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Locked in time, p.13
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       Locked in Time, p.13

           Lois Duncan
 
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  “That would be great,” Dave said. Perspiration was streaming down his face. “Don’t get up; I’ll get some for all of us. You go ahead with your story, Charlie. You’re talking about the early nineteen thirties, aren’t you?”

  “Let’s see now—it was nineteen thirty-three or so, I think.” Charlie closed his eyes a moment in concentration. Then he opened them and nodded. “Yep, that was the very year. I remember because my wife and I had just started courting. We was married one year later, in nineteen thirty-four. That’s why we was away in New Orleans when Mr. Vardeman had his accident. We was on our honeymoon.”

  “He had an accident?” I asked, my heart beating faster. “What sort of accident? Was he hurt badly?”

  “Bad as you can get,” Charlie said. “My mother-in-law, she saved the clippings from the paper so my wife and me could read all about it when we got back. It seems like he and one of the boys was out fishing on the river, and the boat tipped over. The boy swum in to shore okay, but his stepdad drowned. I always thought that was a pretty odd thing to have happened. Mr. Vardeman, he was a good swimmer. In the summer, he swum in that river all the time.”

  Dave, who had filled his own glass from the faucet in the kitchenette and drained it with one gulp, now came back into the living room, carrying glasses of water for Charlie and me. He handed them to us and again took his seat next to me on the love seat.

  “Thanks,” I told him, taking a grateful swallow of the tepid liquid. Then, turning my full attention back to Charlie, I asked, “What did the family do then? Did they continue to live at Shadow Grove or did they move away?”

  “It’s funny you’d think to ask that,” Charlie said. “They did move away. The missus, she inherited a lot of money, I guess, from Mr. Vardeman, and she decided to take the kids and do some traveling. She put the place with some caretaking service, and the family moved up North to New England or some such place. They never came back neither, except for one of them.”

  “Which one was that?” Dave asked, whether out of politeness or real curiosity I couldn’t tell.

  “The girl,” Charlie said. “Some twenty years later, she came back, all growed up. She’d been married and divorced, and now she had three children. She got married to a rich fellow named Mr. Zollinger.”

  “Who got Shadow Grove ‘all fixed up’?” I suggested.

  “Yep, he did that,” Charlie said, “but then a sad thing happened. One of the boys got throwed by a horse and was killed. Rumor had it his ma took that mighty hard. Soon after that, there was another tragedy. Mr. Zollinger, he got himself killed in some sort of freak accident. Then, the mother took the two kids that she still got left, and the three of them went away somewhere together.”

  “And a number of years later, her grown daughter returned to Shadow Grove with her two children,” I said softly, able to complete the history without his help. “And she got married to a rich man, and he had an accident.”

  Charlie nodded. “His name was Hillerman, I believe.”

  I didn’t need to hear more. The rest of the story was predictable. There was still something further, however, that I needed to know.

  I opened my purse and took out the photograph I’d found in Gabe’s dresser and handed it to Charlie.

  “This is a picture I found at Shadow Grove,” I said. “I think the people in it used to live there. Do you happen to recognize any of them?”

  “Sure do,” the old man said, squinting at the photograph with faded blue eyes. “That’s Mrs. Vardeman right there. Right pretty woman, she was. She’s dressed sort of old-fashioned, but except for that, she looks just the way she did when I was working for her. And those are her kids, Mr. Gabriel and Mr. Louis and Miss Josephine.”

  “And the man?” I asked. “Who is he? Is that Mr. Vardeman?

  “Oh, no,” Charlie said with certainty. “Mr. Vardeman wasn’t old like that. I don’t recall ever seeing this man around the place. Truth was, nobody much was ever around except for the people who worked there. The missus, she had a real thing about what she called her ‘privacy.’ It was like she was scared folks was going to get into her things. She made her husband get one of the cabins out behind the house all boarded up and padlocked, and she kept all her papers and private stuff out there.”

