The view from the top of the rickety landing of the carriage house looks out across the horizon and peacefulness embraces me. There is a good feeling that all is right in our little corner of the world. It’s still amazing how the always in-control and never-let-‘em-see-you cry Ellen Thompson (the former Ellen Andress), has turned a horrible situation into triumph. I consider myself a strong individual capable of making good decisions.
Puffy cumulus clouds move slowly past in an otherwise perfect blue sky. At this distance, a billow-like haze of dust follows a procession of specks. As the objects grow larger, the day I came here comes to mind and the events that led to my ‘new life’ here in Virginia. If anyone suspects the Thompson Family is anything other than hardworking, normal people, no one says anything.
My family and I are so ingrained into the little community of Jasper, that it feels as if we have been here much longer than we have. After all, they know only what we have told them. No one needs to know our real last name or that we moved here under the guise of deception. They have no knowledge we are in the Federal Witness protection program or that my husband, Ravi was murdered. We keep that kind of information to ourselves.
It doesn’t help to dwell on what we endured or what we have lost, nor does anyone need to know much beyond the fact that we have purchased Ashwood Stables and are trying to give it back its former prestige as a working horse farm and stables. The dairy and milking cows, abandoned during the last millennium, were never part of the equation. Nevertheless, the structures stand as a testament to those who persevered, during a long forgotten era.
How we came to be here and why is only half of the story; the other half could fill a volume. If our real circumstances were known, it’s a sure bet that our neighbors might not be so friendly. The reality of it is, that my world turned upside down one day and I have been trying to cope with the circumstances ever since.
With much toil and sweat, my family and I (along with hundreds of construction workers) transformed the Manor House from a dilapidated and crumbled dwelling I saw nearly three years ago, to the magnificent masterpiece it is today. The mere fact that we reside in such a residence is at times overwhelming.
As I watch the dust-trail from the vehicles, it reminds me of the black, shiny limousine that brought me to Ashwood. It drove down the same road; there was no inkling of what would transpire that day, or the bizarre events that followed. My life was going just as planned: first college, interior design degree, interior design business, marriage, three or four children, and a large house on a farm (preferably with horses).
For the most part, things went according to my plan, except for the large house on the farm. I met my husband Ravi (short for Ravenalt) almost a week before graduating from college. He was tall, dark, and handsome…a gentle soul with an easy smile, courteous and polite, and I loved him the moment we met.
We married soon after and moved into a little house in the suburbs of Chicago, then quickly outgrew that and moved to a large, four bedroom two-story—a short distance from mother and daddy. On a rare vacation, Ravi and I were returning from a wonderful week on the sweet-scented Island of Kauai, leaving our three children home with my widowed mother.
It was at the Kauai Airport when things became fuzzy. After a glorious week of consuming exotic food, I ran to the restroom just before boarding started. Drugged and taken by well-meaning Samaritans, it conjures up a smell and taste that makes me gag just thinking about it! Somehow, there was an explosion, and I witnessed the destruction of the jet Ravi had boarded without me.
When the drug-induced stupor wore off, I was no longer at the Kauai airport but sequestered inside a fortress. My captors insisted that their ‘people’ only meant to keep me from harm, not make me feel like a prisoner. The longer they kept me there, the longer the feeling persisted and it was difficult to squelch, because they locked the door from the outside.
In the time it takes to blink, my life changed!
After nearly twenty years of marriage, I thought I knew my husband well, however, he was harboring a secret. As it turns out, my captor is actually Ravi’s brother...my brother-in-law Crown prince Akdemir! This is where the mystery of how and why my husband died came out. The shockwaves from this revelation did not stop here, they continued when the menacing person named Jamaile (prince Dimy's first-in-command) took me back to the Kauai Airport.
An airport worker found me in the restroom, puking my guts out from the drugs Jamaile gave me. I tried to explain my situation to members of Homeland Security. When they didn’t believe my ridiculous story (who would without the proof…painstakingly written and hidden inside my carry on), they called in the FBI. They were on the island to investigate the wreckage of the airliner that exploded upon takeoff two months previously, taking the lives of all onboard.
