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Locked in time, p.12
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       Locked in Time, p.12

           Lois Duncan
 
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  And, of course—Celina.

  Celina!

  As the thought of Lisette’s cleaning girl flashed into my mind, my heart suddenly quickened. Although her personal experience in working at Shadow Grove was of short duration, Celina’s family association with the place went back two generations. If Dave was correct about her grandfather working there during the 1930s, then he might be able to provide me with the information I needed.

  The next Tuesday night I was too excited to sleep. I lay awake for hours, making plans for the following day. I decided I needed to intercept Celina before she ever got to the house and ask her if she would give me her grandfather’s phone number. I would say I was helping my father do research for his new book and needed to ask some questions of a longtime resident of the area. Once I got the number, I would take Dad’s van and drive into town where I could get access to a telephone. If I acted quickly enough, I might be able to accomplish everything I needed to do before anyone in the family realized what was happening.

  Celina’s workday was scheduled to begin at eight thirty. By eight, I was standing at the end of the driveway, waiting for her blue Volkswagen to come chugging up to the gate. One hour later, I was still standing there and still waiting. By nine fifty, I finally had to acknowledge to myself that my plan wasn’t going to work out as I’d hoped it would.

  Bitterly disappointed, I returned to the house.

  The first thing I was aware of as I entered was the sound of my father’s voice in the parlor. When I looked in, I saw him, seated in one of the wing chairs, reading aloud from the most recent chapter of his manuscript. Lisette and Josie, a rapt audience, were seated on the sofa across from him.

  “Where’s Celina?” I asked, breaking in on the recitation. “This is Wednesday. Shouldn’t she have gotten here by now?”

  “Please, don’t interrupt, Nore dear,” Lisette said gently but firmly, as Dad paused in his reading. “Your father is sharing some really wonderful passages.”

  “I’m sure he is,” I said shortly. “Everything he writes is wonderful. What I want to know is, where is Celina?”

  “Celina won’t be working here anymore,” Lisette said.

  “She won’t!” I exclaimed. “Why not?”

  “I’ve let her go,” Lisette told me. “I wrote her a letter, giving her notice, last weekend. I enclosed a full month’s wages, so she won’t suffer any from the dismissal. With good help so hard to come by these days, she’s sure to pick up another job easily.”

  “Why did you do that, Lis?” Dad asked in surprise. “You know how hard I’ve been trying to get you to hire on a few extra people to help out around here. Why on earth did you fire the one girl you seemed to find satisfactory?”

  “As you know, dear, I feel strongly about my privacy,” Lisette said. “I don’t like the idea of having someone in my employment entertaining her boyfriends here. This ‘Dave’ person from the roofing crew was over here last week visiting Celina on her work time. That’s the sort of thing I simply won’t put up with.”

  I was resolved that I would not allow her to defeat me.

  “Dad,” I said, “I’d like to go into Merveille today. Can I take our van?” I put a slight emphasis on the word our. The van had been, after all, my mother’s car. Asking for the use of that was completely different from asking for the Honda.

  “Sure,” Dad said easily. “Are you going to do some shopping?”

  “I want to get a new cell phone,” I told him. “Mine got soaked when I fell in the river, and now it won’t even turn on.”

  “Josie, why don’t you go with her?” Lisette suggested. “You’ve been telling me that you need new sandals.”

  “I’ve got other things I need to do, too,” I said, before Josie had a chance to respond. “I’m going to be doing all kinds of stupid errands, and I was planning to spend the whole afternoon at the library. Josie would be bored to death.”

  “Jo doesn’t get bored easily,” Lisette said. “She has things she needs to do also. And I’m sure she’d be happy to go with you to the library. She was just saying yesterday that she’s run out of books to read.”

  “I don’t want to chauffeur Josie around today,” I said, my voice coming out sharper than I’d intended. “You’re the one who values privacy so much, Lisette. Don’t you think that maybe I—”

  “Don’t be ungracious, Nore,” my father interrupted. “Lord knows, your mother and I chauffeured you around enough when you were younger. Now you can repay me by extending the same favor to your stepsister.”