  “Can I see the picture?” Dave asked with interest. He took the photograph from Charlie and sat for a moment, studying it.

  “Whew!” he said finally, giving a soft, surprised whistle. “Talk about family resemblance! The girl and the older boy in this picture are the spitting images of Josie and Gabe.”

  “I know,” I said faintly. I had learned so much so quickly that my head felt ready to burst with newfound knowledge. I took a gulp of my water and closed my eyes tightly, willing the world to stop spinning so that I could think.

  “What’s the matter?” Dave asked. “You look like you’re ready to keel over.”

  “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “It’s the heat, I guess. Coming from the North, I’m just not used to it.”

  “It hits lots of people like that,” Charlie said sympathetically. “I’m used to it myself, but I still don’t like it none. Maybe you’d best take her outside, Dave, so she can get some air.”

  “I’ll do that,” Dave said, getting up and extending his hand to me. “Actually, I guess we need to get going anyway. Thanks for the visit, Charlie. We sure enjoyed it.”

  “Yes,” I managed to say as Dave pulled me gently to my feet. “Yes, thank you for your stories. You’ll never know how interesting they were to me.”

  “You come back any time,” Charlie said warmly. “There’s a million more that I can tell you.” He got up and came to the door with us to see us out. “You bring her back again, boy, but in the morning next time so it’ll be cooler. It’s right nice to have some visitors to talk to.”

  As Dave and I stepped out into the brilliance of overhead sunlight, the heat of midday seemed almost refreshing compared with that in Charlie’s apartment. With his hand on my arm, Dave steered me over to his car, opened the door for me and then went around to get in on the driver’s side. I leaned back against the seat and drew in a deep breath of fresh, unfettered air, thankful that we’d been sensible enough to leave the windows open.

  “So, did you get what you came for?” Dave asked me as he started the engine.

  “Yes,” I told him. I knew that he expected more from me, but I didn’t know what to say.

  “So give it a run-through,” Dave commanded. “What exactly came out of that? Charlie gave us a whole lot of background on Shadow Grove, but what does it mean? You said on the phone that somebody’s trying to kill you. What connection does all this history have with that?”

  “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” I said softly.

  “So—try me.”

  “All right.” I accepted the challenge. “What came out of Charlie’s stories was one basic unit—a beautiful, young widow and her children. When Charlie Lacouture worked at Shadow Grove, seventy or so years ago, they were living there with the woman’s rich, new husband. The husband died and left his wife his money, and the family moved away. One generation later, the girl in the family came back again with her teenage children. She got married to somebody rich, and her husband died, and she and her kids moved away. Then one generation later, it happened all over again. Doesn’t that strike you as a major amount of coincidence?”

  “It’s weird,” Dave agreed. “But what could it be but coincidence?”

  “A plan,” I said. “A carefully fashioned plan. It could be a plan that has worked so well for this family that they’ve used it over and over down through the years.”

  “A plan that involves killing people off for their money?” Dave turned to stare across at me incredulously. “That’s crazy, Nore. That’s not to say that it couldn’t have happened once. From what Charlie said, that boating accident did sound fishy, and if Vardeman had just sold his car business to General Motors, his wife must have stood to inherit a heap.
What you’re talking about, though, is one family after another, all doing the exact same terrible thing.”

  “No, it’s not,” I said. “What I’m talking about is just one family, doing the exact same thing a number of times. I’m talking about a family with a secret, and that secret is that none of them ever age.”

  “That’s impossible,” Dave said.

  “I told you that you wouldn’t believe me.”

  “How can I believe a thing like that?”

  “You can’t,” I said. “You aren’t close enough to it to see it. To believe it, you would have to be living at Shadow Grove. You would have to catch these people in the little mistakes they make. Josie, for instance, once told me that she remembered living in Connecticut, because she was in Hartford at the time the Ringling Brothers circus tent caught fire.”