This is when I first encountered the supposedly Special FBI Agent Andrea Simmons and her phony partners in crime, Lenard and Gene. They turned out to be not so special anything except hired thugs. Those three had me so bamboozled that I actually believed what they told me.
As I tried to explain, this Andrea person kept insisting Ellen Andress was dead and I could not be who I claimed to be. Eventually they did, but that was all part of their plan, only I didn’t know it then.
They are the ones responsible for physically placing my family and me here at Ashwood. It is the stuff of nightmares, and that is how it comes out now...in nightly forays into a chilling void. The biggest thing that bothers me is the fact that Lenard and Gene confiscated all of our possessions to purchase half of this farm, the other half by private investors. Those nefarious numbskulls would not reveal who they were, and made me promise to keep my mouth shut and follow their list of protocols.
That, of course, is like waving a red cape at a bull!
Then I think back to the day I came to Ashwood, and get upset all over again. There was no negotiation, no bargaining over bank accounts; just a packet of papers, an odd shaped key, and a wad of money. I was so irate; all I could do was shake from rage and very nearly spontaneously combusted on the spot!
Although most of the issues worked themselves out, perhaps there is deep-seated resentment for Lenard and Gene and their acrimonious misdeeds. Mother says to let this go because it doesn’t help to dwell on the negative, only the positive. It can be harmful to keep such wrath inside you. Just look at what we have now….
Mother is right, of course. As I look at the Manor House, the new windows sparkle in the sunlight, and I chuckle to think that the shadow that passes across the middle windows of the upstairs is the ghost of the original Mrs. Sarah Ashwood. Is she pleased with how everything turned out? She stood her ground and incorporated ingenuous features into the architecture. Most of her ideas caused quite a stir at the time and we are in awe of the secrets built into it that even her husband knew nothing about.
My interior design background came in handy, but without contacting my cache of contacts that would give my identity away, we had to resort to finding local manufacturers, or consulting resources available on-line. It actually allowed for quick decisions; the redeeming quality is that one can order most anything and have it delivered right to your door, within mere days!
It was during Miss Abigail’s time when she applied for and received the one hundred-year-old plaque for this wonderful old house. Since little changed throughout the years, the National Register of Historic Homes had no trouble certifying it as a Century Home. Then, when we did our extensive renovation, we had to follow strict procedures so it would not violate their rules. We could just as easily have lost that plaque at the front door, if we didn’t follow their guidelines.
My thoughts go back to the most unsettling aspect of starting a new life in Virginia. Although we gained a wonderful pair of caregivers, we also inherited a mountain of unpaid bills. We conquered the problem systematically and succinctly by selling the bulk of the extensive antiques and collectable objects that remained with the house throughout the generations.
It’s a mystery why the Ashwood heirs abandoned this place. Perhaps it was the enormous property tax bill and the millions needed to fix it up that deterred them. Both the banker and estate executor warned the last of the decedents to live here (Miss Abigail Ashwood) to keep the house in good order. What she did not know was that the banker and the executor invested the estate funds unwisely, leaving her virtually penniless.
This happened just as the private investors came onto the scene and the opportunity to place me here suited their plan. The private investors’ intention was to use me as a pawn in their elaborate scheme to gain additional wealth. They wanted to keep the valuable contents of the house hush-hush in order to sell them later for a larger profit, but I outsmarted them. I sold them and we felt the repercussions from that for years.
The older couple (Glen and Mona Murdock) took care of Ashwood and stayed when the funds ran dry from the estate. They existed on their savings, ate vegetables from the garden behind the house, as well as selling Mona’s baked goods in town.
My first recollection of Mona is that she looked like a grandmother, complete with wire rim glasses, diminutive in stature, hair pulled back and wearing a stained apron. She admitted she used the kitchen to bake bread and pastries for the shop in town; that’s when I hatched a full-scale plan to renovate the Manor House, and as many of the buildings on the property as possible.
