet but from viewing pictures knew it was considerably larger than Poplar Forest, yet Jefferson’s two dwellings had an over-all similarity of style. Monticello was elegant, much-celebrated, a fitting residence for the man who had served as U.S. President, Secretary of State, Ambassador to France, and Governor of Virginia. But Poplar Forest, his private getaway, might show a side of him that even Monticello wouldn’t. She wanted to see it. Today.

An idea came, a delaying tactic that might let the biker be out and away from the residence before she and Danny entered it. And it was something they should do anyway.

“We gonna go in the house, Mom?” Danny asked impatiently.

“Sure. But first, let’s find the archaeology lab and say hello to Alice. She said she’d be working today.”

They strolled past two small frame buildings and a clutch of vending machines and came to two boxy red structures with an open walkway between. A sign said the one on the right was the Maylia Green Rightmire Preservation Center, the restoration workshop. Shallow windows set into its outer wall displayed instruments of hand woodworking—awls, levels, planes—plus information on techniques used in building Jefferson’s retreat.

“Look, Danny, these tools were the kind used a long time ago. The people who’ve restored Poplar Forest used similar ones, to make it like the original.”

Accustomed to odd enthusiasms from his mother, Danny glanced politely at the old implements. Then he moved to the frame structure on the left, the archaeology lab according to a sign, and peered into a large picture window.

“Hey, Mom,” he called. “Look at the stuff people dug up here.”

Millie joined him in viewing artifacts displayed on a shelf inside the window: part of a comb, bits of bone, seeds, and a cross-mended pottery bowl. An accompanying legend briefly explained the work of archaeologists.

“You gonna find bowls and stuff here too, Mom?”

“I don’t know if I’ll do any digging. From what Alice said, I’ll mostly help in the lab, washing and labeling things other people have found.”

“Oh.” He wrinkled his nose in disdain. “Mom, how do they know where to find stuff? They dig up the whole place?”

“No, I’m sure they don’t, but that’s a good question. We’ll ask someone here.”

Past the window display could be seen a large room dominated by a huge conference table, holding a smattering of books and drawings. Enlarged photos of artifacts and excavation sites adorned walls. Alice had warned Millie that she’d be part of the exhibit seen by visitors when working in this main room.

“So you’re saying I shouldn’t scratch my butt just any time I feel like it?” Millie had joked.

“Your choice, if you don’t mind Big Brother—or Small Sister—seeing you.”

No one was in the big room now.

“Let’s go in,” she said to Danny. “But don’t touch anything.We don’t want to mess up important work.”

From the small vestibule, doors led to the main room and a smaller conference room. A set of steps ran upwards to where Alice had said the Poplar Forest library was located. Entering the main chamber, Millie saw two small offices on her left, no one currently in either, and a door at the back.

“Alice? You here? It’s Millie and Danny,” she called as they stepped through that portal.

“Come on through,” Alice’s raised voice replied. “I’m back in the kitchen.”

They entered a small workroom centered with a table half-covered with brown paper sacks, their tops folded over and sides marked with black notations of letters and numbers. A large fortyish man, with twists of reddish-gold hair flopping over his eyes and clashing with his florid complexion, came out of an office on their right. He set a coffee mug on the table and extended a paw, which Millie took.

“Hi, Millie. Chas Locke, lab supervisor.” He motioned to an open door on her left. “Alice is in there. So, you’re going to be helping us out a while.”

Millie smiled. “I hope I’ll be a help, not get in the way.”

“If you’re anything like Alice, you’ll be invaluable.” He had a wide, placid face with a crooked nose that might have been broken at some time. He bent and offered a hand to Danny. “And you must be the young man who’s in the children’s program next week. Welcome, Danny.” After a solemn handshake, Chas straightened. “Ever been around a dig, Millie?”

“No, but I am interested, and I’m a quick learner.”

“No doubt. You’ll find us a pretty casual bunch. Anything you don’t understand, or want to know more about, ask any of us.”

