Chapter 1- Chapitre Un
“Mama. I will wire the money on Friday. Oui. Le Vendredi. Take care, Mama. Send my love to Franco and Colette. Je t’aime. Au revoir.” She ended the call: I love you. Goodbye.
Dei sighed as she placed the handset back on the payphone. She leaned on the glass wall of the booth and closed her eyes. How was she going to come up with five thousand dollars in three days for her younger sister’s medication? Colette was born with a weak heart and has since constantly needed special medical care thus quickly draining their resources. Dei must come up with the money to pay for another hospital bill. How can she do that when she barely has enough money to feed herself every day, pay the rent to her ratty apartment or buy shoes to take her to auditions?
Dei stepped out of the phone booth, feeling the cold pavement under her feet through the paper-thin soles of her flatties. She looked up at the Empire State Building proudly towering a few blocks away from where she stood as the crisp cold air of autumn in New York blew on her face. That skyscraper that used to be the beacon that called her to cross the ocean from her hometown in Colmar, France to fulfill her dreams of becoming an actress in the Land of Promises now became a giant reminder of how terrible life has been to her since she left home.
Eldest of three siblings, she was the only one left to help her mother, who was a simple seamstress in their town, after their father died in the second world war. At a young age of fourteen, Dei has learned hard work from being a servant girl to the Batholdis, descendants of Monsieur Frederic Auguste Batholdi who designed the statue of the famous lady who stands to enlighten the world from an island in New York. It is from them that the young Dei developed the love for the arts and theater and to dream of someday living in the great city and saving her family from poverty.
Exhausted from walking blocks and blocks from shop to shop the entire day trying to look for a job, any job that would have her, and failed, she has resigned to the thought that the sun will set on another unfortunate day in her life which has been devoid of any good luck.
As she turned the corner to her apartment, a sudden gust of wind carried a flyer that landed on her feet. Dei stooped to pick it up and read it.
For Immediate Employment
Looking for a young actress to play a special role in a special production.
Must be beautiful, smart and willing to do anything necessary to portray the part.
Each actress will be meticulously tested for her capabilities to play the role and the one selected will receive compensation more than anyone could ever dream of.
Go to the corner of the 38th Street at 8 am on the 24th of October.
“24th of October... That’s tomorrow.” Dei smiled and looked up. “Finally, some good fortune. Merci. Hold on, Colette.”
She slept soundly that night and got a good rest for the big audition the next day.
Dei got to the rendezvous point ten minutes early, clad in her best yellow sweetheart full-skirted dress under a black dress coat. She was shortly joined by three more beautiful women, a snobbish lady from upstate New York with red hair and green eyes named Anne, a blonde beauty from California named Rina and a raven-haired seductress named Cora.
Despite the other girls’ more stylish outfits and confident demeanor, Dei with her humble clothes and determined personality was not to be shortchanged. She has long silky hair, soft olive skin and full red lips that allured and bright brown eyes that sparkled and enthralled.
At exactly 8 am, a black Cadillac pulled up in front of them and an elderly man, with an English accent, instructed them to get in. They drove south to the outskirts of the city where they were brought to a huge mansion and ushered in.
“Welcome, ladies. I am Albert, the steward of this mansion. I am here to supervise the selection of the worthy young woman to play a very important role. I must warn you that it will not be easy. If you do not wish to continue, I am giving you time to leave now.” The old man said.
All four ladies were quiet but no one left.
“Marvelous. You must understand that since you wish to continue, we would need you to sign this consent. That no matter what happens to you in the selection process, the master of the house or any member of his household will not be held accountable since you have all come here in your own free will and chose to stay and undergo all the tests.”
Dei was nervous but she didn’t really have any more options for employment than the one right in front of her so she signed. After that, they were taken to a huge bedroom up the grand staircase. The room was filled with tables with cases and cases of expensive jewelry enticing the young women with sparkly precious gems and diamonds.
“You must remain here for an hour. Remember that the gold and jewels in this room are only for the eyes and not for the hands.” Albert said before closing the door and leaving the ladies behind.