Glen is a different story. He reminds me of a craggy old western character, complete with overalls, boots, and calloused hands. However, he has an endearing quality about him much as my father had. His remarks are forthright, if not brutally honest and we respect him for keeping the place in working order. He alone took charge of the horse barn and the boarder’s horses and kept the wolves at bay….
When the local banker (who turned out to be a crook) refused to lend us money and the vendors would not extend credit, out of desperation, I took Glen to the local racetrack, because we required immediate funds to exist in the here and now. I then did something that would guarantee instant income; I told Glen to place wagers on several horses. I still laugh at his facial expression when we won all that money; it was priceless!
Once the vendors were paid, we were able to start our phases of renovation, but it was with unique challenges. In a house this size, with two wings per side that have five bedrooms and three bathrooms each, it was a daunting task. Each room had layers of wallpaper that we carefully and painstakingly removed. On one occasion, a worker came across several drawings that were stuck between the layers in one of the children’s bedrooms. Although crudely drawn by a child, the name is unmistakably that of AJ Ashwood Jr. and dated 1898. All seven are framed, hermetically sealed, and hang in the upstairs hallway.
The house just feels happy to us now. Who wouldn’t love it here? As the modifications and renovations took place, we added our own touches. The contractor made extra space appear when he removed the dumbwaiter, as it was a constant reminder of how things can go wrong when small children play hide and seek.
This enormous house now has people to occupy the empty rooms and the old nursery has the laughter and chatter of children, as the noise tumbles back and forth from the center of the house. Jason’s music joins Curlie’s piano cords that filter up from the living room. The endless rumble of feet as they transverse the main and back stairs add to this joyful sound.
Our extended family dines together each evening in the formal dining room where we talk about the day’s events and often go in tangents that have absolutely nothing to do with the topic. It was by accident that we even got on the subject of why wine and water are the only beverages served with dinner. Mother and I turned toward each other and we both said that it’s what we have always done.
Glen bluntly put his two cents in with, “I don’t like wine, and I prefer Tennessee sippin’ whiskey, Missy. Can’t I drink that?” We all stared at him in disbelief…he thought he was supposed to like it; it was there, he drank it. What harm would it create? Mother recalled never allowing daddy to put his beer glass on the table and because we were outnumbered, we acquiesced....
Rosie woofs and I look down at her from the landing. The little Sheltie will not climb the unstable stairs, and heads off to the pasture when I don’t come down right away. Another memory tumbles back of that first day Lenard and Gene brought me here. They deceived me into thinking my husband was a criminal. Indignation surfaces so I will my mind to let it go and try to put it out of my mind to concentrate on today.
Thoughts of that time often cartwheel back at unexpected times. It could be anything as small as the jingle of a tiny bell, a single word, a phrase, or the scent of lemon. It has been nearly three years now, but what happened is as fresh in my memory today as if it happened yesterday.
Everyone thought Ravi and I died in that airplane explosion. He unfortunately did, but I did not and was instead, detained for over two months. I have not quite forgiven my captor for that particularly frightening time…even if he is no longer prince Akdemir, but a king now.
Unresolved events pop in and out of my brain. Sometimes I try to imagine what we could have done instead of what we did. Would CIA Agent Adrian Sellers be involved with my family anyway? My brain suddenly switches back to the two idiots that passed themselves off as Special FBI agents. They cooked up that elaborate plan to dupe me into thinking we were safe. They made me crazy and pounded at me relentlessly for hours, making sure I understood their preposterous rules and protocols. Maybe I’m still upset at the fact that they misled me for so long, and I was stupid enough to go along with it.
Why can’t I concentrate on anything today?
My one regret is not trusting my gut and going to the authorities sooner.
Book Two of A Whisper of a Mystery Trilogy
Excerpts from Chapter One: THE CARRIAGE HOUSE