  “She couldn’t have been,” Dave said logically. “Everybody knows about that fire. It happened in the nineteen-forties.”

  “That’s exactly what I mean!” How could I convince him? “What about the picture? Charlie said the people in it were living at Shadow Grove when he was working there. I don’t think that photo was taken then. Pictures of my grandparents were taken in the thirties. They’re printed on regular paper, like what’s used today. This picture was printed on some sort of old-time metal plating. I’ll bet you anything it was taken years before the woman in it married Robert Vardeman. I’ll bet that old man was her first husband and the children’s real father, Henri Berge.”

  “You can talk forever, and I still won’t believe you, Nore,” Dave said. “It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just that what you’re saying is impossible. There’s got to be some explanation other than the one you’re suggesting.” As though in apology, he reached over and covered my hand with his.

  “What I do believe is that you’re scared out of your mind. And since you don’t come across as the hysterical type, I guess there’s something going on out at Shadow Grove that’s really creepy. I want to help you if I can, just as long as you don’t keep trying to tell me that everybody out there except you and your father is a hundred years old.”

  “Okay,” I said. “I won’t try to tell you that.”

  “So what is it you want me to do?” Dave asked.

  “Nothing yet,” I told him. “The first step has to be mine. I’m going to try to get into that locked-up storeroom. If what Charlie says is right, there’s going to be stuff in there that will answer a lot of my questions. Depending on what I find there, we can figure out what our next step should be. Can you drive out tomorrow night and pick me up? We can talk about the whole thing then. I’ll tell Dad and Lisette we’re going to the movies.”

  “So I do get a date after all!” Dave commented wryly. “I get off work at five, so I can be out at Shadow Grove around six or so. You’re sure you’re not going to end up being ‘busy’?”

  “I turned you down last time because I didn’t want to hurt Josie,” I said. “Right now, hurting the feelings of any of those people is the last thing I’m going to worry about.”

  Having had neither breakfast nor lunch that day, I stopped at a drive-through for a hamburger and Coke, and I didn’t get back to Shadow Grove until ten past four.

  My two-member reception committee was waiting for me in the parlor. As I came in the front door, I could look straight across and see them there—Dad and Lisette, side by side on the sofa—with fire in their eyes.

  “Nore, come in here this minute!” Dad called out to me as I made a furtive attempt to slip past them and continue on up to my room without stopping to speak. Reluctantly, I turned back and went into the parlor.

  “What is it?” I asked guardedly.

  “You know the answer to that as well as I do,” said Dad. “I can’t believe that a daughter of mine would behave as you did this morning. What you did to poor little Josie was inexcusable.”

  “I don’t see that I did anything all that terrible,” I said. “I let her out of the van no more than a mile down the road. She hardly had to walk any distance at all.”

  “The length of the distance she walked has nothing to do with this,” Dad said. “You promised to take Josie to Merveille, and you went back on your word.”

  “I didn’t promise anything,” I objected. “I told you from the beginning that I didn’t want to take her.”

  “And I told you that you had to!” Dad said, his voice rising. “I gave you the use of the van on that condition. What did you do there all day anyway? Show me your new cell phone!”

  “I looked all morning, but I couldn’t find one any better than my old one,” I said. “Then I had lunch and spent the afternoon at the library.”

  “That’s not true, Nore,” Lisette said. “Your father checked at the library, and you weren’t there.”

  “I did some checking today myself,” I said. “The people at the phone company say that you never ordered a phone. No wonder it’s taking them so long to get around to installing it!”

  “Don’t you dare talk to Lisette that way, young lady!” Dad said angrily. “I called the library and spoke to the head librarian. She remembered you well and said you hadn’t been there all day.”

  “Didn’t you hear what I just said?” I asked him. “Lisette lied to you, Dad! She never even tried to get a phone installed! She’s doing her best to cut off our communication with the world. The next thing she’ll probably do is destroy our computers and sabotage your cell phone, since mine’s already history. If she can do that, she’ll totally control things!”