“What does he mean not for the hands? It’s a shame not to try on at least one of these beauties, don’t you think? ” Anne asked. “You, the girl with the weird accent, I bet you haven’t even laid eyes on such expensive items. Don’t you want to know how it feels to lay a finger on one?” She told Dei.
“I shouldn’t. We shouldn’t. Monsieur Albert told us not to,” Dei answered quietly.
“Monsieur Albert told us not to,” Anne repeated, mocking Dei. “Please... Why are you even here?” She rolled her eyes. “Well, it’s your ladies’ loss not to try one.” She said and picked a huge intricately designed white gold necklace with white and pink diamonds.
The young woman lifted it from its stand and admired it. She faced one of the mirrors in the room and wore the necklace but as soon as the jewelry got in contact with her skin it secreted an acid that started burning through.
“Heeeelp!” Anne screamed as she frantically pulled away from the necklace from her skin.
The girls watched in horror as the jewelry continued to sear through her skin while Anne ran to the door and tried to open it. It was locked. The desperate woman looked for the nearest way out and spotted the huge glass window.
Dei and the others could not do anything but to helplessly watch as Anne jumped out of the window into the pool below.
Albert then entered the room, in no rush at all to aid the young lady and addressed the horrified group of women.
“Come along now, my dears. The next test awaits. Uhm... Don’t worry about Miss Anne. She will be taken care of,” Albert said calmly.
“How can he be so calm after what happened? Merde! What have you gotten yourself into, Dei?” Dei thought.
The terrified women were then ushered to a room with four portraits.
“In this test, each of you will choose one painting and stand in front of it. Please know that only two of these portraits are real art. The others are counterfeits. You must find the real ones to pass this round. Choose wisely,” the old man said before leaving.
“Two real ones and two fakes. One of us will end up with a fake painting. Think, Dei. Penser,” she said to herself: Think.
Rina was quick to choose. “This one looks real coz it’s the prettiest of the four. Isn’t art supposed to be beautiful?” She said.
Cora kept pointing at each painting one at a time and seem to be singing a childish rhyme, letting the song make the decision for her.
Dei looked closely at each painting and frame. If there is one thing that she was truly grateful for after years of working for the Batholdis, it was her now huge knowledge and appreciation of the arts.
“This one claims to be a Monet. I have seen most of his paintings and this looks more like post-impressionist rather than an impressionist. Non. Définitivement pas.” She whispered in deep thought: No. Definitely not.
She walked to the next one, hurriedly, aiming to choose her painting before Cora finishes her rhyme. She was quick to spot that it was fake.
The Starry Night painting looked new. Definitely fake. Therefore, the Rembrandt et Vermeer sont véritable!” Dei made the conclusion in her mind: the Rembrandt and Vermeer are true.
Dei quickly ran in front of Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox painting just as Cora’s song ends at Vermeer’s The Little Street where she stood.
After a minute of tense silence, they heard a loud whooshing sound and saw Rina hit by an arrow that shot from the painting to her chest.
Cora and Dei screamed and backed away as they watched in shock how blood flowed from Rina’s chest and soak her bodice.
Two huge men then came in and grabbed the confused women.
Dei kicked and struggled as much as she can but the man was too strong for her. He carried her over his shoulder two rooms down the hall while Cora was dragged to another room in the opposite direction.
The man left her in the room and locked her inside. Utterly terrified and shaken, Dei fell on her knees and wept. She can’t believe her simple desire to pass an audition to land a job that will pay for her sister’s medication will lead her to a crazy game of survival.
She cried and cried for hours on the floor and knocked on the door as she listened to Cora scream hysterically from the other room.
Finally, too tired to cry and too weak to fight, Dei crawled to the couch and napped.
When she woke, she can still hear Cora’s faint cries in the other room. Dei was still scared but after resting she was now determined to survive.
She looked around the room to find anything that can help her escape but found none. There were no windows or doors except for the one she came in. The floor was carpeted from wall to wall. No paintings or other decors just the huge couch that she slept on and a grand piano.
