Page 18 of Smoke in Mirrors

“Believe me, I understand the importance of alumni weekends,” Leonora said in honest, heartfelt tones.

“A great nuisance.” Roberta chuckled. “But where would we all be without our generous alumni, hmm? In any event, I think you’ll find that you’ll be quite undisturbed upstairs on the second floor. No one uses that part of the mansion very much. And the third floor is completely closed off. It’s only used for storage these days.”

“I appreciate the tour of the house,” Leonora said. “It’s quite amazing, really.”

She dropped her heavy satchel on the floor, sat down in one of two chairs that were positioned in front of the desk and watched Roberta pour coffee.

Roberta had introduced herself as the executive director of Mirror House. She was a handsome, robust woman of some sixty years who carried herself with an air of authority. Her hair, cut in a classic, patrician bob, had evidently once been very dark. It had turned a striking shade of silver. She wore a white silk blouse with a paisley scarf, a navy-blue skirt and a pair of pumps that matched the skirt.

“I must admit I’m curious about the architectural style of Mirror House,” Leonora said. “I can’t quite identify it.”

Roberta made a face. “Technically speaking, I believe that it is considered a cross between Victorian and Gothic. It has been declared quite hideous by several self-respecting architects. But Nathanial Eubanks was very rich and very eccentric. Rich eccentrics who endow private colleges and thereby make it possible for generations of lucky professors to obtain tenure are allowed to build bizarre mansions.”

“Ah, yes. The tenure thing.”

“Indeed.” Roberta winked. “And you must admit this place does have character.”

Leonora privately thought that character was a polite architectural euphemism in this instance. Prior to her arrival in Wing Cove she had assumed that she’d had some idea of what to expect, but her first close-up view of the mansion this morning had sent a fluttery chill of genuine dread down her spine. She’d seen enough horror films over the years to recognize Mirror House for what it was: the sort of place where mad scientists engineered monsters in the basement.

Fortunately, she thought, she was an academic, a clear-headed librarian who did not go in for that sort of nonsense.

Nevertheless, there was no denying that Mirror House was a hulking, gray stone gargoyle of a mansion. Three stories tall and badly proportioned, it crouched amid the trees on the heavily wooded point that marked the southern entrance to Wing Cove. On a dreary day like today, with snaky tendrils of fog writhing and twisting ashore from the cold waters of the Sound, the mansion literally loomed in the mist. It could have served as inspiration for the artwork on the cover of a gothic novel.

The inside was worse than the outside, as far as she was concerned. The towering fir and cedar that hung over the mansion did an excellent job of cutting off what little natural daylight might have managed to seep through the narrow windows.

Roberta’s office here on the first floor was the most cheerful room she had encountered in the course of the tour. It even seemed warmer than the rest of the house. The walls were crowded with photographs and framed letters from important alumni. A large potted palm rose from a colorful pot near the window, offering a bright, if utterly incongruous, tropical element to the décor. The sides of Roberta’s computer were covered in sticky notes. Colored file folders and a truly impressive collection of pens were scattered across the surface of the desk.

The door of the office stood open, revealing a stretch of paneled hallway. From where she sat, Leonora could see some of the antique mirrors that lined the walls.

A young woman dressed in jeans and a sweater, her long honey-colored hair clamped in a ponytail, went past in the corridor.

“Excuse me, there’s my student assistant.” Roberta put down the pot. “I want you to meet her. She’s here several hours a week.”

Roberta hurried to the open door.

“Julie?” she called.

Julie came back to the doorway. She had a can of soda clutched in one long-nailed hand.

“Yes, Mrs. Brinks?”

“I want to introduce you to Leonora Hutton. She’ll be working upstairs in the library for the next couple of months. Leonora, this is Julie Bromley.”

Julie nodded politely. “Hi, Ms. Hutton.”

“Nice to meet you, Julie,” Leonora said.

Roberta turned back to Julie. “Don’t forget to call the janitorial people this afternoon. They still haven’t taken care of the carpets.”

“I won’t forget, Mrs. Brinks.”

“Fine. That will be all for now, dear.”

Julie disappeared. Roberta went back to pouring coffee.

“Sugar or cream?” she asked.

“Neither, thanks.” She did not like coffee, but she had refrained from saying so when she noticed that Roberta had no tea bags to offer. She could certainly manage a few swallows for the sake of politeness.

“How long have you been executive director here?” she asked when Roberta handed her the mug.

“Long enough.” Roberta went around behind her desk and sat down. “I’m retiring next month. Six weeks from today I’ll be on a cruise ship bound for the Greek Isles.”

“That sounds wonderful.”

“I’m really very excited. Bought a whole new wardrobe for the trip.” Roberta looked around the office. “But I must admit, it will feel strange to leave this place behind. When I stop and realize that this will be my last alumni weekend, I get a little teary-eyed.”

“I understand.” She tried a cautious sip of the coffee. It wasn’t bad, if you liked coffee. She didn’t. “Thanks again for the tour. I know how busy you must be.”

“Not at all. I’m delighted that the library is going to be put online. I’ve said for years that it was a shame that those books were not widely accessible to scholars. There are some very rare and interesting volumes upstairs. I suspect some of them are worth a great deal of money. Nathanial Eubanks collected them in conjunction with the antique mirrors.”

“What was his fascination with old mirrors, anyway? He seems to have obsessed on them, from what I can see. Every surface in this house is covered with them.”

“Very sad, really. Insanity ran in the family. Some say Eubanks had a crazy notion that as long as he could see his reflection in a mirror, he would not go mad like the others in his line. Others say he was convinced that he could see his past lives in some of the mirrors. All we really know is that the family’s bad genes caught up with him in the end. He committed suicide.”