  Lisette flinched as though I had struck her physically.

  “Oh, Chuck!” she said softly, her lovely eyes filling with tears. “How can she say such things? I’ve tried so hard to get her to like me!”

  “You’ve said quite enough, Nore.” Dad was obviously struggling to hold himself under control. “Despite what you may think, you are not too old to be sent to your room. I want you to go upstairs and stay there until dinnertime. When you do come down, you’re to apologize to both Lisette and Josie.”

  “Over my dead body!” I retorted, and was halfway up the stairs before I realized the significance of what I’d said. When I did, a shiver ran through me as if I’d suddenly been hit by a blast of icy air.

  Continuing on to the top of the stairs and down the hall to my room, I entered it and closed the door. Then, with my own words ringing in my ears, I turned back to punch the button in the center of the knob. Immediately, I realized how futile that gesture would be. The French doors had no latches, and since all the bedrooms on the second floor opened on to a common balcony, anybody was free to come into my room at any time, whether the door to the hall was locked or not.

  Crossing over to the dresser, I picked up the picture of my mother and stood for many moments, drinking in the wholesome sweetness of her laugh-lined face. After eighteen years of marriage to a woman like this one, how could my father possibly have chosen Lisette? “You aren’t close enough to see it,” I’d said to Dave when he had refused to believe my accusations about the Berge family. “To believe it, you’d have to be living at Shadow Grove.” But my father was living at Shadow Grove! He’d been exposed to all the same things I had! How could he be so blind that he couldn’t recognize the fact that something was sick and frightening and terribly wrong?

  Because he was in love. It was that simple. Dad was in love with Lisette, just as other men had been before him—the Mr. Hillerman whom Charlie had mentioned, Mr. Zollinger and Robert Vardeman. And what about her first husband, Henri Berge? Had he loved Lisette? According to Josie, Berge had hurt his wife badly by becoming involved with a young Cajun woman. Knowing this, it was easier now for me to understand Lisette’s seemingly senseless prejudice against Cajun people in general and Cajun women in particular.

  Setting the picture of my mother back on the dresser, I went over to the bed and stretched out on top of the spread. Lying there, staring at the ceiling, I ran through in my mind all the events of the day, starting with my con
versation with Josie in the car. Josie hadn’t denied that her brother had attempted to drown me, only that she herself had been involved in the scheme. “I didn’t know about that,” she had said. “Maman put me to sleep. Nobody told me it was time yet.”

  It was the passage of time that was somehow the key to everything. If Lisette, Gabe and Josie had survived for over a century without any physical signs of aging—as I was now convinced, despite what common sense might dictate—this could be explained only by the fact that they had discovered some process by which they had been able to alter their relationship to time. Josie’s hysterical words that one afternoon in the courtyard came rushing back to me: “Time keeps going by, but it just doesn’t count!” At that point, I hadn’t understood what she meant. Now, I was very much afraid that I did.

  What, though, about the other two members of the family? There were five people in the photograph I’d found in Gabe’s dresser. If the elderly man in the picture was the children’s father, then his physical clock must have continued running in a normal manner, in contrast to those of his wife and children. As for the boy, Louis—he had been killed in a riding accident—so if the Berge family had, indeed, discovered the secret of eternal youth, this evidently wasn’t synonymous with eternal life.

  My brain was reeling with the weight of such incredible concepts. As Dave had said, all were impossible. Yet when I closed my eyes and slipped into dreaming, I heard my mother’s voice say quietly, “Believe them, Nore.”

  I had slept so little the night before that now, when sleep did hit me, I went totally under. Since I had no intention of apologizing to Lisette and Josie, I didn’t set my mental alarm clock to wake me at dinnertime, instead sleeping straight through until almost midnight.

  What woke me at last was a sound. It wasn’t a loud sound, but it was one I must’ve been subconsciously waiting for, because in a second I was totally awake, with every muscle tense and my heart pounding.

 
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