“A piano?” She wondered.
Cora has started yelling and throwing things again and to drown out her feeling of hopelessness and the noise of agony for the other woman, Dei walked to the instrument and started to gently stroke the keys.
Her father was a musician before he fought in the war and their home was always filled with love and beautiful music. She closed her eyes and let the notes of the song take her back home to their little cottage in the village, back when her father would play on his old rickety piano with Dei by his side as their house smelled of her mother’s cooking, Colette would quietly sit in a chair by the window while Franco sang made-up lyrics to the song their Papa played.
As she was drawn deeper in her dream, her fingers floated over the keys as the song reached its crescendo... Then…
A loud piercing gunshot sound broke through her music as Cora’s screams stopped.
Dei froze as her heart pounded wildly in her chest. She wanted to scream and run but could not find the strength to move. Her hands started shaking and she can barely breathe as a tense silence filled the air around her.
KNOCK. KNOCK. KNOCK.
She finally heard a knock on the door.
It softly creaked as Albert entered. He looked oddly, relaxed and even smiled at her.
"Felicitations, Mademoiselle Dei.” He greeted: Congratulations, Miss Dei. “You are the only one left. The master will see you now.”
She did not know whether to rejoice or mourn her fate. She was too exhausted and terrified to run so Dei let the old man lead her up another flight of stairs to the master’s study.
Albert knocked three times before opening the door. The old man gestured for Dei to enter the room and for a few seconds, she just stared at him without taking a step.
“Mademoiselle, please. There is nothing to be afraid of.”
“Nothing to be afraid of? I just witnessed three murders! Who knows what horror you people can do to me? Cher Dieu!” She thought to herself: Dear God!
"S’il vous plait, Miss Dei. The master is waiting.” Albert urged and gently shoved Dei’s back to take a step.
And once she took it, Dei felt her feet make their own way inside the room where she finally laid eyes on the master of the mansion.
He looked at her intently from behind a large oak desk with his deep brown eyes. He has pale skin and pink lips that curved up in a sly smile. He had a dimple on his left cheek and to her surprise, the master of the house was quite young maybe only a couple of years her senior.
He was quite handsome and for a moment, Dei appreciated the good looks of the man with the face of an angel and the presence of the devil.
She was terrified of him but she stood her ground. Dei felt her heart race faster and faster as the man got up and slowly walked to her. He stopped right in front of her and looked down with piercing eyes as he towered over her.
Dei took a deep breath and raised her chin to face him which made the master smirk.
“So, you’re the chosen one. You’re actually quite impressive,” he said in a low voice that made her shiver.
“More like the survivor, you murderous fool!” She thought but knew better to speak out loud. “Those... those... girls...” she mumbled.
“They’re all fine and healthy. Look.” He opened the window for her to see the three women, though shaken, still alive and well, get in the car and drive away. “What you saw is a brilliant display of innovative stage effects courtesy of Albert of course.”
Dei did not answer.
“Congratulations, Dei. You got the job. I know just how much this means to you given Colette’s condition and all.”
“How... How did you...”
“I have ways of knowing. I assure you that you and your family will be generously taken care of and your sister will get the best care the world can offer if you agree to play a very special role.” The man said as he slowly traced the side of her face with his finger.
With all the courage she could muster, she spoke in a surprisingly calm voice.
“And what role is that exactly?” She said as she met his gaze with determined eyes.
He slowly hovered around her and looked at her appreciatively, letting his eyes linger on every part of her body. She bit her lip to stop them from shaking as she held her breath while watching him. He then stopped behind her and slipped a huge hand around her tiny waist to her belly while he placed his thumb under her chin and whispered in her ear.
“You, my dear, will play Richard del Rey’s wife. MY WIFE. In exchange for all the things, I mentioned earlier. Do you accept?”
Not having much choice at the moment and in dire need of help, despite her fear and apprehensions, Dei took a deep breath and slowly nodded her head.