The house was pitch dark. Laura hated being alone in that Colonial Revival style house, too big now, especially at night. She turned on all the lights, locked the door behind her, dropped her purse and keys on the foyer marble table. She set the security alarm for the night. Although the neighborhood was safe, she had the alarm installed soon after John had moved out. The house was quiet. Laura jumped when she felt something touch her leg. Relieved, she saw it was her cat, Rufus.
She bent down to scratch his ear. “Hey buddy, you almost gave me a heart attack! You must be starving.” The young woman went to the kitchen and drew the shades. She fed Rufus and refilled his water bowl. She checked the kitchen clock: it was past midnight. The monthly dinner with Joe, her best friend, was always a long, boozy affair. Laura poured herself a glass of red wine. At this point, one more won’t make a difference… and opened her laptop. She logged into her author page. Her first novel, a murder mystery, had just been released by a well-known publishing house in Manhattan. The sales and the reviews were far better than expected.
Her heart skipped a beat. There were two new reviews and one rating. She leaned towards her laptop screen. The rating, from Jane W. in Ohio gave her book four stars out of five. Dee Fullerton, from London, wrote: “This murder mystery was entertaining, but not really gripping. A good plane or beach read.” Laura pursed her lips. “The Deadly Secret” had taken her three years to write, edit and rewrite. Three years of doubt, occasional writer’s block and self-imposed isolation. Her mother had warned her: becoming famous, putting herself out there would attract jealousy and criticism. She’d better be prepared. Maybe, Laura had replied, but at least, her book was a success, at home and abroad.
She took a sip of wine and read the last review. She gasped. “This book is utter crap. The author has no talent whatsoever. She should go back to her book club, where she belongs. J.W.S.”
“What the heck? I wonder how many books you wrote and published, J.W.S.?” She yawned, slammed her laptop shut and went to bed.
The next morning, as she was preparing breakfast, she heard the ring notification on her phone. A new message. “Do you remember me? Atlanta, 2010. Hope you liked my review. J.W.S.”
Atlanta, 2010? Who is this J.W.S.?
Laura was at a loss. She lived in Georgia from 2009 to 2012 and worked in Atlanta. Back then, she was a journalist…a different career, a different life. Back then, she was happily married. She shrugged, poured another cup of coffee and ate her scrambled eggs. This J.W.S. could be anyone. Probably a weirdo looking for attention.
Two weeks later, Laura went on a week-long book tour, covering six cities. Up at 5 every morning, she went from the airport to book readings, from interviews to TV shows. She ran on caffeine and sandwiches. She fixed her hair and makeup in the car. According to Sean, her agent, who wanted to stretch every dollar, she was a promising debut writer and a charismatic public speaker. Exhausted and blurry-eyed, Laura soon forgot about J.W.S.
In Atlanta, her last stop, she was scheduled to give a book reading and sign copies of “The Deadly Secret.” The bookstore was packed and a long line of customers patiently waited for the famous author to sign. After thirty-something copies, Laura was too tired to engage. She was exhausted and starving.
“Who is this for?” she asked, without even looking up.
Laura shuddered. A middle-aged man, sporting a baseball hat, oily long hair and a worn sweater, was staring at her. Although short and skinny, he looked menacing.
“What do you want?” she stammered.
He chuckled: “Well… your autograph, of course! What else?” Laura hastily signed, handed the book to the stranger and watched him disappear. She felt cold. She wanted to go home. Laura quickly wrapped up and took a taxi to the Atlanta airport. She was early but winding down with a drink before her flight seemed an excellent idea. She’d earned it. She opened the cab door, stepped out and briskly walked into the Delta terminal. She checked in, went through security and looked for a quiet place to sit down. She ordered and started to relax. She took out her phone. Two missed calls from Sean. He could wait.
She had a new message. “Good seeing you today. I know where you live, I will hunt you down, you backstabber. J.W.S.”
Laura could barely breathe. The psycho was now menacing her? Should she call Sean? The police? And say what?
She gulped her gin and tonic down.
On the plane, she was on full alert. She looked over her shoulder. On the highway home, she repeatedly checked in the rear view mirror. She went home to her pitch dark house, to Rufus. Alone.
Days, months went by. Laura was now on every major TV show, on the cover of magazines. Thousands, at home and abroad, had read her novel and loved it. A producer had bought the rights to her book. She was rich and famous. To celebrate her success, Sean invited Laura, her mom and her friend Joe to her favorite steakhouse on 54th street. They started with martinis, paired their medium rare steak with a Cabernet Sauvignon and ended with a glass of Champagne and cheesecake.
That night, when Laura set the alarm, she got an error message. Something was wrong, but she was too tired to call the company. She would do it the following day. She forgot to lock the door.
Two days later, Mrs. Bell, worried that Laura wasn’t answering her calls, found her daughter and alerted the Mamaroneck P.D. Detective Morrison checked the house, room by room. Everything was sparkling clean. The house was empty. He slowly went up the stairs, asking Mrs. Bell to stay where she was. On the last step, he found a black, high heeled shoe. On the second floor landing, in front of the master bedroom, was Laura Bell, lying on her side. She was fully dressed but covered in blood. Detective Morrison came closer. The victim’s face had turned blue and her mouth was stuffed with what looked like paper. He took out his phone.
“Tim, I need you here right now. Yes, it is a crime scene. Ok, make it quick.”
The street was cordoned off and the CSI team took photos and collected evidence. Mrs. Bell, Sean and Joe were called to answer a few questions. They were the last who had seen Laura alive. Was anyone threatening her? Did she have enemies? No.
The forensic report stated that Laura Bell, 36, had died of asphyxiation, a painful and slow death. She had then been repeatedly stabbed in the back. Evidence showed she had tried to fight.
The paper pushed down her throat was a copy of a scathing review, written in September, 2010 and published in the Atlanta News. The author of the review: Laura Bell. The author of the autobiographical novel: Justin Warren Smith.