“Thanks. Actually, Danny was wondering—” Alice came out of the kitchen, drying her hands on a cloth. “Millie, dear, so good to see you again.”

They hugged. Millie introduced Danny, and he and Alice clasped hands.

“Hope you had a good trip?” Alice said.

“We did. Driving through the mountains has been lovely, the Smokies, then the Blue Ridge. Danny spotted a black bear in the Smokies. It’s been fun, hasn’t it, son?”

Danny nodded, shy with these new acquaintances.

“You started to say something,” Chas reminded Millie, “about what Danny wondered?”

“Oh, yes. Danny was asking how archaeologists know where to dig, in order to find artifacts.”

Chas nodded sagely. “A logical question, Danny. Sometimes letters and other old papers tell where buildings once stood. And by walking around over a likely piece of ground, archaeologists can often spot clues. For instance, a dip in the soil could suggest where a well, or fence post, or other feature once was.”

“That makes sense,” Millie said. “What do you tell Chas, Danny, for answering your question?”

“Thank you, sir.”

Chas slapped the boy on his thin shoulder, waved goodbye to them and began examining labels on the sacks. Alice beckoned Millie and Danny into the galley kitchen, where she took a small mesh basket off the draining board and held it for him to see reddish-brown particles in it.

“These are pieces of brick, Danny. Most artifacts get labeled with a code telling exactly where they were found, but bits of brick just get collected and weighed. That helps the archaeologists figure out where a building stood and how big it was.”

He nodded again, smiling slightly this time.

“Chas and I’ll explain more to you on Monday, Millie,” Alice went on. “Sorry our Director of Archaeology and Landscapes isn’t here to greet you. One of her children was seriously hurt in an auto accident, and she’s staying with her at the hospital in Richmond. The other archaeologist, Harold Drake, is out at the dig now, but you’ll meet him next week. You two taken the tour yet?”

Millie shook her head. “I wanted to come say ‘hi’ first.”

“Glad you did.”

Danny asked to use the bathroom, and Alice directed him to a small room nearby.

When he’d left, Millie asked, “Have you heard anymore about that possible Jefferson house you told me about on the telephone—Highgrove, I think it was called? That really intrigued me.”

A shadow crossed Alice’s face. “Not about whether it’s a Jefferson design. But something terrible happened a couple of days ago to one of the crew investigating it. A young woman named Paige Oberlin was murdered.”

“How awful! While she was at Highgrove?”

“No, she was coming home from work, and had just stepped into the lobby of her apartment building, when she was attacked. Evidently someone had been waiting inside to rob whoever came in. He stabbed her several times and made off with her purse.”

Millie shook her head. “That’s horrible. You just never know these days, do you? Did she live there alone?”

“With a girlfriend, someone she’d known when she lived in Lynchburg as a teenager.”

“Have they caught the person who did it?”

“No, the police have just started their investigation. They haven’t released much information about it.”

Hearing Danny return, Millie gave Alice a meaningful look and changed the subject. “We’ll go take the tour now and let you get back to work.” With this long a delay, she thought, the biker should have had time to see the house and leave. “You buy tour tickets in the museum shop near the parking lot,” Alice said. “One of our housemates works there, Jill Greene. Have fun. I should be home around three-thirty. You remember where I said the key to the house would be?”

Millie nodded.

On their way back to the main room, they told Chas goodbye. Busy examining contents of a paper sack, he waved absentmindedly.

As they left the lab building, Millie noticed a nearby barn-like structure with big plastic-covered windows open to the breeze. A sign on the door read “Hands-On History.”

“Oh, look, Danny,” Millie said. “That must be where your camp will meet.”

He chewed his bottom lip, apparently having second thoughts now that they were actually here. She felt a little apprehensive herself. What if he hated the summer program she’d enrolled him in? What if the other kids weren’t friendly?

“We gonna go see it, Mom?”

“Not today, not unless they take us there on the tour. Today, we’re just sightseers.”