  I was familiar enough with my father’s stubborn nature to see at once that this was a no-win situation. Any further argument on my part would probably lose me the use of the van altogether. So the way things ended up, Josie was in the front seat next to me when I drove away from Shadow Grove.

  I had no intention, however, of letting her remain there. A mile down the road, I pulled over onto the shoulder.

  “This is as far as you go,” I said. “Now you can get out and walk home.”

  “What do you mean?” Josie asked in apparent bewilderment. “I thought we were going to Merveille.”

  “I am going to Merveille,” I said. “You’re not going with me. I don’t trust you anymore, and I don’t want your company. And you can stop giving me that innocent, wide-eyed, hurt look. You know perfectly well what Gabe tried to do to me. You were in on the plot just as much as he and your mother were.”

  “I don’t know what you mean,” Josie said again, but her eyes avoided mine. “Why would I want bad things to happen to you, Nore? I like you a lot. I’m your friend.”

  “I think you do like me,” I conceded, “but you’re not my friend. If you were, you’d have warned me that Gabe was going to try to drown me.”

  “I didn’t know about that,” Josie said defensively. “Maman put me to sleep. Nobody told me that it was already time for—” She fell silent, obviously realizing that she had admitted too much.

  “Tell me why!” I demanded while she was still off balance. “Tell me why Gabe did it!”

  “I can’t tell you anything,” Josie said nervously. “I just wish you’d never come here, you or your father either. Chuck’s a nice man. I bet he was good to your mother. I bet he was faithful to her and didn’t cheat on her.”

  “Of course he was faithful to her,” I said. “Dad loved my mother. What does that have to do with anything?”

  “My father didn’t love Maman,” Josie said. “At least, not enough to stay faithful to her. He had a Cajun girlfriend who lived downriver. When Maman found out about it, she was so hurt and angry she just about went crazy.”

  “I don’t know why you’re telling me this,” I said. “I don’t care how your father treated your mother.” I leaned across her and opened the door on the passenger’s side. “Now get out and go home.”

  “Please, let me come with you!” Josie said beseechingly. “I won’t be any trouble, I promise. Maman will be so mad if I don’t.”

  “Then let her be mad,” I said. “I mean it, Jo—get out! Don’t make me shove you. I’m bigger and stronger than you are, and you might get hurt.”

  Josie threw me a startled glance—sat, considering the threat for a moment—and then, apparently deciding that I could, indeed, evict her by force if I chose to, reluctantly climbed out of the van. When I last saw her in the rearview mirror as I drove off, she was walking back along the side of the road in the direction from which we had come. Her shoulders were slumped dejectedly, and she appeared to be in no hurry to get back to the house and face her mother.

  Relieved to be alone at last, I kept my mind busy for the next forty miles planning what I would do with my hard-won day of freedom. I decided that my first stop on reaching Merveille would be at the telephone company. When I got there, I registered a complaint about the long amount of time it was taking to have our phone installed. I wasn’t especially surprised when the people in the office, after a lengthy search of their files, were unable to locate a rec
ord of any such order ever having been placed.

  After leaving the office, I stopped at a pay phone to make my call to Celina. It wasn’t until I had frantically dialed 411, had the phone to my ear, and was prompted to give a name that I suddenly realized I’d forgotten her last name. As I stood there, racking my brain to recall it, it occurred to me that even if I did manage to reach her, it would be doubtful that, having just been fired by my stepmother, Celina would want to help with a family research project.

  That left only one other person I could turn to. Dave Parlange knew Celina’s grandfather and would be able to tell me how to reach him. I felt embarrassed about asking Dave for a favor, after the circumstances of our last awkward encounter, but I couldn’t think of any other way to get the information. Snapping out of my thoughts, I asked for the listing for Parlange Roofing Company and was automatically connected. He probably won’t even be there, I told myself as I listened to the phone ring on the other end of the line.

  But that wasn’t the case. Within moments after I’d identified myself to the woman who answered the phone, Dave was on the line.