They entered the small museum shop and purchased tickets from a trim, athletic, rosy-cheeked blonde.

“Millie Kirchner,” the blonde said with a smile, as she swiped the credit card. “And this must be Danny? Nice to meet you both. I’m Jill Greene.” She handed back the card and offered her hand to each in turn. Then she leaned over the counter, blue-gray eyes sparkling mischievously. “Either of you like to play baseball?”

“I do,” Danny promptly said.

“Thought you had the look of a ball player. I’m one, too. We’ll have to have a game.”

He grinned and nodded.

Jill completed the paperwork and told them their tour would begin outside in a few minutes. “See you later at the house, guys,” she said, before turning to assist an elderly man.

Millie and Danny browsed briefly inside the shop. She found a few books of interest on Poplar Forest and Jefferson but decided to buy them later. Outside, they joined a half-dozen people clustered around a wiry-haired older woman who introduced herself as Clara, their guide. To Millie’s relief, the motorcycle rider wasn’t among the group. A girl about Danny’s age exchanged diffident glances with him.

Clara led her charges across an expanse of yard towards the historic residence. A large rectangular sunken lawn stretched for a hundred yards or so behind it. A long wing extended off the house to the east, and two grassy mounds flanked the dwelling on either side. The tour paused near the western one, and Clara pointed out a small brick structure beside it, which she said was one of two privies, or “necessaries” as they had been called in Jefferson’s day.

“How cute!” a woman in the group exclaimed. “Even the outhouses have eight sides.”

“Jefferson did love that shape,” Millie said. The women exchanged friendly smiles.

A balding man frowned. “Building an eight-sided house would’ve been lots more expensive and time-consuming than a four-sided one, wouldn’t it?”

Their guide smiled. “Jefferson didn’t necessarily go for what was easiest or cheapest. He loved light, and octagonal buildings let illumination enter from eight directions instead of four.”

Millie glanced to her right again. This time her eye was drawn to movement beyond the sunken lawn. A stocky young man in jeans and a blue T-shirt strode out of a stand of trees in their direction.

That build, Millie thought. The blue T-shirt and jeans. The biker.

Oh, no, he seemed to be coming towards them. She debated what to do: make an excuse to leave, perhaps a sudden attack of tummy trouble; or continue the tour, praying the young man would keep his distance.

Danny had been sneaking glances at the little girl but chose that moment to look towards the trees. His glance flickered past them, then back. With a sinking heart, Millie saw his eyes rest on the biker.

Maybe he wouldn’t recognize him, at least not if she could divert his attention. She slipped an arm around her son’s shoulders and pointed up at the roof of the dwelling.

“Look, Danny, this house has four chimneys, so it must have four fireplaces. People had to use those for cooking and for heat before electricity, you know.”

He frowned, informing her she was talking down to him, and glanced back at the trees. The biker had paused just outside the grove. He swiveled his head as if someone behind him had spoken. Millie saw his mouth move but couldn’t catch any words. Then he retraced his steps and reentered the trees.

Clara spoke to Danny, and he turned towards her.

“Poplar Forest actually has nine fireplaces,” she said, “two in each chimney plus a third in one. The house was largely destroyed by fire in 1845, and we think that extra flue may have caused it.” She went on to explain that the pipe venting smoke from the third hearth had had a sharper bend than those for the others.

Danny appeared to ponder the fire story. Millie silently thanked Clara.

As they all followed their guide, she thought about where the biker had been. She wouldn’t have expected someone on a tour to be over in those trees. Nor had she seen other sightseers with him.

He had been moving with casual ease, she recalled, like someone sure of where he was going. Maybe he wasn’t a tourist but an employee here.

Millie frowned. She wouldn’t necessarily have to see him regularly, or interact with him, even if he were. But her joy at the prospect of volunteering at Jefferson’s retreat had now dimmed.

Copyright 2009 Marion Moore Hill. All rights reserved.
Last updated: 12 July 2009
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