  “This is a surprise,” he said, a trifle coolly. “I wasn’t expecting a call from you.”

  “I need your help,” I told him without apology. “I have to get in touch with Celina’s grandfather.”

  “With Charlie Lacouture?” Dave said in surprise. “Why?”

  “I need to ask him—” I began to swing into my story about the research project, and then I paused. I’d been desperately wishing that there was someone in whom I could confide. Was it possible that Dave might turn out to be that person?

  “Something’s very wrong at Shadow Grove,” I said cautiously. “Something’s going on there that scares me. Since Mr. Lacouture used to work there, I was hoping that maybe he could help me understand things.”

  “He lives in an apartment on Second Street,” Dave said. “He’s living on Social Security, and I don’t think he’s answered his phone in a decade.”

  “I’ve got to talk to him,” I said, my voice shaking a little. “I can’t tell you how important it is.”

  “What’s up?” Dave asked. The irritation was gone from his voice now. “What’s the problem, Nore? What’s wrong at Shadow Grove? You sound scared to death.”

  I drew a deep breath and let him have it.

  “The people there are trying to kill me,” I said.

  Even to my own ears, the statement sounded crazy. If my own father wouldn’t believe me, how could I expect someone else to, especially someone I knew so slightly?

  There was a long moment of silence.

  Then Dave said quietly, “Where are you calling from? We’re between jobs right now, and I’ve got this afternoon off. I’ll come pick you up. The best way to get to old Charlie will be to stop over there in person.”

  Charlie Lacouture’s apartment was on the ground level of a rundown, two-story complex that backed onto a lumberyard. When Dave and I got out of his car, we were greeted by the pungent aroma of newly cut wood and the ear-piercing shriek of a buzz saw.

  “That end unit’s Charlie’s,” Dave said. “It’s number eleven.”

  Other than his initial greeting when he had picked me up in the parking lot out behind the phone company, the two of us had barely spoken. It was as if we were in silent agreement that there was too much to explain for us to attempt the discussion on this short car trip.

  Now, however, as we crossed the patch of weed-covered lawn that separated the line of apartments from the parking area, Dave suddenly began to talk.

  “Charlie’s in his nineties, but he’s sharp as a tack,” he said. “He’s like a walking encyclopedia when it comes to trivia. I’d better warn you, once you get him going, he’s going to talk your ear off.”

  “That’s fine with me,” I said. “There’s a lot I’d like to hear about.”

  “Like what?” Dave asked me. “He hasn’t been out to Shadow Grove for thirty years or more. I don’t know if he could have anything to tell you that would have anything to do with what’s happening there today.”

  “That’s where you’re wrong,” I said. “The most recent years aren’t the ones I’m really concerned about. I know where the family was during that period of time. What I do need to know is who was living at Shadow Grove and what was going on there in the years before that.”

  There was no response the first few times Dave pushed the doorbell. I was just beginning to accept that Charlie Lacouture was out and that my trip into town would turn out to be a wasted one when the door was pulled open a crack and a gruff voice asked, “What do you want?”

  “It’s Dave Parlange, Charlie,” Dave said. “I’ve got a friend with me. We were in the neighborhood and thought we’d stop by and say hi.”

  “Dave—well, hello, boy!” The man’s tone of voice changed abruptly from suspicious to welcoming. The main door was yanked open all the way, and a deeply grooved face, topped by a shock of snowy hair, appeared behind the screen.

  “Well, this is something!” Charlie Lacouture said with obvious pleasure as he wrestled with the latch and finally got the screen door open. “I’m right glad to see you, boy! Haven’t had any company except for family all week long! Who’s this you’ve got with you—the newest girlfriend?”

  “This is Nore Robbins,” Dave told him, stepping back so I could enter the apartment ahead of him. As we stepped into the tiny studio apartment, heat came billowing out to meet us as though it had been released from a blast furnace. The living room–kitchen combination would have been totally dark if it hadn’t been for the illumination supplied by one naked lightbulb set into the center of the ceiling. Two of the three small windows had blinds pulled over them, and a dusty end table held a small electric fan that was laboring futilely to stir the stifling air into some sort of motion.

  “I know it’s stuffy in here,” Charlie said apologetically as he motioned us toward the faded love seat, whose rusted springs hung beneath it like the udders of a cow. Two equally shabby, mismatched chairs completed the room’s meager furnishings. “I don’t have no choice, though, about keeping things sealed up. Breathing in that sawdust don’t do nothing good for these old lungs.”

  He took his own seat in one of the chairs, and Dave and I sat down on the sagging love seat.

  “So, it’s Nore Robbins, is it? You got good taste, boy. This your serious sweetie?”

  “Well, we haven’t exactly set the date yet,” Dave said lightly. “Nore’s dad just got married to the woman who owns the old Berge place, and Nore’s here visiting for the summer.”

  “Yep—Robbins. That’s the name my granddaughter told me—Robbins. I knew it wasn’t Berge no more, but those names keep changing so fast out there, it’s hard to keep track of them.” Charlie settled back in his chair. “Celina’s not working there no more, she tells me. That’s just as well, I say. It’s too big a place for one lone girl to keep up.”

  “Yes,” I agreed awkwardly, “it’s an awfully big house. I’m sure there are lots of jobs Celina will like better.”

  “Back when I was working there, they had themselves a houseful of help,” Charlie said. “Mr. Vardeman—he insisted on that—no matter what the missus said about wanting her privacy and all. A cook, they had, and two maids, if I remember right, and there was three of us gardeners and a stable hand who didn’t do nothing except look after all them horses.”

  “Vardeman?” Dave said. “That name doesn’t ring any bells with me. All I’ve ever heard the house referred to is ‘the Berge place.’ ”

  “That’s all anybody’s called it since the late eighteen hundreds,” Charlie said. “The rich DuBois family owned that place back in Civil War days, but they gave it to their daughter as a wedding gift when she got married to Henri Berge. It was a cotton plantation then, and supposed to have been a good one. Henri and his wife died somewhere around nineteen ten or so, and the house set empty for years and got all run-down. Then the granddaughter—a widow with three children—mo
ved back there, and she married this man named Robert Vardeman. That was Depression times, but Mr. Vardeman wasn’t hurting none. He had a little automobile company and sold out to General Motors or some such thing. Anyway, he had a bunch of money and got the place fixed up. That’s when I was first hired on there to help take care of the grounds.”

  “She had three children?” I asked, trying to keep my excitement from showing in my voice. “Were they little? I mean, were any of them babies?”

  “Nope,” the old man said. “They was all of them teenagers, two boys and a girl. I never saw much of the boys. They was always off together someplace, fishing or riding their horses. The girl, little Josephine, I did see plenty of her. She was a friendly kid. She’d come out and hang around when I was working on the flower beds and chat away at me. I was a young man then and, if I do say so myself, not hurting none in the looks department. The girl, Josie, she just kept buzzing around me like a little mosquito. Her ma didn’t like that, I can tell you, not one little bit. Those people was both of them real protective about their children.”

  “Vardeman was only their stepfather, wasn’t he?” Dave asked.

  “He was that, yes, the kids went by the family name, Berge. But Mr. Vardeman, he was a good-hearted man, and he loved them kids. I heard him once, talking to the missus, just like he was those children’s real dad. He wanted her to take them to town to see a doctor.”

  “A doctor!” I exclaimed. “Why? What was he worried about?”

  “He just didn’t think they was growing right,” Charlie said. “Especially the girl. She was sort of a pet of his. ‘That Josie hasn’t grown an inch in the three years since we’ve been married,’ I heard him say one day. ‘The boys haven’t either. None of them’s filling out like they ought to at their ages. I think they all three of them ought to get checkups.’ ”

  Charlie picked up a folded sheet of newspaper and began to fan himself. “Wish that fan would do a better job. It sure gets close in here. You folks want some water or something?”

 
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